Zombie emergency broadcast hoax on pubTV station blamed on overseas hacker

By Ben Mook

Updated Feb. 13 at 4 p.m. to add KNME-TV among stations impacted.

Management at WNMU-TV, a Marquette, Mich.-based pubTV broadcaster, said it had identified the hacker behind a zombie hoax that compromised the Emergency Alert System on that station as well as others in the Upper Peninsula, Montana, New Mexico and parts of Wisconsin.

Viewers expecting to see news programming around 4 p.m. on Monday on WNMU were instead treated to an emergency ticker warning that the dead had risen and had begun attacking the living. Another pubcaster, KENW in Portales, N.M., was also hit by the hoax.

Pubcasters weren’t the only ones hit, an ABC affiliate in the area also  had its system hacked during the evening broadcast of The Bachelor. Viewers of KRTV in Great Falls, Montana during airing of the Steve Wilkos Show got the warning about the impending zombie apocalypse.

There was some initial speculation that perhaps it was viral marketing for AMC show The Walking Dead. But, given the seriousness of the Emergency Alert System being hacked, even if the message might be humorous, the hoax perpetrator was identified.

On Wednesday, WNMU General Manager Eric Smith said the station’s forensic IT staff had traced the hack as coming from an undisclosed “overseas” source.

“We’ve now taken steps to close that so we no longer have that problem,” Smith told WLUC-TV. “The IT staff was able to trace the hack and determine how the hackers got in.”

Ed Czarnecki, senior director of strategy and regulatory affairs for Monroe Electronics, the main manufacturer of EAS systems across the country, told TVNewsCheck.com that the hacker was able to access the system because the default password on the stations’ Common Alert Protocol Emergency Alert System had not been changed.

“Quite simply, someone made an unauthorized access to the stations’ firewall and somebody logged into the system using a default username and password,” says Czarnecki. “This is a simple matter of operational security best practices. You have to change your default password on any new device.”

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