States and Congress Wrestle With Hackers at Water Utilities Targeting Israeli-Made Equipment

The screen of a Unitronics device that was hacked, in Aliquippa, Pa., Nov. 25, 2023. (Municipal Water Authority of Aliquippa via AP)

The tiny Aliquippa water authority in western Pennsylvania was perhaps the least-suspecting victim of an international cyberattack.

It had never had outside help in protecting its systems from a cyberattack, either at its existing plant that dates to the 1930s or the new $18.5 million one it is building.

Then it — along with several other water utilities — was struck by what federal authorities say are Iranian-backed hackers targeting a piece of equipment specifically because it was Israeli-made.

The hacking of the Municipal Water Authority of Aliquippa is prompting new warnings from U.S. security officials at a time when states and the federal government are wrestling with how to harden water utilities against cyberattacks.

The danger, officials say, is hackers gaining control of automated equipment to shut down pumps that supply drinking water or contaminate drinking water by reprogramming automated chemical treatments. Besides Iran, other potentially hostile geopolitical rivals, including China, are viewed by U.S. officials as a threat.

A number of states have sought to step up scrutiny, although water authority advocates say that money and expertise are what is really lacking for a sector of more than 50,000 water utilities, most of which are local authorities that, like Aliquippa’s, serve corners of the country where residents are of modest means and cybersecurity professionals are scarce.

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