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Water Sector Needs More Support to Meet White House Cybersecurity Requirements

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Water Sector Needs More Support to Meet White House Cybersecurity Requirements

Cybersecurity experts are emphasizing the urgent need to address the lack of technical resources within the water and wastewater utilities sector, as the Biden administration pushes for enhanced protection against escalating cyber threats.

In response to the increasing cybersecurity risks facing the water sector, the administration recently organized a virtual meeting involving state environmental, health, and homeland security agencies. This meeting followed a significant development where the White House, in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, issued a warning to all U.S. governors about the substantial threat posed by hackers associated with the Iranian and Chinese governments to the country’s drinking water and wastewater systems.

The letter highlighted the vulnerabilities of the water and wastewater systems, noting that these critical infrastructures often lack the necessary resources and technical capacity to implement robust cybersecurity measures. Experts have pointed out that despite the availability of free and low-cost resources provided by agencies like the EPA and CISA in recent years, the U.S. water and wastewater sector still faces challenges in compliance with federal cybersecurity guidelines due to insufficient funding and technical resources.

Jennifer Lyn Walker, the director of infrastructure cyber defense for the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center, emphasized the need for additional technical resources and subsidies to enable utilities to adopt even the most basic cybersecurity practices effectively. Recognizing these challenges, CISA has established grant programs and technical assistance resources for utilities at the state and local levels, along with offering cybersecurity incident response toolkits and training programs in collaboration with the FBI and the EPA.

Despite these initiatives, the water sector continues to grapple with funding constraints, with state and local agencies struggling to allocate resources for cybersecurity, which was not a priority in their budgets until recent years. Sean Deuby, a principal technologist at Semperis, highlighted that while government agencies are now providing information, recommendations, and some funding, the turnaround time for implementing cybersecurity measures in agencies historically known for their slow pace is a significant concern.

The vulnerabilities within the U.S. water sector have made it an attractive target for foreign adversaries and cybercriminals, prompting collaborative efforts between CISA, the EPA, and the FBI to enhance incident response planning and information-sharing practices. Despite these efforts, experts have pointed out the lack of accompanying funding mechanisms for federal cybersecurity mandates in the water sector, with concerns raised about the aging workforce and resource limitations in rural utilities.

As highlighted in the White House letter to state governors, there is a crucial need for comprehensive cybersecurity assessments and the implementation of basic precautions across all water systems to mitigate the risk of disruptive cyber attacks. Recognizing the historical lack of regulations compared to other sectors like energy, cybersecurity experts stress the importance of strengthening cyber resilience in the water sector to address the recent surge in critical infrastructure attacks.

Looking back at past incidents, such as the malware infection affecting a water filtration system in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2006, experts emphasize the significance of addressing the inadequate protections within the water sector. By drawing attention to these vulnerabilities, the White House and EPA are taking vital steps towards enhancing cybersecurity measures and safeguarding the water and wastewater systems from potential cyber threats.

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