Failed Poisoning Attempt Shows Vulnerability of Smaller Water Systems to Hackers

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While cybersecurity resources can be scarce at small agencies, there are some basic steps they can take to protect themselves.

A hacker’s attempt earlier this month to poison the drinking water in a small city near Tampa, Florida may have been easily thwarted, but it was still a jolt to cybersecurity experts.

“This was the worst nightmare for a lot of people,” said Meredith Ward, the director for policy and research at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

The incident at the Oldsmar water treatment plant underscores how there are many smaller water utilities with limited funding that need to upgrade software and facilities to better ward off cybersecurity threats. It also serves as a reminder to small utilities that there are relatively basic steps they can take to improve security without spending a lot of money.

Shortfalls with cybersecurity controls in small water systems are more common than uncommon, according to Jennifer Lyn Walker, the cybersecurity risk analyst for the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or WaterISAC, a group that helps water utilities prepare for security threats.

“It’s really more of a rule than the exception,” she said.

Referring to the Florida incident, Walker added, “I hate to say it, but for the security community, it wasn’t a surprise.”

There’s little indication that the Oldsmar intrusion was a sophisticated operation carried out by a stealthy foreign actor. Instead, it seems like a crude effort that almost worked. An employee, after all, stopped the hacker’s attempt to increase the amount of lye in the water, because they saw the intruder moving a mouse cursor across a computer screen.

Authorities are still investigating the breach, but they seem to be focused on the use of TeamViewer, a common software application that allows people to access computer desktops remotely.

Last week, the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other federal agencies highlighted another common security flaw in connection with the attack: outdated software. Microsoft, for example, stopped supporting its Windows 7 platform last year, but many agencies continue to use it. “Continued use of Windows 7 increases the risk of cyber actor exploitation of a computer system,” the federal agencies warned.

Walker, with the WaterISAC, said many water utilities are in a bind when it comes to obsolete software. Often, upgrading operating systems could void warranties or the support contracts utilities have with vendors, she said. “It’s a Catch-22,” Walker added.

But water agencies can take other steps to improve security that don’t involve major upgrades.

Walker explained that those measures could be as simple as improving password protocols and making sure that employees only have access to parts of computer systems that they need for their jobs. Those steps not only make it harder for outsiders to get into systems, but can also limit the damage intruders can do if they manage to gain access.

One of the most important things local governments and water utilities can do, Walker added, is what’s known as an asset inventory, where they make sure they are aware of all the components of the systems they operate. In Oldsmar, for example, the water utility had not been using TeamViewer for at least six months and they didn’t even know it was installed.

An asset inventory can help managers know what’s on computer systems, what's in use, or what needs to be removed or disabled. Walker said it’s up to general managers, city managers and mayors to take a lead role in ensuring that safeguards like asset inventories are in place.

In the backdrop of the Oldsmar incident is a 2018 federal law that sets requirements for water utilities to evaluate their risks and develop response plans.

Under the America’s Water Infrastructure Act, water utilities serving more than 3,300 people have to show the Environmental Protection Agency that they have developed risk and resilience assessments, along with emergency response plans. While the deadline for larger agencies has already passed, smaller utilities must complete that process by the end of the year.

State governments have also taken an increased interest in local government cybersecurity in recent years, said Ward, with NASCIO. A 2020 NASCIO survey of state chief information security officers found that only 40% of respondents were at least “somewhat confident” that localities and other smaller government entities were adequately protected from cyberattacks.

The vulnerabilities of local governments really hit home in 2019, when there were at least 113 ransomware attacks on state and local agencies. The sudden shift of government agencies to online work because of the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how important robust security is for state and local governments, too, Ward noted.

“Our border lines are getting more blurred,” she said. “This isn’t a matter of the state wanting to come in and take over a local government. They don’t have the time or resources to do that. It’s a matter of [realizing] we’re really no longer these separate silos.”

Ward also said that the Florida incident drove home the point that cybersecurity is not an abstract concept, and that hacking incidents can threaten critical government functions, like delivering safe drinking water or providing electricity. “It’s becoming better understood that there’s a cybersecurity component to so many of the things that run our daily lives,” she said.

Daniel C. Vock is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., who covers public policy.

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