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Don’t Drink the Water

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COMMENT: With the explic­it threat of domes­tic fas­cist (yes, not “right wing”) ter­ror­ism loom­ing large in the wake of the Capi­tol Riot and the 2nd Trump impeach­ment pro­ceed­ings, a hack­ing attempt at poi­son­ing the water sup­ply of a town very near Tam­pa in the run-up to the Super Bowl war­rants scruti­ny.

Key Points of Analy­sis and Dis­cus­sion:

  • ” . . . . Some­one had tak­en remote con­trol of a plant operator’s machine – and in just a few min­utes, they increased the lev­el of sodi­um hydrox­ide in the city’s drink­ing water by a fac­tor of 100. After spik­ing the caus­tic sub­stance to unsafe lev­els, the hack­er imme­di­ate­ly left the sys­tem. . . .”
  • ” . . . . ‘The hack­er changed the sodi­um hydrox­ide from about 100 parts per mil­lion to 11,100 parts per mil­lion,’ [Pinel­las Coun­ty Sher­iff Bob] Gualtieri said on Mon­day, dur­ing a brief­ing about the attack. . . .”
  • ” . . . . At one point in the brief­ing, Gualtieri was asked if he would call the inci­dent an attempt­ed bioter­ror­ism attack. “‘It is what it is,’ he replied. ‘Some­one hacked into the sys­tem, not just once but twice,’ to take con­trol of the sys­tem and change the water chem­istry to unsafe lev­els. . . .”
  • ” . . . . Olds­mar is a small city north­west of Tam­pa, rough­ly 12 miles away from Ray­mond James Sta­di­um, which host­ed the Super Bowl two days after the hack­ing attack. . . .The intrud­er broke into the sys­tem at least twice on Fri­day, tak­ing con­trol of a plant operator’s com­put­er through the same meth­ods a super­vi­sor or spe­cial­ist might use. . . .”

“FBI Called In After Hack­er Tries To Poi­son Tam­pa-Area City’s Water With Lye” by Bill Chap­pell; Nation­al Pub­lic Radio; 02/09/2021

It start­ed with a cur­sor mov­ing on its own, slid­ing across a com­put­er screen at the water treat­ment plant in Olds­mar, Fla. Some­one had tak­en remote con­trol of a plant operator’s machine – and in just a few min­utes, they increased the lev­el of sodi­um hydrox­ide in the city’s drink­ing water by a fac­tor of 100. After spik­ing the caus­tic sub­stance to unsafe lev­els, the hack­er imme­di­ate­ly left the sys­tem.

The plant oper­a­tor quick­ly reset the sodi­um hydrox­ide lev­el back to nor­mal para­me­ters before the rogue action posed a threat to the water sup­ply, offi­cials say. But the inci­dent, which took place Fri­day, is now being inves­ti­gat­ed by local author­i­ties as well as the FBI and Secret Ser­vice, accord­ing to Pinel­las Coun­ty Sher­iff Bob Gualtieri.

“The hack­er changed the sodi­um hydrox­ide from about 100 parts per mil­lion to 11,100 parts per mil­lion,” Gualtieri said on Mon­day, dur­ing a brief­ing about the attack. “This is obvi­ous­ly a sig­nif­i­cant and poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous increase. Sodi­um hydrox­ide, also known as lye, is the main ingre­di­ent in liq­uid drain clean­ers. It’s also used to con­trol water acid­i­ty and remove met­als from drink­ing water.”

At one point in the brief­ing, Gualtieri was asked if he would call the inci­dent an attempt­ed bioter­ror­ism attack.

“It is what it is,” he replied. “Some­one hacked into the sys­tem, not just once but twice,” to take con­trol of the sys­tem and change the water chem­istry to unsafe lev­els.

If the per­son who con­duct­ed the hack is iden­ti­fied, Gualtieri said, they would like­ly face state felony charges, with the poten­tial for fed­er­al charges depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, such as the place where the hack orig­i­nat­ed.

Olds­mar is a small city north­west of Tam­pa, rough­ly 12 miles away from Ray­mond James Sta­di­um, which host­ed the Super Bowl two days after the hack­ing attack. Olds­mar draws its water from wells; its sys­tem is sep­a­rate from oth­er near­by com­mu­ni­ties, the offi­cials said.

The intrud­er broke into the sys­tem at least twice on Fri­day, tak­ing con­trol of a plant operator’s com­put­er through the same meth­ods a super­vi­sor or spe­cial­ist might use. The hack didn’t ini­tial­ly set off red flags, because remote access is some­times used to mon­i­tor the sys­tem or trou­ble-shoot prob­lems, Gualtieri said.

The first intru­sion was fleet­ing and didn’t cause con­cern. But hours lat­er, the hack­er returned. And as the oper­a­tor looked on, the sodi­um hydrox­ide set­tings were moved to dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry. After reset­ting the sys­tem to nor­mal lev­els, the oper­a­tor raised the alarm. The sher­iff was called; soon, fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tors were also involved.

“Obvi­ous­ly, these inves­ti­ga­tions are very com­pli­cat­ed right now,” Gualtieri said. “We do not have a sus­pect iden­ti­fied, but we do have leads that we’re fol­low­ing. We don’t know right now whether the breach orig­i­nat­ed from with­in the Unit­ed States or out­side the coun­try.”

The FBI’s field office in Tam­pa con­firms that its agents are work­ing with the city and the sheriff’s office to find the per­son respon­si­ble.

The hack was clear­ly the act of some­one try­ing to harm oth­ers, the sher­iff said. But he and offi­cials in Olds­mar also stressed that while the hack was a seri­ous intru­sion, pub­lic health was nev­er at risk. In addi­tion to the plant operator’s vig­i­lance, they said, the water sys­tem has sen­sors that would have raised the alarm if pH lev­els sud­den­ly sky­rock­et­ed. And it would have tak­en more than a day for the water to reach any cus­tomers, they added.

“We have pH alarms through­out the sys­tem,” City Man­ag­er Al Braith­waite said. “So obvi­ous­ly if you change the alka­lin­i­ty lev­el, the pH changes. That would have been an alarm through­out the entire sys­tem. So, even if we hadn’t noticed it right away, it would have alarmed to all our peo­ple to notice it quick­ly.”

The remote-access pro­gram that allowed the change to be made is now dis­abled, Braith­waite said, and the city is mak­ing fur­ther upgrades to its sys­tems. And he said the attack on Oldsmar’s infra­struc­ture didn’t come as a com­plete sur­prise. “We talk about it, we think about it, we study it,” he said. . . .

 

 

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