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911 centers being hacked by criminals, systems held for ransom

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America's emergency services are under attack from hackers. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

In an effort to use scare tactics for financial and political gain, hackers are now disabling American 911 call centers and holding them for ransom.

Henry County, Tennessee's 911 call center was shut down in 2016 via a ransomware attack, leaving dispatchers hobbled and forced to use pen and paper to take calls. The county's information technology manager recalled: "It basically brought us to our knees."

The hackers demanded thousands in bitcoin currency to reestablish services, which Henry County refused to pay.

Baltimore's emergency services also had to scale back to manual calls during a similar instance in late March, and Atlanta is still reeling from a digital ambush of their police department systems a week or so ago.

NBC News reports "there have been 184 cyberattacks on public safety agencies and local governments in the past 24 months" in the US, pointing to a growing threat. They cite information from cybersecurity firm SecuLore Solutions, which has been tracking the attacks.

According to the firm, roughly 23 percent of centers have been directly attacked, while a few dozen more were overcome by the use of viruses to control programs remotely. The remaining large majority of attacks caused the immobilization of systems via a barrage of automated bogus dials which resulted in a "denial of service" for legitimate 911 calls.

SecuLore's CEO, Tim Lorello, says, "911 is the perfect [target] because it can't afford to be shut down."

A six-month-old boy in Dallas died last year following breathing troubles after his babysitter called 911 and was put on hold for over 30 minutes and hung up on three times. While the system was not held up by hackers, but rather a glitch, it's an example of how critical immediate emergency services are.

The hacker in Tennessee was able to gain access after a former employee had left a weak password in the system. But the perpetrator was never caught in Henry County or in Baltimore.

While increasing the sophistication of security measures on emergency systems would help block such attacks, many states have diverted 911 fees paid by consumers via phone bills to other uses. Between 2008 and 2015, the FCC cited two dozen states who had redirected dedicated 911 funds away from emergency services.

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