Hacking 9-1-1

You might think giving your child your old smartphone, particularly if you’ve removed its SIM card, is a harmless activity. 

But according to police and emergency responders in a growing number of cities across Canada, it’s a terrible idea. That’s because even without a SIM card, old cellphones and smartphones can still dial 9-1-1, tying up lines for real emergencies. 

It’s part of a growing problem of nuisance and accidental 9-1-1 calls and an overall increasing cybersecurity issue for the nearly 50-year-old service.  A number of police jurisdictions, most recently the York Regional police, have reported that as many as 1 in 5 calls to 9-1-1 are unintentional calls that are potentially tying up lines for real emergencies. 

Increasingly, police say they’re seeing more and more calls from kids accidentally dialling 9-1-1 on smartphones their parents though were no longer able to make calls because the SIM card had been removed. 

A smartphone always remains a phone


All cellphones / smartphones are able to make emergency calls even without a SIM card. And due to regulations in the U.S. and Canada it may in fact be illegal to disable that functionality. Think of a SIM card as being similar to a ticket for a bus or train - you are able to still board the train or the bus without anyone checking your ticket. That’s how cellphone networks work, the SIM card is only for figuring out who you are and what additional places you can call and who should be be billed. 

The bottom line is children under 12 shouldn’t be playing with smartphones unsupervised. 

Some people have suggested that parents consider removing the batteries from smart phones they give to you children. But frankly, you shouldn’t be giving smartphones to young children - there’s lots of cybersecurity and other kinds of risks that come from the devices, they’re not toys. They contain a mix of harmful substances that can cause serious injury. 

You should only allow children who are old enough to use the devices under adult supervision. 

More nuisance calls to NB RCMP than assault calls

The good news for New Brunswick is that according to an RCMP spokesperson who looked at 9-1-1 call trends for the past few years, the overall trend of so-called nuisance calls (which include pocket dialing and other mistaken calls), the numbers are decrease year after year. They’re also no where close to the larger cities 20% nuisance call rate. Nuisance calls for the RCMP account for about 5% of all calls, so we’re doing a bit better than the larger cities in Canada. 

But the bad news is the RCMP in New Brunswick still had had 5,400 nuisance calls to detachments in the province in 2016, that’s more than the total for assault calls that year (4800).

A growing cyber threat

There are a number of growing cyber risks that range from intentional 9-1-1 denial of service attacks to malicious software that dials 9-1-1 from infected or zombie phones to a scam that convinces teens and others to accidentally dial 9-1-1 using their smartphone digital assistant such as Apple’s Siri. 

For example, last fall when a number of users clicked on a malicious link on Twitter and malware infected their Android phones, their phones were turned into what’s known as a Bot network which then flooded 9-1-1 systems in 12 US states with calls, crippling the system. The young man who created the malware didn’t intend to bring down 9-1-1 and had done it as a prank. 

While he didn’t intend to cause chaos, he still caused a significant crisis and has ended up with significant jail time. 

Unfortunately, there are also more serious criminals who’ve built cellphone-powered diallers that are designed to take bog down 9-1-1 call centre lines and unfortunately some of this technology can be bought over the Internet. 

And finally, there’s been a scam over the spring where people are encouraged to ask their digital assistants, like Siri on an iPhone, to dial 108. 108 is India’s version of 911 and Siri and other digital assistants will convert this to 9-1-1 in North America. 

Protecting 9-1-1

What can the province, emergency responders do to reduce the impact of nuisance calls or cyber attacks on 9-1-1? It’s going to take time and it’s going to expensive. Some states in the United States are spending $10-$15 million to upgrade to Internet-based systems that can better detect nuisance calls or other attacks. 

But some are struggling to even keep these systems up to date. 

But protecting 9-1-1 isn’t just a job for government. We all can play a roll. 

Keeping our devices out of the hands of kids is a good step. As is checking to see someone has already called into 9-1-1 when we come across an accident scene, this cuts down on unnecessary duplicate reports that tie up lines. 

Finally, patch your devices. Preventing your smartphone from being used as a way to attack emergency services or others is part of all of our responsibilities as good cyber citizens. 

David Shipley is the CEO and Co-Founder of Beauceron Security Inc., a New Brunswick-based cybersecurity software firm with clients across North America. David is a certified information security manager. He frequently writes and speaks about cybersecurity issues across North America. Over the summer he is exploring a variety of cybersecurity issues in a weekly column for CBC Radio New Brunswick.