Can Digital Billboards Be Hacked?
Updated 05/05/2016

Digital Billboards Photographer: A. Moody

Key Information At a Glance

Many companies have begun to build digital billboard networks in recent years.

  • Digital Billboards provide many advantages for advertisers including constant updates, vibrant displays, and the ability to share advertising space.
  • Rapid expansion has led to some security defiencies
  • Data ports are unencrypted
  • Hacking could happen to any digital billboard

OOH Digital Billboards

Digital billboards have met their share of backlash over the years. Critics have said the rapidly changing LED lights distract drivers and disrupt the lives of hundreds of residents with a view of the billboards. Many cities and states have even banned digital billboards entirely from permitted use with Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Montana and Vermont leading the fight. But this is a two way battle.

Advertisers are interested in doing what makes sense for the bottom line. Digital billboards have been a welcome addition to a marketplace where space for advertising is becoming increasingly competitive. The obvious advantage that digital billboards have over static billboards is that they can change copy quickly. This appeals to advertisers for many reasons.

  • Constant Updates - Advertisers can keep their information fresh. Constantly updating displays with time relevant information keeps viewers engaged. This is exponentially cheaper to do on a digital billboard.
  • Vibrant Displays - Higher pixelation capabilities make color differentiation far more brilliant. For the tech nerds out there, standard digital billboards are 200 h x 704 pixel resolution. RGB/ 72 DPI / JPG format
  • Shared Space - Before digital, it was virtually impossible for advertisers to share space on a traditional billboard advertisement. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The feedback from advertisers about digital billboards is overall happiness with the flexiblilty.

Many companies have begun to build digital billboard networks in recent years. They have realized they can save and even make money by creating a network of digital billboards. As an additional benefit (and definitely not to be overlooked) they are also able to make the argument to environmentalist groups that they are going green by being able to use space more efficiently.

These advantages for advertisers have caused a doubling of the number of digital billboards since 2010. Billboard lobbyists continually push for more signage. They want it taller, newer, and with increased visibility. But their total number of digital billboards is still relatively small. The war wages on.

The New Concern

Many critics have been asking new questions of late. How exactly is all this nifty stuff accomplished? Who has control of the billboard? How is it monitored? The new concern of security weaknesses has been gaining steam over recent years. We are now living in the digital age. Those who want to gain access to a digital network need little more than perseverance. With more and more companies getting involved, the rapidly growing network of digital billboards in the U. S. has left many things unchecked in the way of security. This could be the next headwind in a growing wave of criticisms.

Can Digital Billboards be Hacked?

Like we said, you need little more than perseverance to gain access to a network. And digital billboards are some of the softest targets around. An anonymous source was on a mission to see just how hackable digital billboard systems were and expose potential weaknesses. Below is information about their findings.

Editor's Note : Due to the size of the company that was hacked and the fact that most companies of comparable size are very litigation happy, we prefer not to invite their wrath. They no doubt have a large team of high-priced lawyers we would not like to meet. Ever. For that reason the name of the company will be kept anonymous.

Suffice is to say they are an international telecommunications company that boasts a digital billboard network that spans the country. They utilize a variety of different manufacturers for their billboards. This and many other factors make them extremely vulnerable.

We do not condone employing any of the methods or activities detailed in this article. This article is provided for informational purposes only and does not reflect the opinion of TimesOOHMedia or any of its affiliates.

Digital Billboard Technologies

Our anonymous source notes that all companies use one of the following networks and all of these networks are subject to vulnerabilities. Transmitting the signal of a digital billboard is done in one of three ways.

  • Verizon Telephone Network - The Verizon Telephone Network Interface provides easily viewable testing and wiring instructions. Basically, there is a box at the billboard site and it probably won't be locked. Inside the box are wires and instructions. If you were to simply read the instructions to perform the tests you would be in control of the billboard.
  • Wireless / Satellite - The second type of billboard site contains a nondescript box with a satellite dish attached to the top of the billboard. You won't believe it, but they are unencrypted. That means it is not protected at all. That's a no-no by even the most basic network users. A simple driveby would allow a hacker to see the network the digital billboard was broadcasting from and connect to it. You could also see where the billboard is broadcasting to by looking up the IP Address.
  • Direct Connect - Sometimes there is an unlabeled box at the billboard site. It is "secured" with a standard commercial padlock. If you can gain access, you can literally walk up and plug your laptop in.

Hacking could happen to any digital billboard. All digital billboards are vulnerable to people connecting wirelessly because they don't encrypt their networks or protect their information in any way. They are vulnerable to packet sniffing, war dialing, and the like. This depends on the type of billboard but a sales associate confirmed that this is one of their concerns. They are vulnerable to these types of things because they:

  • Don't close unused ports
  • Don't encrypt their data
  • Often use default user names and/or passwords. Many times wireless billboards will have no password at all
  • Often use global usernames and/or passwords. These can be fairly easy to procure from sales representatives with a few pleasantries.

All companies using networks like these are exposed to vulnerabilities.

