Speed Reads

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A hacker nearly poisoned an entire Florida city

What sounds like the plot of a crime-fighting cartoon was actually reality in Florida last week.

At around 8 a.m. Friday, a worker at Oldsmar, Florida's water treatment plant noticed something not too unusual: Someone had remotely accessed the plant's computer systems that monitor and control chemical levels in the water supply. It's something supervisors at the plant often do to check levels while they're out in the field, Tampa local news station WSTP reports.

Things took a turn later that day when the remote operator returned and changed the level of the chemical sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, in the water, Pinellas County Bob Gualtieri said in a Monday press conference. A small amount of the main ingredient in liquid drain cleaner goes into some water systems to keep pipes clean and neutralize the water's pH. But the hacker raised the level from 100 parts per million to 11,100, pumping the chemical into the water supply at a poisonous level.

The operator quickly noticed the danger and pushed the level back down to normal. Even if they hadn't, city officials said there are several fail-safes and alarms in place to prevent the poisonous water from heading to homes. "At no time was there a significant adverse effect on the water being treated," Gualtieri affirmed. For now, the remote system has been disabled, city officials added.

Gualtieri wouldn't call the hacking an attempt at bioterrorism, Vice notes. Still, when "someone hacked into the system not just once but twice" and pumped it full of a "caustic substance," Gualtieri said it was fair to "label it however you want."