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Hacker Changed Chemical Level In Florida City’s Water System

Public wasn’t in danger, Pinellas County sheriff says; investigation has been launched. Hacker Changed Chemical Level In Florida City’s Water System

A water-treatment plant in Oldsmar, Fla., was hacked, and the intruder briefly increased the amount of lye used to treat water to a dangerous level, authorities said Monday.

A plant operator noticed the alteration Friday and immediately reversed it, avoiding adverse effects on the city’s water supply. But the breach highlights the exposure of utilities to cyberattacks.

“Water systems, like other public utility systems, are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and can be vulnerable targets when someone desires to adversely affect public safety,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri at a news conference Monday about the incident.

The hacking began on Friday morning at the plant in Oldsmar, a city of about 15,000 people in the Tampa Bay area, Sheriff Gualtieri said. Around 8 a.m., a plant operator noticed that someone remotely accessed a computer system he was monitoring that controls chemicals used to treat water as well as other functions. The computer system has a software program that allows authorized users to access it remotely.

The intruder got into the utility’s industrial control-system through TeamViewer, a tool that allows engineers to monitor and repair computers and network machines, Sheriff Gualtieri said in an interview. Though the utility had switched to a different tool six months ago, he said, the TeamViewer program remained in place but unused, providing the door through which the intruder entered and gained full access to the system.

The intrusion was brief, and the operator didn’t think much of it because his supervisor and others remotely access his computer screen to monitor the system, Sheriff Gualtieri said at the news conference. Then at around 1:30 p.m. Friday, someone again entered the system remotely. A plant operator observed the intruder opening various software functions that control the water being treated in the system, the sheriff said.

One of them regulates the level of sodium hydroxide, or lye—a main ingredient of drain cleaners that also is used to control water acidity and remove metals from drinking water, Sheriff Gualtieri said. The hacker increased the amount of lye from about 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million, he said.

“This is obviously a significant and potentially dangerous increase,” Sheriff Gualtieri said.

Even if the employee hadn’t caught the intrusion, other checks in place would have alerted operators of problems ahead of water being released to residents. So the public was never in danger, the sheriff said.

The sheriff’s office launched a criminal investigation, and a digital forensics unit is trying to find out how the breach occurred and who is responsible, Sheriff Gualtieri said. It is unclear whether the intrusion originated in the U.S. or outside the country, or why the Oldsmar plant was targeted, he said. No suspect has been identified.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Secret Service also are investigating, Sheriff Gualtieri said. A U.S. official familiar with the matter said it was too soon to say whether the apparent hack was the work of a criminal actor or tied to a foreign nation-state.

Since last year, there has been “an increase in cyber incidents perpetrated by low sophisticated actors seeking to access and learn about remotely accessible industrial systems,” said Daniel Kapellmann Zafra, manager of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence.

“None of these cases has resulted in damage to people or infrastructure.” He added that the incident “highlights the need to strengthen the cybersecurity capabilities across the water and wastewater industry similarly to other critical infrastructure sectors.”

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