Tag: Water infrastructure

Your Water, or Your Life


Matthew Holt, publisher of The Health Care Blog, thinks I worry too much about too many things. He’s probably right. But here’s one worry I’d be remiss in not alerting people to: your water supply is not as safe – not nearly as safe – as you probably assume it is.

I’m not talking about the danger of lead pipes. I’m not even talking about the danger of microplastics in your water. I’ve warned about both of those before (and I’m still worried about them). No, I’m worried we’re not taking the danger of cyberattacks against our water systems seriously enough.

A week ago the EPA issued an enforcement alert about cybersecurity vulnerabilities and threats to community drinking water systems. This was a day after EPA head Michael Regan and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sent a letter to all U.S. governors warning them of “disabling cyberattacks” on water and wastewater systems and urging them to cooperate in safeguarding those infrastructures.

“Drinking water and wastewater systems are an attractive target for cyberattacks because they are a lifeline critical infrastructure sector but often lack the resources and technical capacity to adopt rigorous cybersecurity practices,” the letter warned. It specifically cited known state-sponsored attacks from Iran and China.

The enforcement alert elaborated:

Cyberattacks against CWSs are increasing in frequency and severity across the country. Based on actual incidents we know that a cyberattack on a vulnerable water system may allow an adversary to manipulate operational technology, which could cause significant adverse consequences for both the utility and drinking water consumers. Possible impacts include disrupting the treatment, distribution, and storage of water for the community, damaging pumps and valves, and altering the levels of chemicals to hazardous amounts.

Next Gov/FCW paints a grim picture of how vulnerable our water systems are:

Multiple nation-state adversaries have been able to breach water infrastructure around the country. China has been deploying its extensive and pervasive Volt Typhoon hacking collective, burrowing into vast critical infrastructure segments and positioning along compromised internet routing equipment to stage further attacks, national security officials have previously said.

In November, IRGC-backed cyber operatives broke into industrial water treatment controls and targeted programmable logic controllers made by Israeli firm Unitronics. Most recently, Russia-linked hackers were confirmed to have breached a slew of rural U.S. water systems, at times posing physical safety threats.

We shouldn’t be surprised by these attacks. We’ve come to learn that China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have highly sophisticated cyber teams, but, when it comes to water systems, it turns out the attacks don’t have to be all that sophisticated. The EPA noted that over 70% of water systems it inspected did not fully comply with security standards, including such basic protections such as not allowing default passwords.

NextGov/FCW pointed out that last October the EPA was forced to rescind requirements that water agencies at least evaluate their cyber defenses, due to legal challenges from several (red) states and the American Water Works Association. Take that in. I’ll bet China, Iran, and others are evaluating them.

“In an ideal world … we would like everybody to have a baseline level of cybersecurity and be able to confirm that they have that,” Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, told AP. “But that’s a long ways away.”

Tom Kellermann, SVP of Cyber Strategy at Contrast Security told Security Magazine: “The safety of the U.S. water supply is in jeopardy. Rogue nation states are frequently targetingthese critical infrastructures, and soon we will experience a life-threatening event.” That doesn’t sound like a long ways away.

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