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Hackers target traffic lights
[April 13, 2006]

Hackers target traffic lights

(Comtex Community Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)GAINESVILLE, Fla., Apr 12, 2006 (Independent Florida Alligator, U-WIRE via COMTEX) --Imagine if you could change traffic lights at the snap of a finger or, in this case, the push of a button. Security devices, called traffic signal preemption transmitters, owned by the Alachua County Fire and Rescue Department, do just that -- legally. Web sites across the nation, however, such as and brag of creating and using duplicate devices just as easily and effectively.

But people buying and selling the devices hit a roadblock in August 2005 when President Bush passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act.

It established a minimum sentence of six months in prison for anyone who uses the device illegally. The act also said those selling the device illegally could serve a year in prison, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Web site.

The devices used in counties across the nation, including Alachua for the past 3 to 4 years, are coded. When either a legal or illegal device is used, the control box of the intersection records both the date and time used, said Megan Crandall, public information officer for Alachua County Fire and Rescue.

"When you turn it on, it will recognize that that vehicle turned it on -- date, time, everything," Crandall said. "It essentially provides accountability."

In the U.S., two major companies, 3M and Tomar Electronics Inc., competitively sell differently coded preemption devices.

Like the "IBM-Microsoft, Pepsi-Coke" relationship, the two companies will only go through specific distributors, said Stuart Johnston, the Southeastern region sales representative for Tomar Electronics Inc.

"Everybody has a heightened sense of security," Johnston said.

Besides being very immoral, using a "rogue emitter," or a generic version of the preemption transmitter, is not effective, Johnston said.

Even though he did not sell transmitters to Gainesville, Fla., the city has nothing to worry about, he said.

"I can tell you right now, the systems in place in most cities are capable of knocking 95 percent of [generic transmitters] out," Johnston said.

Blake Temple, president of Temple Inc. and distributor the 3M versions of Gainesville's preemption devices, said cost of the device -- $5,000 -- is an incentive for hackers to illegally create a homemade alternative.

"Anything can be stolen or acquired illegally and be utilized," Temple said.

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