Computer Glitch Blamed for Opening Prison Cell Doors | TechWell

Computer Glitch Blamed for Opening Prison Cell Doors

Florida corrections officials say a computer glitch may have been the reason all the doors of a prison’s maximum-security wing unexpectedly opened at once, letting inmates out of their cells and giving some the chance to ambush a rival gang member.

But a surveillance video released this week raises suspicions about the security failure's being a chance accident. Footage from the June 13 incident shows cell doors sliding open and two inmates immediately coming out into the hallway, as if they’d been expecting release. One of them meets a third man around a corner to hand off or receive a homemade knife; then the armed group moves in to confront an inmate who is reportedly a rival gang member. The man, realizing he’s surrounded, climbs onto the second-floor balcony railing and jumps off to avoid the attack, a fact that spurred headlines in the news. He suffered a broken ankle and fractured vertebrae.

This was the second time in a month all the doors in that wing opened without warning, raising questions about whether the incidents were intentional, with the first one serving as a trial run before the planned attack during the second breach.

Miami-Dade Corrections Director Tim Ryan acknowledged that the circumstances were “suspicious” and told the Miami Herald the department is investigating whether any guards might have played a role in the attack. He said a review of the computer logs indicated that an “operator error” had occurred, but no one’s quite sure what that message means.

“The software in the computer has only one kind of thing, operator error, and we don’t know what triggers that, so part of the inquiry is to find out what the software is saying,” Ryan told Wired.

The computer system that controls the doors is part of a $1.4 million prison security upgrade installed by Black Creek Integrated Systems. The control panel has a group-release option to open doors all at once, and though officers said none of them had pressed that button after the first security incident, a safety feature was installed to require a confirmation so the doors can’t be opened accidentally. However, the second breach shown in the video still occurred after the security precaution was activated.

So, was a guard in on the plot? Or was this the result of a computer malfunction? There’s also a third possibility: a hacker. Security researchers say many prison systems have compromises that can be exploited by hackers. From Wired:

Some of the vulnerabilities exist in the architecture and configuration of the systems, causing them to be accessible via the Internet. Other vulnerabilities exist in the programmable logic controllers that are used to control not only prison doors, but surveillance cameras and other prison systems. Many PLCs use Ladder Logic programming and a communications protocol that have no security protections built into them. There are also vulnerabilities in the Windows-based desktop machines that are used to monitor and program the PLCs.

A hacker could get malware on the system by persuading someone inside the prison to install it on the internal networks via USB, or access could be gained from the outside by phishing or other remote infiltrations.

Ryan told Wired it had never occurred to him that the system might have been hacked but investigators would now look into that possibility.

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