Senate panel shines light on cyber security threats for water, transportation infrastructure

WASHINGTON — Our nation’s water and transportation systems serve millions of Americans every day and they are becoming a growing target for cyber attacks.

A Senate panel explored the threat and heard from public works department officials and members of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus Wednesday about the potentially dangerous impact a cyber attack on these systems can have on the public.

“Cyber vulnerabilities in our water systems represent unique national security challenges,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Lawmakers heard about attempts to compromise water systems at cities in Florida, California and Kansas, among others.

The threats were caught and stopped in time to protect the public, but witnesses said the impact could have had dangerous consequences.

“It was through sheer luck that none of these incidents affected customers,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), a member of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus. “A more sophisticated adversary could impact the safety of thousands of Americans.”

The Chief Engineer for the Boston Water & Sewer Commission, John Sullivan, also testified about the commission’s own run-in with a ransomware attack.

“There was never any threat to public or environmental health due to precautions such as our business network being segregated from our control system,” said Sullivan. “This is the best practice in any sector that uses industrial control systems but this approach is not consistent across the sector’s 50,000 drinking water systems and 16,000 wastewater systems.”

Lawmakers said transportation systems are another major part of our infrastructure at risk of cyber attacks.

“Our roads and bridges, vehicles and infrastructure are becoming more connected and smarter,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV.), Ranking Member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. “It opens our transportation system up to vulnerabilities that didn’t exist in the past.”

Lawmakers pushed for long term investments and solutions to protect these critical systems.

“Addressing this challenge requires sustained federal investment, not one time solutions,” said Carper.

“We cannot put blinders on and think we finished everything when we come to envisioning potential threats because we know those threats change daily,” said Capito.