Hacker hits Toronto transit message system

Imagine Gerry Nicholls' surprise when he glanced at the electronic advertising sign on the Toronto-area commuter train he was riding last week and saw this message about the Canadian prime minister scroll across the screen: 'Stephen Harper eats babies.'

Said Nicholls: 'I worked with Harper for five years and I know he has a craving for junk food, but I've never seen him eat a baby.' He then explained his role in publicizing a hack of the transit system's message system.

'It was Thursday evening, April 27, about 5:30, and I was leaving Toronto and I was taking the GO Transit train,' said Nicholls, vice president of the National Citizens Coalition. 'Each car has a little electronic advertising sign and messages scroll across them and usually it's something like buy tickets to this event or messages about train safety. But this time the message on the sign was reading 'Stephen Harper eats babies,' every three seconds. Stephen Harper used to be my boss and he's president of the organization I work for right now.'

Nicholls, who lives in a suburb of Toronto, thought the message on the sign was strange and figured it had to be some kind of parody, with some kind of kicker explaining what it meant. But there was no punchline, he said.

'My first thought was maybe I'm hallucinating and that this couldn't be. So I sent an e-mail to the GO Transit people and I put it on my blog. I never got any messages back from the GO Transit people over the next couple days,' he said. 'But people in the blogging community picked it up, and it sort of got all over the place and local media picked it up. Then I talked about it on a radio station and suddenly the GO Transit people were contacting me. They explained that a hacker got into the system and changed the message. Apparently, this person did it with a wireless device [that] costs about $25 ... at any hardware store or any tech store.... They don't know who it was and apparently it was running all last weekend on different trains.'

GO Transit spokesman Edmund Shea explained that Toronto-based Exclusive Advertising Inc., which set up the signs inside the trains, is usually responsible for programming the messages on them. 'These are basic scrolling signs with advertising messages and GO Transit messages,' he said. 'They were installed at least six years ago and they've been problem-free until someone hacked into them and [changed the messages]. There have been about half a dozen incidents since last [April 27]. Unfortunately, they put a message on it that was a slur to our Stephen Harper, our prime minister ' obviously, it's not our message. We don't endorse it. We regret that it happened and we're sorry if anyone's been offended, including our prime minister.'