Water and Wastewater Cybersecurity Concerns

Published 8 April 2024

Water is often taken for granted. But, what happens when the systems that provide this essential resource are under cyber attack? 

The reality is that our water supply systems are becoming prime targets for hackers and cybercriminals. The US government has stepped up, releasing new guidelines to help keep our water safe in the face of escalating cyberattacks that pose severe risks to public health and safety. 

To learn more about these guidelines, join our upcoming webinar: Cybersecurity Guidance for Water and Wastewater Utilities.

Unseen, Not Unfelt: The Cyber Threat to Water Utilities 

In November last year, a cyber intrusion at a Pennsylvania water authority, attributed to Iranian hackers, targeted a crucial piece of operational technology. This breach was severe enough to force the city to cease water pumping to two towns for a prolonged duration. A similar cyberattack struck a Parisian wastewater agency responsible for supplying water to over nine million individuals. 

Since 2019, there have been at least eight cyberattacks made public, all aimed at disrupting water treatment processes or contaminating the water supply. These attacks are not just disastrous in their immediate effects; they exploit the interconnected technologies essential to water and wastewater (WWS) management. As these systems become more technologically advanced, they also grow more vulnerable to threats. Cyberattacks, including ransomware and unauthorized access, threaten to interrupt water treatment and distribution, pose risks to public health, and disrupt essential services.  

The repercussions of such breaches extend beyond cyberspace, risking cascading impacts across multiple sectors and highlighting an urgent need for reinforced cybersecurity measures in our critical infrastructure. 

How to Protect WWS From Cyber Attacks 

In light of the cyber threats targeting WWS, it is imperative for organizations within this sector to adopt a comprehensive and dynamic approach to cybersecurity. Initiating this process requires conducting detailed risk assessments and establishing management practices aimed at identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities across both cyber and physical infrastructures. 

Critical to this effort is the meticulous evaluation of Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) systems, necessitating the adoption of a cybersecurity framework specifically designed to meet the water utility sector's unique challenges. The investment in advanced cybersecurity technologies such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and encryption adds a crucial layer of defense. Similarly vital is crafting a detailed business continuity plan aimed at ensuring the ongoing provision or swift restoration of water services in the event of a cyberattack, underscoring the importance of having backup systems and manual controls in place. 

At its core, safeguarding against cyber threats requires organizations to commit continuously to enhancing their cybersecurity posture. As the nature of cyber threats evolve, the strategies that are employed to protect the critical infrastructure that is fundamental to public health and safety must evolve as well. This ongoing commitment encompasses not only the sustained investment in cybersecurity infrastructure but also the implementation of training and awareness programs to empower employees to serve as the primary line of defense against cyber threats. 

Preparation is Key 

Preparation is the bedrock of a comprehensive cybersecurity approach, particularly for vital sectors such as water utilities. In a cybersecurity landscape that never remains static, it’s insufficient for organizations to rely on static incident response plans. The methodology and approach to preparation should be a holistic, six-phase process: 

  1. Understand: Organizations must first gain a deep understanding of their unique cyber environment, including the specific threats and potential attack vectors that could impact their operations. 

  1. Assess: Regular and thorough risk assessments are crucial to identify vulnerabilities and assess the potential impact of cyber threats. This step lays the groundwork for informed decision-making around cybersecurity measures. 

  1. Design: With a clear understanding of the risks, organizations can design a tailored incident response strategy that aligns with their operational needs and security objectives. This strategy should encompass technological, procedural, and human elements. 

  1. Implement: The deployment of the cybersecurity plan involves not only setting up the necessary tools and technologies but also ensuring that all personnel are trained and ready to respond to incidents. 

  1. Manage: Effective cyber defense is an ongoing process. Organizations must continuously manage and monitor their cybersecurity posture, ensuring that they can swiftly respond to threats as they arise. 

  1. Optimize: Post-incident reviews are invaluable for refining and optimizing the cybersecurity plan. Lessons learned should be systematically integrated back into the strategy, ensuring that security measures evolve in tandem with the threat landscape. 

By embedding these steps into their operational culture, water utilities can ensure that their cybersecurity protocols are not just theoretical constructs but dynamic, living systems that provide practical defense. Through regular drills, continuous learning, and an ingrained culture of security awareness, utilities can build a resilient infrastructure that is prepared to face the cyber challenges of today and tomorrow. 

The Path Forward: A Unified Cybersecurity Front 

To secure our nation's water systems against cyber threats, it is imperative that we adopt a unified front. In the face of escalating cyber threats to our water infrastructure, a strategic and unified response is essential. 

Water utilities must prioritize cybersecurity, starting with comprehensive risk assessments to pinpoint vulnerabilities. This critical analysis must inform a robust action plan, focused on mitigating risks through updated defenses and staff training. Equally important is the creation of a System Security Plan, outlining the management of security measures and ensuring preparedness for potential incidents. 

As a national security imperative, the water sector must embed a culture of cyber resilience, with regular assessments, response drills, and an understanding that cybersecurity is an ongoing, collective endeavor. By embracing this proactive approach and adhering to government-issued guidelines, we can shield our water systems from harm and safeguard this vital resource for our communities.