The aim for these activists would be to broadcast their own message across the country. It sounds incredible, but after talking to engineers and to those who oversee the broadcast industry, it looks like it's possible.
Deep in the Sierra foothills, down a long country road, a computer expert's been working on a plan. Just call him "Jake."
"The potential is that you could hijack all radio and TV stations across the country," says Jake.
Jake calls himself a hacker. He has the t-shirt and a year and a half in federal prison to prove it. With the screen name "Secret Squirrel," Jake was convicted of "causing damage to a protected computer" -- hacking into his former employer's system -- but the conviction was reversed on appeal because of insufficient evidence.
His new project would exploit security gaps in the nation's Emergency Alert System or EAS.
"There's no authentication, there's no encryption, there's no passwords, there's nothing that is required to send what would appear to be a valid message," he says.
Jake is taking inspiration from what's become a popular film among activists, "V for Vendetta," in which a rebel takes over a totalitarian government's TV system.
Jake's plan almost sounds too simple. He's written a software program to generate those familiar squawks you hear that activate the Emergency Alert System. He has figured out the authorization codes and radio frequencies from documents published by the government online. All he has to do is drive to a location near an EAS receiver and take out his gear, without being spotted.
"I would then play the tones on my laptop, they get transmitted by the radio, I then play my audio message and then I just pack everything up and walk away," he says.
There's even a YouTube video from the annual hackers' convention, Def Con, that shows step by step how to take over EAS.
Bill Ruck is a former engineer for major Bay Area radio stations. He's now a consultant, helping counties with their emergency communication systems. Ruck says most radio and TV stations across the country are fully automated for at least a portion of the day. EAS messages -- even fake ones -- go straight on the air.
"There's nobody there to say, 'This really looks strange. I'm not going to do it,' because there's nobody there," says Ruck. "So, if you send the right information through the right radio channel, you will take over a radio or TV station."
He says only the top stations in the top markets have someone there 24 hours a day who might catch a phony message.
Jake says he has passed on his plan to the hacker activist group "Anonymous."
Noyes: Are you in contact with Anonymous?
Jake: Yes, on a daily basis.
Noyes: Daily basis?
Noyes: For what?
Jake: Social interaction. I talk to people. It's fun to talk.
Jake says he's not a member and that he hasn't participated in any of the Anonymous operations protesting Scientology, shutting down Visa and MasterCard's websites in support of WikiLeaks, organizing this summer's BART protests in San Francisco, and promoting the Occupy movement.
Jake says Anonymous could send a "War of the Worlds" type message across EAS.
"For example, you send a message saying that there were 20 dirty bombs or something like that that were detonated, and that would cause people to have a great deal of anxiety about things," he says.
"When I think about what the results of that might be, people could really get hurt in that, that could really cause some awful stuff," says San Francisco State Broadcast Professor Marie Drennan.
Drennan has lead a master's class about Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio drama from 1938. The description of an alien invasion caused an uproar across the country.
"You would think it was just kind of the backwoods rural folks who fell for it, but it wasn't, it really wasn't. There were people in apartment buildings in New York City who were running around the halls asking each other what was going on," says Drennan.
Drennan says some modern day hoaxes have failed to get much notice, like the July Fourth hacking of the Fox News Twitter account saying the president had been shot dead, and NBC's Twitter feed hacked days before the 9/11 anniversary saying Ground Zero had once again been attacked.
However, activists were able to cause a stir in the Czech Republic in 2007. They cut into an early morning program that shows panoramic scenes and inserted a nuclear blast.
"I have to admit the idea of taking over the EAS, I love it, I love it, I love it -- but I can see how it could go horrible wrong," says Drennan.
Drennan says Jake and his friends would do better by sending a humorous message that gets their point across. But he says Anonymous has decided not to hijack EAS, at least for now.
"For the core Anonymous people, they generally believe that the media should be kept off-limits, that you shouldn't do things to the media itself," says Jake.
Ruck says Jake has already done us all a favor.
"In some respects, it's very good that he put this information out there because it's going to force everybody from local radio and TV stations, local governments, state governments, all the way up through FEMA and Homeland Security and the FCC to say, 'Gee, maybe we need to take a look at what we're doing and tighten it up,'" says Ruck.
The FCC declined to comment, and late today, FEMA emailed the I-Team a statement saying they take any potential threat seriously, and that "The Emergency Alert System already has adequate safety and security measures in place to ensure that it will only be used by appropriate officials as a way to communicate with the American people in the event of a real emergency."
We've posted the entire FEMA statement along with links on the group Anonymous in a new I-Team blog here.