The FBI, along with Florida Law Enforcement and the Secret Service has begun the manhunt for a hacker who unsuccessfully tried to hack into the Tampa-area City’s water system.
According to the official report, the hacker allegedly tried to add caustic chemicals at the treatment plant remotely.
The plan would have been successful if a plant operator had not stopped the hacker’s attempt, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
The FBI said the hackers used desktop sharing software to observe external cyber actors and corrupt insiders victimize their targets in different organizations.
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, briefed the press about the hacking incident on Tuesday. She admitted that the Biden administration has placed priority on cybersecurity, and the Secret Service is now involved in the hunt for the perpetrators.
She added that the entire Biden administration is focused on improving cybersecurity, which has become very relevant during the past several years.
Florida senator Marco Rubio has also asked the FBI to take the hacking incident as a case of national security since the incident, if successful, would have affected compromised the entire water system.
The hacking attempt began with a moving cursor seen moving across a computer screen at the Oldsmar water treatment plant. The hacker took control of the operator’s machine remotely and increased the level of hydroxide in the city’s drinking water by a factor of 100. When the caustic substance spiked to dangerous levels, the hacker quickly left the system.
Shortly after, the plant operator saw the excess levels and immediately reset the parameters to normal levels before it becomes a threat to the water supply.
Although sodium hydroxide (also known as lye) is used to reduce water’s acidity levels, an excess amount can also be dangerous to health.
The hacking incident is another reminder of the dangers of making systems more computerized and accessible online. Critical infrastructures, when compromised, can lead to damaging effects. It can go as far as causing physical deaths.
Authorities are investigating the incident, but they currently do not have any suspects. Also, it’s not clear whether the hacker or hackers was (were) foreign or domestic.
Oldsmar is 12 miles away from the Raymond James Stadium, the host of this year’s Super Bowl. The hacking attempt took place days before the Super Bowl. The city gets has a separate water system from other nearby communities and draws its water from wells.
The Oldsmar officials have stated that the hacking incident was discovered and stopped on time before it could be risky or dangerous for residents. Along with the investigation, the officials said necessary steps have been taken to make sure the incident doesn’t happen again.
Gualtieri was asked whether the hacking incident can be termed an attempted terrorist attack. He replied by saying “It is what it is,” adding that someone wants “to take control of the system and change the water chemistry to unsafe levels.”
The officials reported that the threat actors had access to the water system more than once on Friday. They took control of the system with the same administrator’s rights as a specialist or a supervisor. Gualtieri said the supervisors sometimes use remote access to monitor the system of add updates, so it wasn’t immediately noticed.
The first infiltration by the hacker was on a lighter level and didn’t cause any concerns. But the hacker later returned with a dangerous mission, which alerted the operator. Gualtieri said the operator raised the alarm and called law enforcement after resetting the system to normal levels.
The sheriff concluded that the hacking incident was an attempt by someone to harm others. He said users are not affected because the water system has a sensor that is designed to raise alarm whenever the pH levels go beyond the normal level. Apart from that, the water distribution is not immediate, as it would have taken more than a day for the water to reach any user.
Gualtieri also added that if the culprit is identified, they will likely face charges of state felony, or even a federal charge depending on more details about the incident.