Emergency call centers: Point of vulnerability?

Over the last two months, dozens of emergency call centers across the United States have faced a phone-hacking onslaught by an unknown assailant or assailants. The FBI has not released the locations, but the attacks have followed a clear pattern: Emergency call lines get overwhelmed by incoming calls emanating from the Internet, making it difficult to process calls for life-saving emergencies. There seems to be no deeper political statement behind these attacks, as there might be when Internet hackers target a government website. Rather, it seems that the motive for these attacks is old-fashioned: The perpetrator is seeking a ransom payment.

Aside from being an imminent danger to public safety, this particular scam underscores the vulnerabilities of America’s local and state communications systems. Authorities should take these assaults as a warning, and make the necessary infrastructure and security investments to protect local public-safety lines. The range of potential attackers goes beyond ransom-seekers to include hackers with political or social justice grievances. Whatever the motive, such attacks interfere with the life-and-death work of first responders.

Last week, the FBI sent an alert to local and state officials, warning of a male perpetrator who calls a Public Safety Answering Point — regional clearinghouses for police and fire 911 calls — and claims that an employee or former employee owes him money. He then threatens to tie up the center’s systems unless he’s given what’s he’s owed. If the caller is rebuffed, he clogs the system with electronic phone calls. Call centers in Massachusetts are already on alert — and policy makers should be moving to make the upgrades necessary to blunt this alarming line of attack in the future.