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It’s in the Water-Poor Security has Real Life Consequences

Richard Fall
February 16, 2021

As IT professionals, we are all painfully aware of the need for high-quality security in the systems we work with and deliver.

We know that if a system containing sensitive user information, such as bank account numbers, is not properly protected we risk exposure of that data to hackers and the resultant financial losses.

Encryption of data in flight and at rest; database input sanitizing; array bounds checking; firewalls; intrusion detection systems. All these, and more, are familiar security standards that we daily apply to the systems we design, implement, and deploy. eCommerce websites; B2B communications networks; public service APIs. These are the systems to which we apply these best practices.

If we do not take due care, we risk the public’s confidence in the banking system, the services sector, and even the Internet itself.

Even the widespread issues that could result from breaches of these systems pales in comparison, I believe, to systems that are more pervasive and more directly impactful of our everyday lives.

Much of our modern world is dependent on the workings of its vast infrastructure. Roadways, power plants, airports, shipping ports–all of these are fundamental to our existence. Infrastructure security is such an important issue that the United States government has a agency dedicated to this issue: the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency–CISC.

Here in the US we just had a reminder of how important this topic is.

Just yesterday there was an intrusion into a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida in which the attacker attempted to raise the amount of sodium hydroxide by a factor 0f 100, raising it from pipe-protecting levels to an amount that is potentially harmful to humans.

The good news is that the change was noticed by an attentive administrator, who then reserved the change before it could take effect. The system in question has been taken offline until the intrusion is investigated and proper steps taken.

It’s unclear at this point whether the attacker was a bored teenager or a nation-state, or something in-between, but the effect would have been the same: danger to 15,000 people and a resulting lack of trust in the water delivery system.

As of the writing of this blog post there is little detail about how the hack was accomplished, though it appears that the hacker gained the use of credentials permitting remote access to the water treatment management system. From there, it was only a matter of the hacker poking around to find something of interest to “adjust”.

The Florida Governor has called this incident a “national security threat”, and in this case I don’t believe he is indulging in hyperbole.

CISC considers the US water supply one of the most critical infrastructure elements, and devotes an entire team of specialists to this topic.

Safe drinking water is a prerequisite for protecting public health and all human activity. Properly treated wastewater is vital for preventing disease and protecting the environment. Thus, ensuring the supply of drinking water and wastewater treatment and service is essential to modern life and the Nation’s economy.

CISC website

What should we take as a lesson from this?

I believe this incident is a cogent example of how brittle our national infrastructure is to bad actors. Further, I believe that this incident makes abundantly clear that we need a renewed focus on updating, securing, and minimizing the attack surface of existing infrastructure control systems.

As IT professionals it is our responsibility to lend our expertise and unique viewpoint to inform our leaders in government and industry of the issues, their importance, and their potential solutions. To do so actively, and to do so regularly.

Computing professionals’ actions change the world. To act responsibly, they should reflect upon the wider impacts of their work, consistently supporting the public good.

ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, preamble

About the author

National Solutions Architect | United States
Richard has been a practice lead in the Digital Transformations (formerly Mobility) practice at Sogeti for 2-1/2 years, originally in the Des Moines office and now in the Minneapolis office. In that role, he has lead major architecting efforts at a number of Sogeti clients.


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