Alongside high-tech systems, fish guard against hacking of water supply by Iran

After reports that Tehran tried to dangerously increase chlorine levels in Israel’s civilian water system, overall control of defenses now being taken over by Cyber Directorate

Fish swim in a tanks of drinking water to monitor quality at the Eshkol water purification site in Beersheba (Screencapture/Channel 12)
Fish swim in a tanks of drinking water to monitor quality at the Eshkol water purification site in Beersheba (Screencapture/Channel 12)

After Iran reportedly tried to hack Israel’s water supply earlier this year, attention has turned to Israel’s efforts to safeguard its civilian infrastructure with the National Cyber Directorate now taking overall responsibility for protecting the water system, Channel 12 reported Monday.

Alongside the directorate, together with the already advanced water monitoring systems in place, the report revealed that Israel also employs several dozen fish to watch over the water.

At the Eshkol water purification site in Beersheba, a dozen aquariums filled with drinking water have several fish swimming around inside. Cameras monitor them 24 hours a day for the early warnings they can provide, much like the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

“The little ones react faster to changes in the water and the bigger fish react to build-up effects in the water quality over time,” Ortal Shlafman, a water quality engineer, told Channel 12.

A fish swims in a tank of drinking water to monitor quality at the Eshkol water purification site in Beersheba (Screencapture/Channel 12)

“The control room watches them all the time — are they swimming faster or slower?” she said.

The efforts became even more critical when it was reported that in April Iran tried to hack into the water system and possibly harm hundreds of people.

Iran tried to increase chlorine levels in the water flowing to residential areas during April’s cyberattack, a Western intelligence official has told the Financial Times.

The official told the British newspaper in a report published in early June that hundreds of people would have been at risk of getting sick and that the attack was close to being successful.

The head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate hinted that the attack may have aimed to mix chlorine or other chemicals into the water supply.

Additionally there was a chance that the attack would have triggered a fail-safe, shutting down the pumps and leaving thousands without water during during the recent deadly heatwave in Israel.

“It was more sophisticated than they [Israel] initially thought,” the Western official said. “It was close to successful, and it’s not fully clear why it didn’t succeed.”

An unnamed Israeli official told the Financial Times that the attack created “an unpredictable risk scenario” by starting a tit-for-tat wave of attacks on civilian infrastructure, something both countries had so far avoided.

The Western official and four Israeli officials, who were all briefed on the attack and all remained anonymous, told the newspaper that the Iranians hacked into the software that runs the pumps after routing through American and European servers to hide the source.

An Iranian regime insider dismissed the allegations to the newspaper, saying: “Iran cannot politically afford to try to poison Israeli civilians. And even if Iran did so, where is the Israelis’ appropriate response?”

The report also discussed Israel’s alleged reprisal on May 9 against the Shahid Rajaee port, with two of the Israeli officials saying the attack on the port came at the request of then-defense minister Naftali Bennett, who was coming to the end of his brief tenure with the forming of a new government.

“It was small, very small — like a knock on the door,” said one official. “Think of it [as] a gentle reminder. ‘We know where you live.’”

The Shahid Rajaee port facility near the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas. (Iran Ports and Maritime Organization)

Neither Israel nor Iran have officially acknowledged targeting each other’s civilian infrastructure, nor have they publicly described the severity of the cyberattacks. The Iranian regime insider said: “Iranian ports are usually chaotic and disruptions happen.”

Israel and Iran are bitter foes and have engaged in years of covert battles that have included high-tech hacking and cyber attacks. Iran’s leaders routinely call for the elimination of Israel, and Israel alleges that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons in order to carry out that goal. Most famously, US and Israeli intelligence agencies are suspected of unleashing a computer worm called Stuxnet years ago in an attempt to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

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