The volatile geopolitical climate has raised questions about vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure around the world in recent years.

Recent events show that bad actors are becoming even more brash in their tactics. Drinking water and wastewater systems are particularly attractive targets to attackers because they are essential to the population and typically under-secured. 

This month, the White House sent a letter to all 50 US governors alerting them to specific threats from two nation-state-affiliated bad actors. The White House noted that the Iranian Government Revolutionary Guard Crops (IRGC) and a state-sponsored hacking group, Volt Typhoon, associated with the People’s Republic of China, both breached water systems within the last six months.

In the case of the former, the IRGC capitalized on a facility’s failure to change the default manufacturing password to access a water system. The prevailing thought on Volt Typhoon is that the cybercriminals breached critical infrastructure to pre-position themselves to disturb water systems in the event of political or military conflicts.

Critical infrastructure under invests in IT security controls

As with other sectors that underinvest in information technology, water systems and other areas of critical infrastructure, such as energy utilities, often lack essential IT and operational technology security controls. These utilities also often lack personnel resources to identify and mitigate security incidents. The letter included links to Environmental Protection Agency and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) resources specifically targeted toward water systems.

These resources include training, consultative help, tools, and technical support, starting with the most basic security practices. The agencies outline foundational training and controls including training staff to recognize and dodge phishing schemes, the use of strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, and ensuring software is up to date. The EPA and CISA-provided toolkit also offer vulnerability assessment support and promises to adapt and add new resources for water and wastewater utilities based on the changing threat landscape.

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