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US says national water supply ‘absolutely’ vulnerable to hackers

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A ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline in May 2021 quickly caused fuel shortages and disruption at filling stations./AFP
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Jan 28, 2022 - 07:24 AM

WASHINGTON — Cyber defenses for US drinking water supplies are “absolutely inadequate” and vulnerable to large-scale disruption by hackers, a senior official said Thursday.

“There’s inadequate resilience to even a criminal sector,” the official said. “The threshold of resilience is not what it needs to be.”

President Joe Biden has attempted to address infrastructure cybersecurity but is limited by the fact that the vast majority of services are provided by private, not government, companies.

The scale of the challenge became clear in May last year when a ransomware attack temporarily crippled the Colonial Pipeline, a major oil pipeline network.

A similar attack was carried out on JBS, one of the world’s biggest meat-processing companies.

US officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, unrolled a plan to get water companies to work with the government in a concerted effort to shore up security gaps.

The government is asking companies to share information of attacks and to cooperate in hardening defenses.

“The bottom line is that really after decades of us kicking the can down the road… the administration really takes steps to reverse this trend,” one official said.

However, the program, similar to initiatives already in place for the electric and natural gas sectors, is voluntary.

There’s also a hurdle in the sheer number of different water providers — about 150,000 systems serving 300 million Americans, the official said.

These systems are increasingly automated, with computers managing treatment, storage and distribution.

“These processes — I want to underscore this point — could all be vulnerable to cyberattacks, which could disable or manipulate monitoring control systems,” the official said.

“We’re particularly concerned that a cyberattack could be carried out, for example, to manipulate treatment processes to produce unsafe water. Also to damage water infrastructure or even to stop the flow of water,” the official said.

Under the government’s action plan, the White House said it will “assist owners and operators with deploying technology that will monitor their systems and provide near real-time situational awareness and warnings.”

“The plan will also allow for rapidly sharing relevant cybersecurity information… which will improve the sector’s ability to detect malicious activity.”

The “collaborative” plan will “surge” in the next 100 days, the White House added.

It noted, however, the government’s “limited authorities to set cybersecurity baselines for critical infrastructure.”

“Managing this risk requires partnership with the private sector and municipal owners and operators of that infrastructure,” the White House said.

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