Some jokester hacked into the Emergency Alert System in Montana and warned that "dead bodies are rising from their graves" on Monday. Everybody seems to think this is hilarious — or at least most people do. Not to be the Debbie Downer or anything, but this is exactly the sort of thing that makes hackers dangerous.
Maybe we're being a little bit dramatic. After all, how many people in Montana really thought that there was an emergency zombie invasion happening on a Monday afternoon? Furthermore, the alert only hit a few local counties according to Great Falls' KRTV, who inadvertently broadcast the fake news along with the CW. It's not exactly enough to send people screaming into the streets, setting cars on fire and looting grocery stores. If the hack had happened in New York City and involved terrorists instead of zombies, however, the reaction could've been different. This actually happened a couple of years ago in the form of a hactivist group breaking into NBC's Twitter account and reporting an attack at Ground Zero. The world did not end, but it wasn't very funny either.
The fact of the matter is that cybersecurity is a growing concern for the country's leaders and, to a lesser extent, the American people. We learned over the weekend that "the United States is the target of a massive, sustained cyber-espionage campaign that is threatening the country's economic competitiveness," to borrow The Washington Post's scary wording. The news came from the National Intelligence Estimate which represents the intelligence community and believes China to be the most aggressive combatant in the quiet cyber warfare that we're facing. This news comes less than two weeks after we learned that Chinese hackers had waged a four-month-long attack against The New York Times's network. Imagine if they'd planted fake information for reporters to report or used The Times's platform to send out a fake emergency alert.
It's sometimes self defeating to get lost in these hypotheticals. The reality of the situation is that the hackers are smarter than the government right now and that's very scary to a lot of people, especially the people who run the government. Obama warned last year of a hypothetical cyber attack causing trains to derail "including one carrying industrial chemicals that exploded into a toxic cloud" and a water treatment plan shutting down "contaminating drinking water and causing Americans to fall ill." Zombie-free as it may be, the scenario's still pretty scary.
Inevitably, the timing of the prank in Montana should work out well for the Obama administration. The president's expected to roll out an executive order on cybersecurity after his State of the Union address this week. "If and when adopted, it will be a game changer," former assistant Department of Homeland Security secretary Stewart Baker told Bloomberg. Which hopefully means fewer pranks for hackers and less widespread panic for everybody else.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.