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Protecting 911 call centers from cyber threats: Federal action needed

The growing threat of cyber attacks on 9-1-1 call centers, also known as public safety access points or PSAPs, has become a serious homeland security concern. PSAPs are the public’s vital link to life saving emergency services. As of March 2015, there are some 5,906 primary and secondary PSAPs in the United States, to which 240 million calls are made to 9-1-1 each year. The next generation of public safety communications will be even more reliant on information technology.

Existing narrowband, circuit switched 9-1-1 networks carry only voice and very limited data, so PSAPs have focused largely on preventing Telephony Denial-of-Service attacks. Advancements in Next Generation IP-based systems and emerging mobile technologies increase the threat of infiltration and exploitation of emergency communications systems. Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) systems will be a “network of networks” providing connectivity between PSAPs regionally and nationally. As these systems become connected to the Internet, public safety communications will be increasingly vulnerable to the same threats as other IP networks.

NG911 will allow our growingly wireless society to access 9-1-1 through texting and mobile apps, as well as send images, videos, emails, and other documents…any of which could contain embedded viruses that rapidly infect the network. First responders are also making greater use of data and cloud computing. Sensitive public safety information stored on the cloud such as emergency medical patient care reports and police body camera video could become targets for cyber hacking.

Unfortunately, information sharing across all levels of government and the private sector is lacking, often leaving local public safety blind to the latest threats to public safety cyber infrastructure. PSAPs may not be aware of steps that should be taken to mitigate emerging threats to networks.

Ultimately, the primary responsibility for protecting critical NG911 infrastructure lies with PSAP owners and operators themselves. But the federal government has a crucial facilitative role to play in public safety cyber security, which includes:

  • Protecting critical infrastructure. DHS has begun collaborating with public safety sector stakeholders to address cyber security implications of information and communications technology through the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. DHS must continually engage NG911 and Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network officials to create sector-specific plans within the NIPP framework.
  • Providing forums where industry stakeholders can engage in risk assessment and mitigation. The federal government needs to work with public safety agencies, and engage private communications and cloud service providers, to ensure the security of critical infrastructure from cyber threats. Use of models for information sharing, such as the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), must be encouraged.
  • Providing tools for prevention and intervention. The federal government should disseminate cyber intrusion, detection, and prevention tools to public safety partners, and be permitted, when required, to provide assistance to localities and other entities in addressing and repairing damages from a major cyber-attack and for advice on building better defenses.
  • Improving information sharing. The multiple cybersecurity information sharing bills currently being considered in the House and Senate would require federal agencies to develop and promulgate procedures to promote the timely sharing of cyber security threats to prevent or mitigate adverse effects. Congress must work to pass legislation that removes existing impediments and improves incentives for information sharing, while also safeguarding the civil liberties and privacy of citizens.

Scott Somers is a senior fellow with the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and sits on the Center’s Preparedness and Infrastructure Resilience task force. He previously served on the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Council and SAFECOM Executive Committee.