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Road Sign Hacking: Harmless Prank or Safety Threat?

Drivers in Austin, Texas were on their daily commute to work on a chilly morning in January 2009, when they were greeted by an ominous message on a mobile construction sign.  Where it previously had said “CONSTRUCTION AHEAD,” it now read “ZOMBIES AHEAD.”  It was one of the first occurrences of road sign hacking.

The text was changed the previous evening by local hackers.  Someone broke into the padlock-protected box where the sign’s keyboard was contained and used it to alter the message.  It was password protected, but the default codes are common knowledge, thanks to hacker sites on the Internet. 

Several of those who drove by it thought it was quite funny.  Austin Public Works spokesperson, Sara Hartley, had a different opinion, however.  “Even though this may seem amusing to a lot of people, this is really serious, and it is a crime,” she said.  “And you can be indicted for it, and we want to make sure our traffic on the roadways stays safe.” 

In the Lone Star State, unauthorized changes to traffic messages and road sign hacking are a Class C felony, punishable by a fine of several hundred dollars and a few months in jail.  Perpetrators are rarely caught, however, as they normally strike after hours, when the crew isn’t working.  "The big problem is public safety," said Hartley. "Those signs are out there to help our traffic on the roadway to stay safe and to know what's coming up."

Incidents like these have become common over the last few years.  Inspired partially by video games like “Call of Duty 5,” in which players confront “Nazi zombies,” word of them spreads through hacker and gamer networks.  Other messages that have been posted include “BEWARE OF ROGUE PANDAS” and “ALIENS HAVE LANDED.”

Over time, however, they have evolved from annoying to offensive.  In some cases, they have compromised driver safety.  For examples, in Winnipeg, a sign that was set up to notify motorists about deer crossing the road was altered to display profanities.  At other times, warnings about icy roads have been erased. 

In the United States, messages like “HAVE A HAPPY 420” have appeared, which is a reference to drug culture.  In the last few months, some hackers have posted racially disparaging remarks about Latinos, Florida shooting victim Trayvon Martin, and even President Obama.  Sexually explicit words have been used as well.  Some hackers have moved beyond road signs and are now tampering with traffic lights, changing them to green at will.

Attempts have been made to foil the hackers, but they quickly catch up, thanks to their ability to quickly spread updated information via web sites and email.  In 2011, sign manufacturers changed the default passwords, for example.  However, it wasn’t long before the new ones were public knowledge.  Part of the problem is that the signs come with instruction manuals, necessary of course for road crew members to learn how to use them, but the information they contain is easily obtained and posted on the Internet.

Ironically, many of those who disseminate this information deny responsibility for encouraging the road sign hacking that results from it.  “We don’t encourage anyone to hack into road signs,” said the person who maintains gizmodo.com, one of the sites that publicizes information on how to do just that.  “Hacking is about exposing weaknesses in networks and security systems, so the authorities can fix them before real damage is done.”

One thing that does appear to be discouraging the practice is stiffer penalties.  In some states, hacking a sign will now get you a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.  A variety of initiatives are also being discussed across the country, including placing surveillance cameras at sites where the signs are present.  For now, though, if you see a message that warns about zombies ahead, don’t take it at face value.