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Tuesday, 09 February 2021 12:17

Attacker changes chemical strength in Florida water treatment plant Featured

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Attacker changes chemical strength in Florida water treatment plant Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

A malicious attacker was able to gain access to the water treatment plant in Oldsmar, a city in Pinellas County, Florida, and increased the concentration of sodium hydroxide to what the county sheriff Bob Gualtieri described as a "dangerous level".

He told the media on Monday US time that an incident occurred on 5 February; an operator noticed at about 8am that day that there was an intruder in the computer system he was monitoring, the website WTSP reported.

Gualtieri said he, along with his deputies, the FBI and the US Secret Service were investigating whether the attacker was from within the US or from another country.

The sheriff said the operator did not react to the first incident because remote access by supervisors is common. But when it occurred a second time, he took note.

Gualtieri said on the second occasion, the attacker was in the system for about five minutes and changed the sodium hydroxide concentration from 100 parts per million to 11,100ppm.

“This is obviously a significant and potentially dangerous increase. Sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, is the main ingredient in liquid drain cleaners," the sheriff said.

The operator reversed the changes immediately, and Gualtieri claimed the public had never been in danger.

City manager Al Braithwaite said remote access had been disabled while the site was secured to ensure that such a breach could not recur.

Contacted for comment, Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker with the agency's now-disbanded elite Tailored Access Operations Unit, told iTWire: "This event should serve as a wake-up call to organisations to inventory and secure their remote access software.

"It is important to search for unauthorised installations of remote access software. Because TeamViewer offers a free licence mode for non-commercial use and does not require installation, it is easily deployed without the help of IT."

He added in a tweet: "If I were a TeamViewer executive, I'm not sure if I'd be happy for free publicity or mad because it's bad publicity.

"But I tell you what would send me through the roof: learning that we got all this publicity because the victim didn't properly license my remote access software.

"I'm not saying I know that's the case, but I damn sure wouldn't bet against it.

"Actually, I'm calling it now: the compromised TeamViewer instance isn't properly licensed. In my experience, that's like a 90%+ probability."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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