A hacker briefly broke into a Florida city’s water system and attempted to increase the amount of lye, a potentially dangerous chemical, in the water supply by 11,000%, local law enforcement said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said an unknown hacker broke into the computer system for a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida, on Friday, which serves about 15,000 people near Tampa.
A worker at the plant initially noticed someone remotely accessing a computer terminal around 8 a.m. but didn’t raise alarms as the plant’s systems have software that allows some employees to access the computers remotely to troubleshoot issues. About 1:30 p.m., however, the worker again saw someone access the computer terminal for about five minutes, opening various windows on the screen before the amount of sodium hydroxide, or lye, was altered from about 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million.
Sodium hydroxide, which is also used in liquid drain cleaner, is typically used in small amounts to control acidity and remove some heavy metals from drinking water. At higher levels, it can be dangerous if ingested.
“I’m not a chemist,” Gualtieri said at a news conference. “But I can tell you what I do know is … if you put that amount of that substance into the drinking water, it’s not a good thing.”
The worker immediately reduced the level of the chemical back to normal after the hacker left the system and informed his superiors, who contacted law enforcement.
Gualtieri described the event as an “awful intrusion” but said the treatment facility had redundancies in place and that the “public was never in danger.”
“This is obviously a significant and potentially dangerous increase,” Gualtieri said. “At no time was there a significant adverse effect… and even if the plant operator had not quickly reversed [the change], it would have taken about 24 to 36 hours for that water to hit the system.”
Experts have been warning for years that America’s water supply — a disjointed network of thousands of systems — could be vulnerable to cyberattacks. Last year, Israel blamed Iran for attacks on two rural water treatment facilities that were unsuccessful.
The FBI and Secret Service have been called in to assist in an investigation into the Florida hack. Gualtieri said officials did not yet know where the hack originated or if it could have come from overseas.
“Did this come from down the street or outside the country?” he later added to Wired. “No idea.”
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