Direct Marketing Via Hacking

Earlier today, the media reported that flashing road signs in Winnipeg had been altered from “Be Alert For Deer” to “Slow The F*** Down.”  Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) said they had no idea how the signs had been hacked, and law enforcement is now searching for the person or persons responsible for hacking these signs.

Now the Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) would like people to believe that hacking these signs requires a fair bit of specialized knowledge to be successful with the attempt, but the truth of the matter is that, with a few key words plugged into a browser, there are a number of sites that claim it can be done by anyone, even your grandmother.

It would appear there’s a major design flaw where, even if the password to the sign has been changed by employees to something super secret, a low level hacker can push a couple of buttons and reset the sign to have a very simple password and voila! the hacker is in the system.  Once in the system, supposedly the programming is as easy as texting friends.

From time to time, the media will run a story on some of the funny sayings that have replaced serious and important messages on flashing signs.  They range from “you’ll never get to work on time” to “prepare to be annoyed.” Not that long ago there was a news story about a flashing road sign that alerted to motorists to the fact that there were “Zombies Ahead!”

That’s all very humourous but the fact of the matter is that no matter how humourous those messages may be, a very serious important message had to be removed to make way for the anonymous comedy routine.  And that brings me to this point: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Over the years, this is something that Reni Barlow, Executive Director of Youth Science Canada, has believed in.  Of course, back in the day when he was teaching computer classes in middle school in the late 1980s, he was referring to desktop publishing but his point of view hasn’t changed over the years as free software becomes part of mainstream internet technology these days.

British poet and historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay (25 October 1800 – 28 December 1859) said, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out.” 

And that’s my point.  While it may be great fun to change those flashing signs to say all sorts of hilarious things to amuse motorists driving past first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, the bottom line is that it’s more important to leave messages on flashing signs as they are. 

It doesn’t matter if someone can get away with altering the message.  What matters is knowing that the message matters just the way it is.  So while I have to admit that whoever reprogrammed the flashing sign in Winnipeg to read “Slow The F*** Down” certainly knew how to get his audience’s attention,  the sign was perfectly fine as it was when it warned motorists to “Be Alert For Deer.”


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