Your City’s Water Supply Could Be Targeted by Hackers

The following is an excerpt taken from the Wall Street Journal by Dave Weinstein on Feb 26, 2021.

“I first saw the inside of a water-treatment plant in 2015. I was conducting a site visit at a municipal facility in New Jersey, where I was the state’s director of cybersecurity. It wasn’t an inspection; the plant manager had asked me to visit.

Analog machinery had given way to digital systems, and critical water-treatment processes were now automated. The plant required little human intervention in day-to-day operations. Thanks to remote-access technologies, more maintenance and monitoring activities were being performed off-site by a third party.

All of this was great for efficiently, especially for the resource-limited operation, but what about the risk? Optimizing for cost and speed meant connecting more digital and networked technologies to the plant floor. Security was no longer simply a matter of gates, guards, and guns. It had become a matter of bits and bytes.

In early February, someone tried to poison the water supply in the Gulf Coast city of Oldsmar, Fla. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff, a hacker gained remote access to Oldsmar’s water-treatment-plant network and briefly increased the amount of sodium hydroxide in the water by 100 times – enough to cause death or serious injury to anyone who drank or touched it. Thankfully a technician noticed the anomaly and booted the hacker off the network before any damage was done.  

What happened in Oldsmar fell just short of the nightmare scenario. The average person is unaware how dependent the country’s critical infrastructure has become on digital technology. At power plants, waterworks and all manner of public utilities, special-purpose computers known as human-machine interfaces connect to ruggedized-process controllers that regulate actuators to spin turbines, rotate robotic arms, or, in this case, open valves to release sodium hydroxide.

Oldsmar wasn’t the first cyberattack against water infrastructure. In April 2020 Israel’s National Cyber Directorate urged all water-treatment companies to change their passwords on critical systems. In 2016, according to a report by Verizon’s security unit, hackers with ties to Syria gained access to a water utility in an unknown country and managed to ‘handicap water treatment and production capabilities.’

Redundant controls and a bit of good luck shouldn’t diminish the severity of this cyber threat to public health. The plant operator was tipped off by a mouse arrow moving across a screen and making changes to critical water-treatment processes. But what if the operator didn’t have the benefit of a visual aide to observe the hacker in real-time? What if the human-machine interface was manipulated by malware to report ‘all clear’ as the hackers increased concentration of sodium hydroxide to lethal levels? Would the breach have been detected before someone drank or bathed with the corrosive adulterated water?

The answer and the problem are inextricably linked. Detecting toxic water en route to consumers requires sensors in the distribution network. Those sensors must be connected so they can communicate and transmit data for either humans or machines to take preventative actions. Anything that is connected can be manipulated. Should we rip the sensors out lest they be hacked? Of course not. Instead, we must reduce vulnerability by extending security to all parts of the network, even those that seem beyond the reach of malicious actors.

‘I just don’t trust those computers,’ the New Jersey plant manager told me in 2015. We should all be untrusting when it comes to technology, but not at the expense of its embrace. The zero-trust mindset made all the difference for the city of Oldsmar.”

To read more, check out the original opinion article from the Wall Street Journal. To protect yourself and your family from chemical-laden water, contact the water purification experts at Reynolds today.

Reynolds Water Conditioning was established in 1931 and is Michigan’s oldest water conditioning treatment company. Still owned and operated by the Reynolds family, we take pride in providing the highest quality products at a cost-effective price. If your tap water lacks the quality you deserve, contact us today at or call 800-572-9575.

Written by the digital marketing staff at Creative Programs & Systems:

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