Washington DC metro station Ed-Ni Photo / Shutterstock.com

Senator checks on DC Metro IT security

In a public letter to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) asked for details on the agency’s plans to thwart cyberattack and its progress placing Wi-Fi in all metro stops.

The letter comes after a year of high-profile ransomware attacks – some on transit agencies -- and near the two-year anniversary of a death of a metro rider from smoke in Metro tunnels that brought problems with underground communication to the fore.

Warner pointed to both of these incidents in his letter. While a ransomware attack against the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency last year might have been “opportunistic,” the senator said he was “concerned that WMATA may represent a particularly enticing target for more advanced threats, given its importance to the region and the number of federal agencies that rely on the system to transport their workforces each day.”

Given his concerns, Warner asked a number of questions, including information on the last time WMATA updated its IT systems, whether its network was segmented to “prevent lateral moves of attackers,” and whether it has a plan in place for responding to ransomware attacks.

A spokesperson for WMATA confirmed that it had received the letter and would “provide a timely response” directly to Warner. 

The death that Warner mentions in his letter occurred on Jan. 12, 2015. Responders struggled to find the location of a train that was still in a smoke-filled tunnel, highlighting communication problems. “D.C., Arlington and a Metro Transit Police operator worked together to figure out where the train was and didn’t reach a clear conclusion,” WTOP reported. Additionally, D.C. firefighters in the tunnel “were unable to clearly communicate by radio with commanders outside,” the Washington Post reported.

Days later, after the smoke had dissipated, Warner asked WMATA to work with other agencies improve the interoperability between communication networks for first responders. He also asked WMATA to update a report on testing of emergency radio equipment and repeater systems, make plans for updating the current systems and provide long-term goals for a complete overhaul.

WMATA has begun overhauling its communication systems, according to WMATA board documents. It plans to bring in a new 700-MHz radio system that will include new routing and dispatching abilities, a new antenna system for underground communication and a total of 400 miles of infrastructure upgrades. It expects to complete the $332 million system by 2022, but the project’s timeframe is listed under potential project risks.

WMATA also has plans to place Wi-Fi at all metro stops. Although Warner acknowledged that this will help improve communications, he said it's not enough and that WMATA should work on covering the entire metro system. More Wi-Fi will require more security, Warner added

Wireless service was brought to the first section of track last year when 1.1 miles of tunnel were given internet connectivity. “Future announcements will be issued once other significant tunnel segments are brought into commercial wireless service as is expected in 2017," WMATA officials said.

"Riders have told us they want the ability to maintain wireless communication at all times while riding Metro, and this project is responsive to their needs," Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld -- the recipient of Warner’s letter -- said in a statement last year. "I am pleased to see the tunnel wiring project move forward under the plan I announced earlier this year." 

New York City overhauled its transit communications infrastructure last year. The upgrade in New York included Wi-Fi hotspots and direct communication to first responders. Improving communication for transit systems has long been discussed. More than a decade ago, New York added satellite telephones to its transit communication system to help in emergencies.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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