Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
A recent hacking scare at an Illinois water district should have cities taking notice
It's still not clear whether infrastructure hackers were behind the recent failure of a water pump near Springfield, Illinois. A pump in the Curran-Gardner Townships Public Water District stopped working after what initially appeared to have been an attack on the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System computers that monitor and control the city’s infrastructure. On November 8, after the systems had seemingly been turned off and on repeatedly, the water pump failed, according to a leaked report, “Public Water District Cyber Intrusion,” compiled by the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center.
The Threat Level blog over at Wired ran a provocative rundown of that initial report, which suggests that hackers with Russian-based IP addresses finagled their way into the water district’s system, also potentially accessing other user information.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, however, are disputing those claims. The Illinois report was based on unconfirmed and raw data, federal officials argued in a statement released last week:
There is no evidence to support claims made in the initial Fusion Center report — which was based on raw, unconfirmed data and subsequently leaked to the media — that any credentials were stolen, or that the vendor was involved in any malicious activity that led to a pump failure at the water plant. In addition, DHS and FBI have concluded that there was no malicious traffic from Russia or any foreign entities, as previously reported.
Whatever the reality in this case, the mere idea of a water system like this being hacked raises serious concerns for cities and infrastructure managers. More and more utilities are relying on Internet-connected computer monitoring systems to control their infrastructure, which is bringing efficiency and precision to systems like electricity distribution and flood control. These computerized systems can help cities and utilities better serve customers and save money, but they're also vulnerable. Preventing determined hackers from gaining access to public utility systems may never be completely possible, but making it a lot more difficult, being vigilant and watching out for attacks is. Shoring up security protocols, reacting quickly to attacks and stopping damage when things get hacked can be expected to become increasingly crucial.