FBI agents say a cyberattack caused the suicide bomber hotline to go down
WASHINGTON – A cyber attack caused a nearly day-long outage the country’s new 988 psychiatric hotline late last year, federal officials told The Associated Press on Friday. Lawmakers are now asking the federal agency overseeing the program to prevent future attacks.
“On December 1, the voice call capability of the 988 Lifeline was unavailable due to a cybersecurity incident,” Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said in an email.
The attack occurred on the network of Intrado, the company that provides telecommunications services for the helpline. The agency did not provide details on who it believes launched the attack or what type of cyberattack took place. Intrado is working with an outside assessor to investigate the incident and law enforcement has been notified of the breach, SAMHSA said.
The national 988 phone number, which can be reached by text message, chat, or voice call, has become a lifeline for millions of Americans seeking help during a mental health crisis million calls in the first six months since its launch in July. The system is designed to work in a similar way to 911 – it’s a universal, easy-to-remember number that people can call in an emergency to reach a human working 24/7 at a local call center.
Those who tried to reach the line on December 1 with suicidal or depressed thoughts were instead greeted with a message saying the line was “experiencing a service blackout.” However, text and chat services remained available for those who needed help.
The Federal Communications Commission said in December it was investigating the outage. Intrado said at the time that the company “experienced an incident affecting production on numerous systems” and was “working diligently to restore service”. Intrado could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.
Last week, Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas and Republican Rep. Jay Obernolte, both from California, introduced a bill calling for better coordination and reporting of cyberattacks on the 988 system.
“Even a multi-hour outage of the national suicide hotline can cost American lives,” Obernolte said in a press release introducing the bill. “It is critical that we mitigate the risks of future service disruptions and take steps to close cybersecurity vulnerabilities that could compromise the hotline.”
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