How an Online Prank Had Countless Phones Dialing 911

By on Nov 01, 2016

 

Remember elementary school, when prank notes left on fellow students’ desks caused uproars of laughter? Those were golden days. Consequences were intangible — coming just from adults to (seemingly) steal the fun. But of course, as we grow older, the first taste of reality is harsh. In recent cybersecurity news, that’s exactly what hit 18-year-old Meetkumar Hiteshbhai Desai in what appeared to be an online prank that spun out of control. The Arizona teen tweeted out a link that ended up forcing mobile phones into continuously dialing 911.

Clearly, the State of Arizona didn’t appreciate this. Desai’s link threatened to shut down the call line. With almost 2,000 clicks, an overwhelming amount of phone traffic flooded call operators. The Surprise, Arizona Police Department reported receiving 100 emergency calls within minutes — putting them in danger of losing service. Authorities, naturally, began searching for the perpetrator of this incident after the flood.

Meetkumar, by all accounts, was taken by surprise. He would later tell police the link was simply meant to be “funny.” According to the Sheriff’s news release, he received powerful JavaScript code from a friend. His goal in using it was simply to expose iOS vulnerabilities to the programmer community. In fact, Meetkumar even hoped Apple would give him a financial reward (or, a bug bounty), a common practice of tech companies tapping into cybersecurity pros for flaw discovery.

What actually happened was starkly different. For starters, the 911-dialing feature wasn’t part of the game plan. After Meetkumar had created it, he concluded being against ever releasing it. In his words, people would “freak out” if the exploit made its way to the public. They certainly did, when Meetkumar accidentally packaged it with the other functions he wanted to bring forth to other programmers.

Arizona treats the 911 call line as critical infrastructure — attacking it is a felony. So the 18-year-old teen is now faced with three counts of computer tampering. How’s that for a wakeup call?

There is a silver lining here though—a great lesson to be learned by all. With the huge amount of time we spend on screens in today’s day and age, it’s important to take care with the links we share and click. On the open Web, there’s no doubt we’ll face any number of suspicious links, humorous pop-ups, and entertaining hacks. However, it’s key for all of us to share and click responsibly. After all, the consequences of our online sharing could impact the public at large. And if you’re on the receiving end of an online prank, what starts as something seemingly harmless can turn out to be something disastrous.

So next time you’re on the Internet, use these safety tips when navigating unknown links:

  1. Click on social media links and pop-ups with care. As our technologies increasingly connect us to the rest of the world, online tricksters take advantage. This incident spread via Twitter, an open social forum for anyone to post information. Whether you’re perusing social media, or navigating the greater Web, think before you click on unknown links. Put more trust in what people you know post, over what strangers do.
  2. Hover over links before clicking. It’s an obvious red flag when links don’t go to the websites they advertise. So place your mouse over any unknown link you see. The destination address will appear in the bottom of your browser window, and will start with “https” if it is secure.
  3. Get a comprehensive security solution. Regardless of what the Web throws at you, it’s important to keep you and your devices protected. In today’s always-on digital world, malicious link-scanning is a can’t-miss security feature. Security solutions like McAfee SiteAdvisor can help determine the security ranking for any links you encounter in your browser.

And, of course, stay on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats by following me and @McAfee_Home on Twitter, and ‘Like’ us on Facebook.

gary

About the Author

Gary Davis

Gary Davis was previously McAfee's Consumer Security Evangelist providing security education and advice to businesses and consumers. He is a sought-after speaker on trends in digital security, appearing at conferences and events, as well as security and consumer lifestyle broadcast outlets and publications such as ABC, NBC, FOX, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Money ...

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