Cybersecurity

ICS-CERT sounds alarm on critical infrastructure attacks

power lines at sunset

A shadowy, persistent group of cyberattackers prompted the Department of Homeland Security to issue a series of warnings to electrical infrastructure providers to watch for targeted network compromises.

In warnings posted on its website from June 27 to July 1, DHS' Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) said it was watching an "ICS-focused malware campaign" wielding a multi-pronged assault on critical infrastructure providers.

The attacks could include phishing emails, redirection to compromised websites and trojanized update installers in watering hole-style attacks in which threat actors select websites to compromise with malware infection.

The warning came as DHS launched its overarching four-year strategy called the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, which includes plans to blunt increasing cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. The review warns about the coming dangers of "cyber-physical convergence" in which cyberattacks precipitate physical damage at critical infrastructure providers. The review states that the department will work to provide a broader threat management picture for infrastructure providers.

ICS-CERT said it was made aware of the malware campaign against critical infrastructure providers by reports posted on the websites of security providers F-Secure and Symantec. ICS-CERT said the primary tool in the attacks is based on a remote action Trojan called Havex that has infected industrial control systems sold by three vendors. Symantec linked Havex to a loose association of attackers that energy suppliers call Dragonfly or Energetic Bear.

Symantec said Dragonfly's targets include energy grid operators, major electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators and energy industrial equipment providers. The majority of the victims have been in the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Poland.

News reports in Europe said Dragonfly, backed by groups in Russia, could have hacked computer systems at more than 1,000 organizations in at least 84 countries in the past 18 months.

Symantec said Dragonfly has been operating since 2011 and might have been active even earlier. The group initially targeted defense and aviation companies in the U.S. and Canada before shifting its focus to U.S. and European energy firms in early 2013.

In its latest warning, ICS-CERT said Havex communicates with a command and control server that can deploy various malicious payloads on infected networks or gather information about the host network.

ICS-CERT said its testing found that Havex has crashed multiple Open Platform Communications systems, potentially causing denial-of-service logjams. OPC is a client/server architecture-based standard for industrial communications that enables universal connectivity and interoperability. It is used by electricity, oil and gas providers, and it also plays a role in building automation, air handling systems and other industrial environments.

Symantec said the malware seems to be focused on the energy sector with some U.S. providers targeted, while F-Secure said the primary targets are in Europe but added that at least one company in California had been linked to infected servers.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 3, 2014 Ed Barger Ashburn. VA

Interesting article, a public educated to detect and defend against Phising might be the best first line of defense

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