When a flurry of hangup calls hit one night last October, North Texas call takers were the first to realize that a cyber attack of the nation’s 911 system was under way.
It struck first in Irving on Oct. 25.
Then Fort Worth followed with a deluge of 911 calls a short time later.
Arlington would have “a burst of 911 hangups” the following morning.
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The Tarrant County 9-1-1 District, which includes all major Tarrant County cities, plus Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Irving and Grand Prairie estimates that it had at least 850 hangup calls during the attack.
Other 911 systems across the country were also hit after iPhone users clicked on a Twitter link.
“When you click on certain things, sometimes it takes you to places you regret going,” said Wanda McCarley, director of operations for the Tarrant County 9-1-1 District.
As the calls continued to come in, Tarrant County 911 officials tracked the calls and were able to find the Twitter link that was causing the problem.
“We were able to identify the person who sent the outbound tweet,” McCarley said. “We had screen shots of the phone and it showed the website they went to and were actually able to pull up the script. By 8:30 the next morning were on the on phone with the Department of Homeland Security.”
For their work, Tarrant County was recognized by the Department of Homeland Security.
Several employees received commendations.
While the case drew national attention, the Tarrant County connection wasn’t publicized.
That was intentional, McCarley said, because Tarrant County 911 officials didn’t want to encourage copycats.
But in a Nov. 15 letter to Greg Petrey, executive director of Tarrant County 911, the Department of Homeland Security singled out the the network’s quick action.
“As the attack initially unfolded, the Tarrant County 9-1-1 call center was the first to initiate reporting via the National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, directly to the National Cyber Security and Communications Integration Center and National Coordinating Center for Communications,” said John M. Felker, director of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center.
“Thanks to the quick action on the Tarrant County, the NCCIC and NCC were able to quickly pull together a call and initiate a wider dissemination of attack specifics to the public safety communications sector,” Felker said.
The impact of that attack was outlined in a Wall St. Journal story, The Night Zombie Smartphones took down 911. With call centers across the country tracking the calls, the trail quickly led to an 18-year-old Phoenix-area community college student, Meetkumar Hiteshbhai Desai.
He was indicted on Nov. 14 on four counts of computer tampering in November, according to the Arizona Republic.
911 networks at risk
The Department of Homeland Security has highlighted the potential risks to 911 networks, including the risk for attacks to spread with so-called next generation 911 systems.
“As cyber threats grow in complexity and sophistication, attacks could be more severe against an NG911 system as attackers can launch multiple distributed attacks with greater automation from a broader geography against more targets,” the Department of Homeland Security said in an online post titled Cyber Threats to Next Generation 911.
McCarley said individuals need to be just as cautious with their phones as they are with their computers. Don’t click on any unknown links.
“I think you have to realize there are security issues with mobile phones,” McCarley said. “This time, it was an iPhone. The next time, it could be some other type of mobile phone.”