Motorists driving past a highway sign on Fort Valley Road outside of Flagstaff, Arizona received an alarming caution on August 22. The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) put up an electronic street sign to warn drivers against making left turns at a busy intersection. Thanks to some creative hacking by pranksters, however, motorists saw quite a different message: “ROGUE PANDA ON RAMPAGE.”
According to the Washington Post, Flagstaff police have assured residents that no rogue pandas are actually roaming-or rampaging-through the city.
This isn’t the first time hackers have had some fun with national Department of Transportation road signs. In January of 2009, FOX News reported a similar incident in Texas. The sign, located near the University of Texas at Austin, was reprogrammed to warn drivers that there were “Zombies Ahead.” Chris Lippincott, then-director of media relations for the Texas Department of Transportation, called the prank “sort of amusing, but not at all helpful.”
Lexington, Kentucky saw similar practical jokes earlier this year. Between June and August, electronic road construction signs were hacked to read everything from “Zombies Ahead” to “Death Eaters Ahead” prior to the release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2″. According to Lexington’s LEX18 News, while motorists found the signs amusing, highway officials did not. As with most states, tampering with road signs is considered a misdemeanor criminal offense.
A potential misdemeanor charge didn’t stop the folks who hacked road signs in Johnson County, Kansas. NBC Action News reported on hacked signs in the area that bore messages like “Free kittens in the left lane” and “Stop! Hammer Time!” in late July.
Why are so many road signs hacked? Besides being amusing to many drivers passing by, it is apparently also a fairly easy source of entertainment for the pranksters who conduct these hacks. According to i-hacked.com, the access panels to many road signs are often left unprotected, granting hackers easy access to fairly easy to operate controls. While many road sign control panels include password protection, the password is apparently seldom changed; even if they were, hackers have figured out how to reset both the sign and password.
Despite assurances from Department of Transportation spokespeople nationwide that hacking these signs is serious and criminal, this doesn’t seem to be a trend that will be going away any time soon. But motorists should be aware: neither zombies nor Death Eaters nor pandas are coming to a roadway near you. At least, not yet.
The Associated Press, “Pranksters alter Flagstaff, Ariz., street sign to warn motorists of ‘rogue panda on rampage’,” The Washington Post
Joshua Rhett Miller, “Hackers Crack Into Texas Road Sign, Warn of Zombies Ahead”, FOX News
LEX18 News, “Lexington Road Signs Hacked,” LEX18.com
Victoria Swoboda, “Hacked road warning signs made Johnson County drivers do a double take”, NBC Action News
i-hacked.com (g00n Rey), “Inside Programmable Road Signs,” i-hacked.com