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Confusion due to 911 malfunction in Massachusetts triggers emergency alert in New York

Confusion due to 911 malfunction in Massachusetts triggers emergency alert in New York

On Tuesday afternoon, Hudson Valley residents were startled by a public safety alert from the NYS Office of Emergency Management, which somewhat confusingly stated that “New York State 9-1-1 services are functioning and operational. There are no known issues with 9-1-1 services in New York State at this time.”

What caused the emergency alarm? Business as usual so far. In fact, the purpose of the alert itself was not immediately clear, as it continued: “For issues with Massachusetts 9-1-1, please follow the guidelines of the State of Massachusetts.”

It took a quick online search to determine the meaning of this alert: Our neighbors in Massachusetts were experiencing a widespread 911 outage and residents were being warned of emergency response delays. They were urged by government officials to contact local public safety companies and offices in the event of an emergency.

Massachusetts uses a Next Generation 911 (NG911) system. This system enhances emergency communications by utilizing an Internet Protocol (IP) platform, enabling improved accuracy of location data and the ability to receive texts, images and videos from the public. Many cybersecurity experts (including those at the Department for Homeland Security) have expressed concern that NG911 systems are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks, although there was no immediate communication as to whether this was a cyberattack, nor would such immediate confirmation be expected.

In late April, state officials confirmed that Lowell, Massachusetts, had experienced a significant cyberattack. The hacking, attributed to the Play ransomware group, affected several municipal systems, including servers, networks and phones, but did not affect the city’s 911, fire or emergency phone systems. City officials quickly isolated the affected systems to prevent further damage and initiated an extensive recovery process involving state and federal agencies.

Digital communications systems are also vulnerable to hardware and software failures, which have been known to temporarily disable 911 services in the past.

Further investigation revealed rampant misinformation about the emergency alert circulating on social media, especially regarding the outage that affected states other than Massachusetts, including New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. Some non-Massachusetts residents claimed to have received the Massachusetts emergency alert in their home state. Viral, inaccurate reports of a more widespread outage appear to have been caused or at least exacerbated by clickbait news headlines such as “911 down in Maine, Rhode Island and New York? Reports emerge after outage in Massachusetts.”

A recent survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that only 51% of consumers who read an online news story actually read the entire article. Another 26% read part of the article, while 22% only looked at the headline or a few lines.