10:54AM Thursday Feb 05, 2009
COLLINSVILLE, Illinois - Pranksters in at least three states are messing with electronic road signs meant to warn motorists of possible traffic problems by putting drivers on notice about Nazi zombies and raptors. And highway safety officials aren't amused.
The latest breach came on Tuesday during the morning rush hour near Collinsville, Illinois, where hackers changed a sign along southbound Interstate 255 to read, "DAILY LANE CLOSURES DUE TO ZOMBIES."
A day earlier in Indiana's Hamilton County, the electronic message on a board in Carmel's construction zone warned drivers of "RAPTORS AHEAD - CAUTION."
And signs in Austin, Texas, recently flashed: "NAZI ZOMBIES! RUN!!!" and "ZOMBIES IN AREA! RUN."
Officials in Illinois are concerned the rewritten signs distract motorists from heeding legitimate hazards down the road. The hacked sign on Tuesday originally warned drivers of crews replacing guardrails.
"We understood it was a hoax, but at the same time those boards are there for a reason," said Joe Gasaway, an Illinois Department of Transportation supervisory field engineer. "We don't want (drivers) being distracted by a funny sign."
Authorities haven't figured out how pranksters access the signs. Gasaway believes the Illinois sign was changed remotely, and Austin Public Works spokeswoman Sara Hartley suspected the hackers there cut a padlock to get into the signs' computers.
Some websites, such as Jalopnik.com, have published tutorials titled "How to Hack an Electronic Road Sign" as a way to alert security holes to traffic-safety officials. Jalopnik urges its readership of 2.6 million a month not to put its lesson to practice.
"Hacking generally is about showing where there are holes in security systems, and I think this is a great example of that," the site's editor-in-chief, Ray Wert, said. "I'm sure there are all sorts of ways to use that information in a way that's inappropriate, but we're trying to make clear this is an issue that needs to be confronted by traffic safety and transportation officials."
Wert said he had no immediate plans to take down Jalopnik's how-to guide.
In Illinois, tampering with an official traffic control device is a misdemeanour punishable by up to a US$250 fine - half what a culprit might have to pay in Texas if caught. If convicted in Indiana, a culprit faces up to a year in jail and $5,000 in fines.
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