By Robert McMillan
IDG News Service
An infected laptop gave hackers access to computer systems at a
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, water treatment plant earlier this month.
The plant's systems were accessed in early October after an employee's
laptop computer was compromised via the Internet, and then used as an
entry point to install a computer virus and spyware on the plant's
computer system, according to a report by ABC News.
The incident is under investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of
Investigation, but no arrests have been made in the matter, said Special
Agent Jerri Williams of the FBI's Philadelphia office. The attackers are
believed to have been operating outside of the U.S.
Williams said that the hackers do not appear to have targeted the plant.
"We did not believe that they were doing it to compromise the actual
water system, but just to use the computer as a resource for
distributing e-mails or whatever electronic information they had
planned," she said.
Still, the FBI is concerned that even without targeting the system
itself, this malicious software could have interfered with the plant's
operations, Williams said.
Had the breach targeted the water plant, it could have had grave
consequences, according to Mike Snyder, security coordinator for the
Pennsylvania section of the American Water Works Association. "It's a
serious situation because they could possibly raise the level of
chlorine being injected into the water... which would make the water
dangerous to drink."
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, computer security at
U.S. water systems was beefed up, but water systems may still be tied to
administrative networks that are connected to the Internet, Snyder said.
"Sometimes if a hacker is pretty good, he can get into the computer via
the administrative network," he said.
In the Harrisburg case, a laptop computer was apparently the source of
the intrusion. Synder said that laptops are used in the industry because
water systems often have many different locations that need to be
monitored. "Because of the way the water systems work, it is convenient
to be able to use a laptop to check tank levels."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knows of no other similar
incidents occurring in the region, said Rick Rogers, the chief of the
agency's drinking water branch for the mid-Atlantic region.
Rogers was not able to comment directly on the matter, since the breach
is under investigation. "We are looking into it and working with the
state and the water utility industry," he said. "But it is a concern
that somebody was able to get into a system like this."
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