Don’t Drink the Cyber: Extrapolating the Possibilities of Oldsmar’s Water Treatment Cyberattack

Authors

  • James Cervini The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
  • Aviel Rubin The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
  • Lanier Watkins The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.34190/iccws.17.1.29

Keywords:

operational technology, water treatment, Oldsmar Florida, cybersecurity, cyber attack

Abstract

Water treatment represents an essential critical infrastructure sector which has a direct impact on the health and well-being of its customers. Water treatment is often performed by municipalities with very limited budgets for cybersecurity resources. These underfunded, high-impact, targets represent an emerging cyber warfare attack-surface paradigm which poses a direct threat to the quality of life for millions of people. On February 5th, 2021, a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida was the victim of an attempted cyberattack. This attack commanded the system to add a dangerous amount of
sodium hydroxide to water which supplied thousands. Direct exposure to sodium hydroxide causes painful burns to the exposed area with permanent internal damage likely upon ingestion. A system operator noticed this malicious behaviour and corrected the situation, minimizing the attack’s impact. This paper outlines the attack and illustrates how minor modifications to the attacker’s tactics, techniques, and procedures could have resulted in a cyber-derived catastrophe for thousands of unsuspecting citizens. Lastly, this paper explores the effectiveness of various low-cost cyber-physical security technologies when pitted against differing attacker models in these theoretical scenarios. These cybersecurity solutions are evaluated by cost, ease of use, implementation difficulty, and ability to support safe operation continuity when faced with adversary behaviour. The results of this evaluation illuminate a path forward for low-cost threat mitigation which increases the difficulty to compromise these critical cyber-physical systems. With attacks targeting industrial control systems on the rise, the Oldsmar water treatment cyberattack represents more than an individual incident, it can be viewed as a reflection of the current status of thousands of similar critical infrastructure systems that have yet to be caught in crosshairs of a competent and willing adversary with financial incentives and cyber warfare mission requirements serving as impetus for adversary willingness and any resulting large-scale cyber cataclysm.

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Published

2022-03-02