U.S. Senator Calls for Increased Security of Emergency Infrastructure

Sen. Charles Schumer noted that 911 dispatch centers often operate at near capacity under normal conditions. If calls were to spike even slightly, however, the system would become overwhelmed.

by Brian Molongoski, Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. / September 22, 2016
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, D - N.Y. a katz / Shutterstock.com

(TNS) -- U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is urging the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Communications Commission to develop a comprehensive plan to beef up outdated 911 call centers in New York state that could be open to terrorist and cyberattacks.

Sen. Schumer said an outdated system leaves the door open for an attack, rendering the 911 system useless during an emergency.

“It’s not new that our system is vulnerable, but it is shocking we have not acted more forcefully to protect it,” he said. “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.”

Emergency call centers are not considered critical infrastructure, meaning they don’t receive the same attention as power grids, banking systems and telecommunications structures.

Sen. Schumer cited a Washington Post report published last week, which noted that 911 dispatch centers often operate at near capacity under normal conditions. If calls were to spike even slightly, the system would become overwhelmed.

The Washington Post based its report on a study conducted by Ben Gurion University in Israel, which revealed that a cyberattack targeting mobile phones could disrupt 911 communications across an entire state. The study used North Carolina as an example. For the state to experience a complete 911 system blackout, only 6,000 phones would have to be compromised.

This type of attack, known as a telephony denial-of-service attack, or “TDoS” attack, enables hackers to infect mobile phones in such a way that causes them to automatically make fake calls to 911 dispatchers without the owners’ knowledge. A large build-up of fake calls would block those that are legitimate.

It would take 200,000 hacked phones to clog 911 call centers throughout the entire United States, according to the study.

With that in mind, Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer said the problem applies more to the phone company and the hardware it uses than the local dispatch centers themselves. Jefferson County’s system is fed from Verizon.

Mr. Plummer said there is a push to change 911 systems from copper wiring to a fiber network. Doing so could allow for more calls to be made to 911 call centers without clogging the system, he said. The problem, however, is that such an update is costly, and it is unknown what role local and state governments will play if it’s implemented.

As far as what local officials do have control over, Mr. Plummer said call centers are protected by firewall technology, and external audits are done frequently enough to ensure a hacker cannot break into the system.

St. Lawrence County Emergency Services Director Michael L. LeCuyer said the county’s 911 dispatch centers rely on the information technology department to protect the system. He said grant funding opportunities are being weighed to update the system as well.

“Anything we can do to harden ourselves as a target would be an improvement,” he said, adding that being in a more rural area of the state at least decreases the risk of a cyber attack occurring locally.

Lewis County Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli said improvements are always necessary, but the current system should be enough to ward off attacks of any kind.

“You have to believe that what you have is sufficient enough,” he said.

©2016 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.