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Water Warfare? Downstate Cyber Attack Could Trigger Chicago Security Concerns

By JoshMogerman in News on Nov 19, 2011 9:00PM

The James Jardine Water Filtration Plant, the world's largest, extends into Lake Michigan [Josh S. Jackson]

When you think of ripe targets for terrorists, the soybean and cornfields of central Illinois don’t exactly leap to mind, but it seems that an historic attack may have silently occurred in the area recently. State and federal have been looking into what looks to many like the first successful cyber attack on an American utility in tiny Curran-Gardner Township just outside the state capital. Media reports initially, incorrectly, identified the target as Springfield’s City Water Light and Power.

In coordinated efforts, Russian hackers seem to have stolen login data from a software vendor that were then used to access an otherwise secure backdoor virtual remote control system for some of the Curran-Gardner water district facilities. Hackers repeatedly turned a water pump on and off over time, leading to its eventual “burn-out.” System operators at the utility had noticed repeated “glitches” but were unaware of the slow-moving attack underway. While water service was not stopped or compromised for the 2,200 utility customers, the Illinois attack makes clear that cyber warfare has moved from a concern to an active battlefront around the world.

Earlier this month, the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center quietly put out a one-page report detailing the incident, but did not inform other utilities with similar systems across the country. That rubbed at least one prominent security expert wrong as warnings about the threat of this sort of attack have grown increasingly shrill since a mysterious attack, rumored to be deployed by the United States or Israel, knocked out Iranian uranium enrichment facility last year. Wired picked up on a blog post from one of the most outspoken experts on this issue earlier in the week, exposing the story (and critiquing the State of Illinois and federal response):

[Security expert Joe] Weiss initially published details from the report on his blog. He expressed frustration that the information apparently hadn’t been released to other water utilities so they could be on the lookout for similar attacks, complaining that he could find no evidence of the information in reports distributed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control System-Cyber Emergency Response Team or other government and industry security lists. “Consequently, none of the water utilities I have spoken to were aware of it,” he wrote.
Why should you care? Well, we won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of the system and security issues involved here, but it is worth noting that, like many utilities across the nation, Chicago’s water facilities use a similar system to the one exploited downstate -- including the Jardine Water Treatment Plant next to Navy Pier, which is the largest facility of its kind on the planet, as well as other facilities in the City and suburbs. We are sure this isn’t lost on City Hall or federal authorities…or the baddies looking for targets to put the crimp on your luxurious American lifestyle…

So, what does all this stuff look like? CNN obtained video of a Department of Homeland Security video documenting a simulated cyber attack on electrical diesel generators earlier this year -- pretty amazing: