Florida Water Treatment Plant Hacked Days Before The Super Bowl—Was It Domestic Terrorism?

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A search is underway for one or more suspects that reportedly attempted to hack a local town's computer system that controlled the water treatment plant and add what is being termed caustic chemicals to the entire city's services, according to FBI and Florida law enforcement officials.

When the hackers attempted to elevate the sodium hydroxide content to a dangerous level within the water supply, a plant operator at the water treatment facility in Oldsmar was able to thwart the attempt.

The incident reportedly occurred Friday afternoon. During a Monday news conference, the Pinellas County Sheriff stated that Federal agencies had joined forces with the sheriff's department to investigate the case.

There had been no updates forthcoming from either the Pinellas County Sheriff's office or the FBI as of Tuesday.  Gualtieri stated: "Right now, we do not have a suspect identified, but we do have leads that we're following."

He went on to add: "We don't know right now whether the breach originated from within the United States or outside the country."  Oldsmar, which is located approximately 15 miles from Tampa, is home to just under 15,000 residents.

It has been reported that the breach by the hacker occurred on Friday at approximately 8 am, but the individual was only on momentarily before they proceeded to log off.  The sheriff's department reported the "brief" remote access to have been noticed by a plant operator when it occurred.

The plant operator did not see a cause for concern at the time, as it was customary for the plant supervisors to "regularly" log on remotely to access the computers and monitor the system. 

However, on that same day at approximately 1:30 pm: "someone again remotely accessed the computer system, and it showed up on the operator's screen with a mouse moving about to open various software functions that control the treating of the water."

For an estimated 3-5 minutes, the hacker had control over the system and proceeded to open the function that controls how much sodium hydroxide is standardly released into the water. 

They proceeded to change the amount from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million.  Shortly after making this change, the hacker reportedly logged out of the system.

Officials state that this was a potentially dangerous amount of the chemical, as sodium hydroxide is also known as lye—the main ingredient used in drain cleaners. 

The chemical is used to control acidity in water and aid in the removal of heavy metals in the drinking water in water treatment plants.

Could this have been a case of domestic terrorism timed to occur during the Super Bowl?