An apparent hack of Wave cable took over TV screens in Jefferson County last week, first warning of a “radiological hazard” and then referencing internet memes and an online video game streaming website.
Jefferson County Department of Emergency Management confirmed the next day in a press release that there was no danger, and their alert systems Nixle and AlertSense were not compromised.
The alert did not originate from county or state emergency management systems, according to the press release.
Port Townsend resident Susan Fox said she was watching TV on Thursday, Feb. 20 at about 8 or 9 p.m. when the alerts came over the air. She said the first message read, “Emergency Alert System Radiological Hazard Warning,” frightened her.
She thought something serious and real like a nuclear strike on the U.S. was happening and was waiting for another alert with instructions about what to do, but once the next couple of messages came up she realized it must be a hack.
She said the messages became increasingly bizarre, playing rap music and using what she described as cryptic phrases including one that said something like “change ur password.”
The messages also referenced a Twitch username. Twitch is a popular website where users can watch others livestream video games in real time.
Then the voice of a young man came on talking about a person putting his feet into a bin of lettuce at Burger King, Fox said.
This was a reference to a popular 2017 internet meme called “Number 15 Burger King foot lettuce,” in which a YouTuber narrates a story of a disgruntled Burger King employee standing in a bin of lettuce.
An isolated clip of the video went viral in 2017 and now has more than 13 million views.
Between each alert there were moments when the regular broadcasting would return but then again be interrupted, Fox said. During the alerts the channel could not be changed.
“Even if it turns out it was a prank,” Fox said, “what is the scariest part is the unknown. If they can do this, then what else could someone do?”
After the alert a message via the Nixle text-alert system told residents to disregard the message. “This appears to have been an error and is being investigated.”
“[The nature of the messages] implies this is more likely a prank by a bored young person than a serious attempt to cause any sort of harm by a potential terrorist,” Willie Bence, director of JCDEM, said in an email.
“This does not however, mean to detract from the severity of the situation,” he said, “They caused panic among a large group of people, overloaded local 911 dispatchers, and degraded public trust in the Emergency Alert System. This is not something to be taken lightly, regardless of intent.”
In a statement released via email, Wave Broadband said, “This event was not a large-scale incident and was contained to Port Townsend only. Action was taken immediately, and we are working with the appropriate authorities regarding this incident.”
No reply was given when asked for further explanation or comment.
JCDEM said in their statement Wave is “in the process of developing and implementing mitigating protocols that will prevent such a breach from occurring in the future.”