Physical Weak Spots

The access codes are often universal master codes controlled by sales people. Sales people are motivated to make a billboard sale. They will answer just about any question you have if they think they are going to get a sale out of you. With a somewhat gentle touch, you can find out most anything - from image specs to uploading information to security procedures - all for simply saying you're interested in buying some space on their billboard. Rest assured, the time tested line "I'm a college student writing a paper" still works.

The billboard itself has vulnerabilities of its own, some of which we have already outlined. Others include :

  • Most digital billboards come with only one security camera, pointing only at the images on the billboard. There is nothing in the way of security surveillance on the box that actually controls the billboard.
  • Most billboards do not have security fences or even gates protecting the site.
  • Most digital billboards are conveniently located on the side of the road, where traffic is very light and access is easy to gain in the wee hours of the morning.
  • Usually within walking distance of a parking lot that's relatively empty when traffic is scarce.
  • The only thing between you and the control console is (at most) a commercial padlock.

Who would do this?

  • Artists - It's a new medium that is in a public place that gets a lot of exposure. The famous pop-artist Banksy (who has never been photographed) has made a living by erecting his artistic renderings in some of the most precarious places. Imagine the hype if he managed to splice a masterpiece into a repeating 8-second loop across an entire network.
  • Young people - Whippersnappers, the grandparents call them. Young kids have a lot of hormones racing through their bodies and for some reason these sorts of adventures appeal to them.
  • Hackers - Hackers love to hack. It doesn't really matter what they're hacking, so long as its noteworthy and new. The exploitation of different mediums is what they live for.
  • Extremists - Digital billboards would be a great way for them to spread their message to a large audience quickly and with little or no cost to them. Assuming they don't get arrested, of course.
  • Governments - See extremists above.

Why would someone want to do this?

  • Vandalism - There will always be someone who wants to mess with someone else's property.
  • Digital Graffiti - Again, it's a new medium and they can either slightly alter pre-existing adverts to convey something different or the images can be taken offline and the graffiti artists could use the then blank billboard as a clean canvas.
  • Guerilla Advertising - This has become a buzzword that doesn't really hold true meaning for the listener. It usually alludes to aggressive, unconverntional marketing methods done on the cheap. They use psychology and focus more on creativity and generating more referrals and bigger transactions.
  • Spreading Propoganda - Why settle for the news, tv commercials, emails and posters? By placing their message within the digital billboard network, the message will appear every 8 seconds on every billboard in that particular network repeatedly for an undetermined amount of time.

What not to do

Just in case you fall into one of the aforementioned groups, our anonymous source has provided a list of things not to do. To be clear, you shouldn't do anything written in this article. This article is provided for informational purposes only. But, for the sake of argument, you definitely want to avoid the following :

  • Do not try this during the day or peak hours of the evening. Wait about a half hour after the bars close to ensure all the drunks and Uber drivers are well on their way to their destination. The cops will be spread extremely thin by then.
  • No holidays or weekends
  • Do not forget to use gloves
  • Do not mess with the box with the bright orange sticker! The electric shock could be the end of you.
  • Do not hack a billboard near your house

Tools and Information needed

You need a shockingly little amount of equipment to hack into a billboard. It's the digital age. Everything is small.

  • A laptop - Depending on which billboard you approach, you may need a laptop with some fancy wireless and packet sniffing tools.
  • Lock Pick kit - We are not condoning any of this, but if you use the lock pit kit Ninja points are involved.
  • Miscellaneous tools - Dependent upon the type of billboard

Hopefully we aren't perpetuating this issue. Many of these details are provided in jest but also to prove the larger point. Based on the accounts of our anonymous source, there is in fact some merit to the arguments posed by many critics.

Are digital billboards here to stay?

They're probably here for good. Proponents of digital billboards say the arguments don't amount to a full arsenal in the fight many have waged against digital billboard advertisements. Obviously the weaknesses are glaring. But the market will undoubtedly solve the issue. This is merely a case where the industry has gotten out over its skis; rapid expansion to meet demand has resulted in details being overlooked. It won't be long before companies shore up their networks and begin encrypting their data. Security fences will begin to pop up around signs. They will likely secure their wireless boxes with more than a simple padlock. All the technology to manage these security risks already exists. It is only a matter of time before companies begin to utilize them.

Though it was no doubt a fun and enlightening exercise for our anonymous source to allegedly hack a digital billboard, the fight against digital billboards is not going to be won based on this finding. It is only going to be won with entire municipalities voting against the structures. This has proven to be the most effective strategy in recent years with a somewhat weakening billboard lobby.

Two states have banned any new billboards from their cities. Oregon and Rhode Island joined the battle only recently. Fights against the billboard lobby have become much more localized to statehouses and City Halls. And even more recently, many cities in Texas banned billboards entirely from their ordinances. Close to 400 cities, including Austin, have ordinances banning new billboards.

Remember the simpler times when billboards were made of cardboard and static pictures that would be changed once in a while? It was a time when the hollywood sign was meant to be a two year advertisement for a housing complex. Those times are long gone. Today, it's difficult to imagine a world without billboards and other advertisements vying for our attention. With advertising real estate becoming ever more precious, digital billboards are filling a void. With that, many unforeseen (and some foreseen) issues have come to light. There will always be blowback and we're sure this is not the end of the fight.