WashingtonExaminer: The Department of Homeland Security advised electric utilities Thursday that they may need to stop using the Internet altogether, after the agency found that a cyberattack that brought down Ukraine’s power grid in December could have been far more devastating than reported.
The Dec. 23 cyberattack forced U.S. regulators to place utilities on alert after unknown attackers caused thousands of Ukrainian residents to lose power for hours by installing malicious software, or malware, on utility computers. But the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that the attack may have been directed at more than just the country’s electricity sector, suggesting the attackers were looking to cause more harm than was reported.
In response, federal investigators are recommending that U.S. utilities and other industries “take defensive measures.” To start with, they need to best practices “to minimize the risk from similar malicious cyber activity,” according to an investigative report issued Thursday by Homeland Security’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team.
But the team is also recommending more drastic action, such as keep control-system computers away from the Internet.
“Organizations should isolate [industrial control system] networks from any untrusted networks, especially the Internet,” the report says. “All unused ports should be locked down and all unused services turned off. If a defined business requirement or control function exists, only allow real-time connectivity to external networks. If one-way communication can accomplish a task, use optical separation.”
The findings show that the power outages were caused by three attacks using cyberintrusion software to attack electric power distribution companies, affecting about 225,000 customers. It also reveals that once power was restored, the utilities continued “to run under constrained operations,” implying that the damage to grid control systems was profound.
The team also learned that “three other organizations, some from other critical infrastructure sectors, were also intruded upon but did not experience operational impacts.” That suggests the attackers were going after more than just the power grid, and may have been planning a much more economy-wide attack. The team does not disclose what other sectors of the country were targeted.
The team said the attack was well-planned, “probably following extensive reconnaissance of the victim networks,” the report says. “According to company personnel, the cyberattacks at each company occurred within 30 minutes of each other and impacted multiple central and regional facilities.”
The attackers were attempting to make the damage permanent. The report says the attackers installed “KillDisk” malware onto company computers that would erase data necessary to reboot operations after a cyberattack.
There is also a mystery to the attackers’ actions.
“Each company also reported that they had been infected with BlackEnergy malware; however, we do not know whether the malware played a role in the cyberattacks,” the report says. The malware was delivered using an email embedded hacking technique known as “spear phishing” that contained a number of malicious Microsoft Office attachments.
“It is suspected that BlackEnergy may have been used as an initial access vector to acquire legitimate credentials; however, this information is still being evaluated,” the team says.
The investigation was done with Ukraine authorities and involved the FBI, Department of Energy and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
Security researchers at ESET and F-Secure each have dived into the malware’s evolution. BlackEnergy was first identified several years ago. Originally a DDoS Trojan, it has since morphed into “a sophisticated piece of malware with a modular architecture, making it a suitable tool for sending spam and for online bank fraud,” blogged ESET’s Robert Lipovsky.
“The targeted attacks recently discovered are proof that the Trojan is still alive and kicking in 2014,” wrote Lipovsky, a malware researcher at ESET.
ESET has nicknamed the BlackEnergy modifications first spotted at the beginning of the year ‘BlackEnergyLite’ due to the lack of a kernel-mode driver component. It also featured less support for plug-ins and a lighter overall footprint.
“The omission of the kernel mode driver may appear as a step back in terms of malware complexity: however it is a growing trend in the malware landscape nowadays,” he blogged. “The threats that were among the highest-ranked malware in terms of technical sophistication (e.g., rootkits and bootkits, such as Rustock, Olmarik/TDL4, Rovnix, and others) a few years back are no longer as common.”
The malware variants ESET has tracked in 2014 – both of BlackEnergy and of BlackEnergy Lite – have been used in targeted attacks. This was underscored by the presence of plugins meant for network discovery, remote code execution and data collection, Lipovsky noted.
“We have observed over a hundred individual victims of these campaigns during our monitoring of the botnets,” he blogged. “Approximately half of these victims are situated in Ukraine and half in Poland, and include a number of state organizations, various businesses, as well as targets which we were unable to identify. The spreading campaigns that we have observed have used either technical infection methods through exploitation of software vulnerabilities, social engineering through spear-phishing emails and decoy documents, or a combination of both.”
In a whitepaper, researchers at F-Secure noted that in the summer of 2014, the firm saw samples of BlackEnergy targeting Ukrainian government organizations for the purposes of stealing information. These samples were nicknamed BlackEnergy 3 by F-Secure and identified as the work of a group the company refers to as “Quedagh.” According to F-Secure, the group is suspected to have been involved in cyber-attacks launched against Georgia during that country’s conflict with Russia in 2008.
“The Quedagh-related customizations to the BlackEnergy malware include support for proxy servers and use of techniques to bypass User Account Control and driver signing features in 64-bit Windows systems,” according to the F-Secure whitepaper. “While monitoring BlackEnergy samples, we also uncovered a new variant used by this group. We named this new variant BlackEnergy 3.”
Only Quedagh is believed to be using BlackEnergy 3, and it is not available for sale on the open market, noted Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure.
“The name [of the group] is based on a ship taken by Captain Kidd, an infamous privateer,” he said. “It is our working theory that the group has previous crimeware experience. Its goals appear to be political but they operate like a crimeware gang. There have been several cases this year of which BlackEnergy is the latest. The trend is one of off-the-shelf malware being used in an APT [advanced persistent threat] kind of way. The tech isn’t currently worthy of being called APT, but its evolving and scaling in that direction.”
Within a month of Windows 8.1’s release, the group added support for 64-bit systems. They also used a technique to bypass the driver-signing requirement on 64-bit Windows systems.
In the case of BlackEnergy 3, the malware will only attempt to infect a system if the current user is a member of the local administration group. If not, it will re-launch itself as Administrator on Vista. This will trigger a User Account Control (UAC) prompt. However, on Windows 7 and later, the malware will look to bypass the default UAC settings.
“The use of BlackEnergy for a politically-oriented attack is an intriguing convergence of criminal activity and espionage,” F-Secure notes in the paper. “As the kit is being used by multiple groups, it provides a greater measure of plausible deniability than is afforded by a custom-made piece of code.”
In 2014 from the Department of Interior and DHS:
Report Date: August 7, 2014
OIG investigated allegations that the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system at Grand Canyon National Park (Park) may be obsolete and prone to failure. In addition, it was alleged only one Park employee controlled the system, increasing the potential for the system to fail or become unusable.
The SCADA system is a private utilities network that monitors and controls critical infrastructure elements at the Park. Failure of the system could pose a health and safety risk to millions of Park visitors. Due to potential risks that system failure posed, we consulted with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) and asked that they assess the overall architecture and cybersecurity of the Park’s SCADA system.
ICS-CERT conducted an onsite review and issued a report outlining the weaknesses it found at the Park’s SCADA system, including obsolete hardware and software, inadequate system documentation and policies, insufficient logging and data retention. We provided a copy of ICS-CERT’s assessment report to the National Park Service for review and action.