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America’s Emergency Hotline May be Susceptible to Hacking

Could our country’s 911 emergency phone system be vulnerable to cyber attacks? Here’s what researchers say could happen if 911 gets hacked.

The 911 emergency phone system has served as a lifeline for Americans since 1968. We often take for granted that if we dial those 3 numbers, someone will answer our call and help will be on the way shortly thereafter. The truth is, 911 is vulnerable to attacks that could disable entire systems and wreak havoc in communities across the country.

Hacking 911

Researchers have discovered that it would be possible for hackers to disable the 911 system for a whole state by using a TDoS (telephony denial-of-service) attack. This works by infecting mobile phones in a given area. Once infected, the phones will auto-dial 911, which causes the local call center to become overwhelmed with phony calls. This means that people calling with real emergencies may not be able to get through. Because most call centers already operate near full capacity, just a small uptick in call volume could quickly cause problems.

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How Bad Could It Be?

Theoretically, a TDoS attack could be used to infect phones in strategic areas across the country. This could compromise a large portion of emergency response services across the United States. If this were implemented simultaneously with some kind of terrorist activity or attack, it would only add to the tragedy since emergency services would be crippled right when they are needed most.

What’s Being Done?

Now that the problem has been identified, steps are being taken to safeguard our nation’s emergency call centers. The FCC has addressed part of the problem by allowing carriers to block calls that are not associated with any service account. This was initiated because these untraceable phone numbers are often used to place prank calls or to run scams on people — it would stand to reason that hackers could use these phones to help jam the lines in a TDoS attack.

What More Should Be Done?

As 911 security struggles to catch up with modern technology, phone manufacturers can help by reconfiguring hardware to protect against such misuse. This might include installing a firewall that could detect activity — such as repeated calls to 911 — that appears to be auto-generated. The government can also help by creating and enforcing cyber terrorism laws, which might be a minimal deterrent to those who might be considering such an attack. With one of our country’s most vital services sitting vulnerable to hacking, government agencies must work alongside phone manufacturers, service providers, and the public to find the best solutions to protect it. A widespread 911 hack could be devastating, and it’s imperative that we take steps now to make our emergency phone system more secure.