During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer Wednesday called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work together and immediately come up with a comprehensive plan that will help protect Upstate New York 911 call centers from being compromised by terrorists and hackers. Schumer cited a recent study that revealed terrorists and hackers have the ability to overwhelm emergency phone lines, which could result in a total collapse of the 911 system’s ability to answer and respond to emergencies.
“Our 911 emergency call centers are cornerstones of our public safety system and critical infrastructure, and our dispatchers save countless lives by answering the call every day. But outdated infrastructure has enabled a potentially fatal flaw in this system – the fact that our dispatch centers could be prevented from answering the call that saves a life because they are susceptible to cyber hackers and terrorists overwhelming the system,” said Schumer. “It’s not new that our system is vulnerable, but it is shocking we have not acted more forcefully to protect it. Simply put, our country’s critical infrastructure, like 911, is still far too vulnerable to would-be evil-doers and we must do more – and fast – to ward off this metastasizing threat. That’s why I’m urging DHS and the FCC to put their heads together and work hand-in-hand with local communities to develop a comprehensive plan to strengthen our infrastructure, so we can avoid system-wide chaos before it is too late and let our 911 centers focus on their important work of saving lives.”
Schumer said that, despite being considered critical infrastructure on par with power grids, water treatment plants, dams, banking systems and telecommunications structures, 911 call centers are often stuck with outdated technological infrastructure and therefore easily inundated. According to a recent Washington Post report, 911 call centers around the country often operate at near capacity under normal conditions. When the volume of calls is increased by even a small percentage, they can become overwhelmed and, therefore, unable to effectively answer all of the calls where people are reporting emergencies. Schumer therefore said it is extremely problematic if calls reaching 911 dispatch centers are not actually dire situations. A dramatic increase in calls could shut down the system entirely, according to the report and communications experts.
That’s why Schumer said it is deeply concerning that researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel have revealed that a cyber-attack using mobile phones could block emergency services in an entire state, for days. Schumer said the university’s recently published report suggests that dispatching systems across the country could be made vulnerable to cyber hackers and terrorists if the attackers were to infect mobile phones, and then use them to surreptitiously overwhelm 911 call center lines. According to the researchers, this type of attack – called a TDoS attack, or telephony denial-of-service attack – enables hackers infect mobile phones in such a way that causes them to automatically make fake calls, without the owners’ knowledge, to 911 centers. As the system becomes flooded with calls, this prevents callers with legitimate emergencies from reaching 911 operators.
According to the Washington Post report, researchers determined it would take merely 6,000 infected smartphones for attackers to disrupt the 911 call centers in the entire state of North Carolina, where the research was conducted. Schumer said that given that a state as large as North Carolina could be so easily crippled by this, he is concerned this threat could severely harm New York State and the rest of the nation’s 911 services if duplicated in mobile phones across America. In fact, the Ben Gurion researchers found it would take just 200,000 infected phones across the country to significantly disrupt 911 call centers throughout the entire U.S. Schumer said what’s alarming is this is not a new phenomenon – according to the Washington Post report, the National Emergency Number Association brought this to the attention of DHS four years ago. However, with smartphone technology becoming even more pervasive in our lives, experts and researchers, like those at Ben Gurion, are starting to pay more and more attention to these kinds of threats today.
According to the National Emergency Number Association, there are an estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 in the U.S. each year. With nearly 80 percent of 911 calls coming in from mobile phones, Schumer said it is critical that our nation’s emergency infrastructure is equipped to defend against such malicious cyber-attacks. Therefore, Schumer is calling on DHS and the FCC – both tasked with ensuring the safety of our communication networks nationwide – to work together to address this issue by identifying and implementing solutions that will strengthen this country’s 911 cybersecurity needs. Schumer said a comprehensive plan is needed in order to help protect Upstate New York 911 call centers from being compromised by terrorists and hackers, a threat that could cost lives and create chaos.