Hackers try to poison Florida’s city water supply by hacking

Hackers broke into the computer system of a facility that processes water for about 15,000 people near Tampa, Florida and tried to add a dangerous level of additive to the water supply, the Pinellas County Sheriff said Monday.

The attempt on Friday was thwarted. The hackers gained remote access to a program, called TeamViewer, on an employee’s computer at the Oldsmar facility to gain control of other systems, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in an interview.

“The guy was sitting there monitoring the computer as he should, and suddenly he sees a window pop up that the computer has reached,” Gualtieri said. “Next thing you know someone pulls the mouse and clicks around and opens programs and manipulates the system.”

The hackers then increased the amount of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, which was distributed in the water supply. The chemical is usually used in small amounts to control the acidity of water, but at higher levels it is dangerous to consume.

The facility in the facility alerted its employer, who called the sheriff. The water treatment plant was able to quickly reverse the command, which led to minimal impact.

Oldsmar Mayor Eric Seidel said at a press conference on Monday that the affected water treatment plant also had other controls in place that would have prevented a dangerous amount of lye from entering the water supply unnoticed.

“The amount of sodium hydroxide that came in was minimal and was quickly reversed,” Gualtieri said. The affected water treatment plant is a public electricity owned by the city, he explained, who has his own internal IT team. Oldsmar is located about 170 km northwest of Tampa and has about 15,000 inhabitants.

TeamViewer, which says on its website that its software has been installed on 2.5 billion devices worldwide, enables technical remote support among other applications.

The FBI and Secret Service have been called in to help with an investigation. Gualtieri said he did not know who was responsible for the cyberattack.

“The important thing is to put everyone on notice,” he said. “This should be an alarm clock.”