Hackers Have Been Changing Digital Road Signs and Homeland Security Is Not Amused

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 9 2014 5:35 PM

Hackers Have Been Changing Digital Road Signs and Homeland Security Is Not Amused

sign1
That's presumably not what the sign was supposed to say.

Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman.

People are often worried about malicious hacks that threaten their data or personal safety, but there's a lighthearted side of hacks. Who doesn’t giggle at a “Godzilla Attack!” or “Turn Back” highway sign?

Lily Hay Newman Lily Hay Newman

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

Still, for drivers to trust government signs, they need to be accurate, and Homeland Security is telling sign contractors that the hacks have to stop. An Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team alert last week warned contractors who use digital signs by Daktronics to “take defensive measures to minimize the risk of exploitation.”

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Sign hacks aren’t new—this one is from 2009, for instance—but digital graffiti seems to be on the upswing, with multiple hacks in San Francisco last month (above and below), and a few in North Carolina last week. The emergency response team noted that hackers were getting access to the signs because default passwords controlling the sign systems had been posted online. The report also pointed to a bug, though Daktronics spokesperson Jody Huntimer declined to comment to Reuters about whether this was a factor. “We ... will release a statement once we have assessed the situation and developed customer recommendations," Huntimer told Reuters.

Cybersecurity analyst Brian Krebs wrote on his blog that he thinks these types of hacks can have negative impacts, but are not in themselves malicious.

We see a great deal of hand-waving and public discussion about the possibility that foreign cyber attackers may one day use vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure to cause widespread problems in the United States. But my bet is that if this ever happens in a way that causes death and/or significant destruction, it will not be the result of a carefully-planned and executed cyber warfare manifesto, but rather the work of some moderately skilled and bored cracker who discovered that he could do it.

Though there could be dangerous consequences in the long term, it seems like for now the biggest danger is that everyone will slow down, look at the signs, and create awful traffic.

sign2
Nah you don't actually have to.

Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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