THE BLOG
12/05/2013 09:48 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

Water Utility Sector Works in Partnership to Meet Cyber Security Challenges

Like most utilities in our country, the drinking water and wastewater sectors rely heavily on automated technologies to track and manage the transport and treatment of water. The evolution of computer-based management systems, or industrial control systems (ICS), has hugely improved the reliability and quality of water service. However, as the use of automated systems increase, so do the possibilities of both targeted and accidental cyber events that can affect our water supply and ultimately threaten public safety.

The nation's cyber security-related consciousness has steadily grown as we have become more aware of the unintended vulnerabilities that leveraging enhanced technologies like ICS can bring. This is not just a private sector issue. The federal government, which uses cyber technologies, has given this matter significant attention as of late. Most recently, President Obama designated November 2013 as "Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month," with the intention of recognizing the importance of protecting our nation's critical cyber systems and encouraging activities that enhance security and resilience.

Simply put, through cyber security-related programs and initiatives, the public and private sectors are coming together to provide a secure network that safeguards the critical infrastructure systems America relies on, including those that distribute and transmit water, electric power and gas services. The solutions yielded via this partnership are composed of a combination of key capabilities that include implementing physical and virtual security measures. These range from the establishment of virtual private networks (VPN), the institution of firewalls and routers to control network communication and prevent unwanted traffic, to promoting basic computer safeguarding protocols like enhanced computer password protections and limiting user access to sensitive networks.

In the drinking water and wastewater sectors, a cyber-attack could hone in on four different threat vectors: chemical contamination, biological contamination, physical disruption and interference with the highly-specialized computer systems controlling essential infrastructure known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. A successful attack resulting in consequences in any of these areas could cause major damage, resulting in long periods of operational downtime, financial losses and most importantly, a threat to public safety.

While efforts to develop cyber-related standards in our sector are ongoing, private water companies have made particularly great strides in minimizing their risk of exposure to cyber-related incidents and events. They have done so by leveraging a voluntary public-private partnership model with government and industry stakeholders to implement meaningful cyber protocols and protections in order to secure the communities they serve.

It is important to note that efforts to successfully build security into utility modifications and upgrades at private water companies have come with a high cost, requiring both financial and human capital in order to implement necessary security measures. Nonetheless, private water companies remain on the cutting edge of technology, security and safety by continuing to make the significant investments needed to voluntarily answer the call of protecting our nation's communities.

Though there is still work to be done around this issue, much progress has been made by the private water sector to date. By maintaining a highly-developed expert workforce, establishing security protocols, instituting industry best practices and devising excellent security strategies (with an eye on continuous improvement to mitigate potential threats), private water companies are safeguarding their systems and their customers.

The development of critical infrastructure security is complex and will require a continued united effort across sectors, companies and governments in order to ensure safe and reliable drinking and wastewater service for our nation. America's private water companies are proud to be leading this vitally important charge.