Dallas emergency hack raises questions

Dallas officials say computer hackers set off the city’s emergency sirens early Saturday morning.  The Dallas Office of Emergency Management says all of the city's 156 sirens were activated more than a dozen times during the incident.  Any chance that the same thing could happen in Houston?

Michael Walter, public information officer at the city’s Office of Emergency Management, says no, and for a simple reason. “Most jurisdictions within southeast Texas don’t have the type of system that was accessed in Dallas County last week,” he points out.  “There are a few jurisdictions, particularly up along the Ship Channel, that do have siren systems.  However, the majority of the area does not.”

Walter says the Houston area uses a different method to get the word out.  “Jurisdictions within our region heavily rely on systems like the Emergency Alert System,” he says, “the wireless emergency alerts which you get on your cell phone whenever there’s a tornado warning or a flash flood warning.”

Walter says there’s little chance the EAS system could he hacked.  “There are security protocols in place, cybersecurity protocols,” he explains. “Those systems are managed by vendors that have a security certificate that has to be authorized by FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency].”  Still, he says, the vendors are constantly looking for ways to make their security even better.

In addition, Walter says, the vendors involve a human element.  “They don’t have to automatically push those messages through EAS.  They can review them before they go out,” he says.  “So if there’s something there that looks suspicious, they have the ability to call the originating agency and verify that before that message gets pushed.”  As a result, you’re unlikely to get an EAS alert about a zombie attack or a sharknado.

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