Hackers target cable TV alert system and send false messages

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Wash. — Deputies in Jefferson County are investigating the hack of a cable TV emergency alert system Thursday night that sent viewers a false warning of a radiological hazard.

That was followed by three more messages, including one suggesting administrators change their passwords.

“The first one was pretty scary,” said Yvonne Urmston, who was watching TV around 8:30 p.m. at her Port Hadlock home.

"About five minutes later another one came up," she said.

The next alerts had less serious messages.

"You normally hear an alert sound, a solid beep, but this was actually rap music playing in the background," Urmston said.

One alert referenced a channel on Twitch, a video game viewing service.

Willie Bence, Director of Jefferson County’s Department of Emergency Management, said the messages did not come from the government.

Someone hacked into the emergency alert device at Wave Broadband, sending messages to 3,000 customers.

"Right now it seems to be maybe a little bit of a juvenile prankster just given the messaging they sent. They advised the people who own the system to change the passwords in one of the messages," Bence said.

Emergency alert receivers are at cable companies and TV stations

KIRO 7's Director of Engineering Keith Nealey says broadcasters carefully protect the devices.

"A lot of problems happen when these are first put in because there's a default password and if somebody knows the default password and there hasn't been time for an organization to change the default password, those can easily be hacked," Nealey said.

Broadcast alert systems have been hacked before.

In 2013, a zombie apocalypse warning appeared on TV's in several states.

The Jefferson County Sheriff is investigating Thursday's hack, which ended with the message "alright i'm done u can rest now."

Emergency management officials say Wave has now added another level of encryption to head off future hacks.