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DHS: 911 call centers vulnerable to cyberattack

Emergency call centers around the country are vulnerable to cyberattacks, including denial-of-service assaults that could shut down 911 networks, a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned.

The threat is an increasing source of concern for 911 operators, law enforcement officials and their representatives in Washington.

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Virtually no enterprise is safe from hackers, but the idea that online vandals could tamper with emergency call systems is worrying as a matter of basic public safety, officials said.

“News reports of successful government website hacks appeared frequently over the past year, with several activist groups openly targeting cities and local government for political reasons,” an alert from the U.S. Fire Administration said Thursday.

“While [call centers] don’t hold valued information like credit card numbers or Social Security numbers, they do often house names and addresses and sometimes medical records. This information can be combined and can be used to help a hacker get the more damaging information,” the alert stated.

While the attacks rarely make headlines, more than 200 911 call centers have been hacked to date, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) said at the end of March.

The group also introduced a new term for attacks designed to disrupt emergency call centers: telephone denial of service, or TDoS, attacks.

“The perpetrators of the attack launched numerous phone calls against the target telephone network, tying up the system and preventing the agency from receiving legitimate calls,” NENA said in an alert on March 28.

The term DDoS, or distributed denial of service, is used describe crude cyberattacks where hackers flood a server with false traffic in order to make a website or network unavailable to regular users.

Thursday’s alert was published by the Fire Administration’s Emergency Management and Response — Information Sharing and Analysis Center.