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Hackers have a new target: water utilities

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

We’re all familiar with the concept of hackers breaking into computers, but now there’s a growing threat of hackers breaking into our water systems. It’s a scary problem that could be scarier for rural areas with smaller water utility companies.

“Some larger utilities are well-positioned to thwart an attack by hackers backed by a foreign government,” reported Blake Sobczak for E&E News recently. “…Many tiny water utilities simply don’t have the bandwidth to square off against hacking teams that may be back by foreign militaries.”

There are already examples around the country of hackers getting into local water utilities’ computers. Ransomware — which basically steals all the files on a computer and only allows their return if money is paid — made it onto computers in the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District in Colorado in February. A dam in New York was attacked by a “suspected Iranian hacker” in 2013 and another water company was targeted by hackers in 2016, Sobczak reported.

If hackers get into a water utility’s computers, they could steal customers’ information, demand the utility pay them money to restore service, or even mess with computer-controlled treatment systems.

Here in central Kentucky, there are numerous small and mid-sized water utilities that operate on tight budgets and are under constant pressure from regulators to improve and upgrade equipment to provide better water quality. These relatively tiny operations all but unprotected from this new threat, and if they were to be hit, thousands of people could be affected.

There is a new law passed by Congress that could help this situation. The America’s Water Infrastructure Act, passed in October, requires water systems serving more than 3,300 people to “conduct and report on a comprehensive water system risk and resilience assessment,” according to The National Law Review. “They must also develop an emergency response plan that addresses both physical and cybersecurity threats. The (act) also creates a grant program that will assist community water systems with improving their operational resilience.”

When hackers mess with our computers, they can do real damage and create a mess. But hacking a water system takes things to different level. Water is essential to life. Our water system leaders need to be aware of the threat and take the necessary steps to make sure this vital resource is protected.