Is the latest attack on energy companies the next Stuxnet?

It really didn’t take long after my last blog post on SCADA security for an exciting new development to appear in the press. Several security vendors, including Symantec and F-Secure, have revealed new information about a hacker group “Dragonfly” (or alternatively “Energetic bear”) that has launched a massive cyber-espionage campaign against US and European companies mainly from the energy sector. Allegedly, the most recent development indicates that the hackers not just managed to compromise those companies for espionage, but possess the necessary capabilities for sabotage, disruption and damage to energy grids of several countries.

Previous reports show that the group known as “Energetic bear” has been operating since at least 2012, having highly qualified specialists based somewhere in Eastern Europe. Some experts go as far as to claim that the group has direct ties with Moscow, operating under control of the Russian secret services. So, it’s quite natural that many publications have already labeled Dragonfly as the next Stuxnet.

Now, as much as I love bold statements like this, I personally still find it difficult to believe it. I admit that I have not seen all the evidence yet, so let’s summarize what we do know already:

  • A hacker group “Energetic Bear” has been active in the cyber-espionage scene since at least 2011. Their previous targets, besides manufacturing and energy companies, include as diverse organizations as Asian universities, US healthcare providers, European IT organizations, etc.
  • The group often uses a remote access tool dubbed Havex, which appears to be their own custom development, but relies on other tools readily available on the black market as well.
  • Experts have analyzed multiple variations of the Havex tool and, judging by activity patterns, concluded that its developers are operating within the Eastern European time zone.
  • Until recently, the malware has been primarily distributed over “traditional” channels, such as spam mails and exploit kits.
However, the most recent development that has brought Dragonfly into the limelight is that the group has begun distributing the malware using the “watering hole” approach. Several ICS software vendor websites have been compromised, and their software installers available for download have been infected with Havex. It’s been reported that in one case, compromised software has been downloaded at least 250 times.

Since the sites belonged to notable vendors of programmable logic controllers used in managing wind turbines and other critical equipment, there could not be any other conclusion than “Russia is attacking our energy infrastructure”, right? Or could it?

Quite frankly, I fail to see any resemblance between Stuxnet and Dragonfly at all.

Stuxnet has been a highly targeted attack created specifically for one purpose: destroy Iranian nuclear enrichment industry. It contained modules developed specifically for a particular type of SCADA hardware. It has been so complex in its structure that experts are still not done analyzing it.

Dragonfly, on the other hand, is based on existing and widely used malware tools. It’s been targeting a wide array of different organizations – current reports show that it’s managed to compromise over 1000 companies. Also, the researchers that have discovered the operation could not find any traces of PLC-controlling payloads, the only purpose of the tool appears to be intelligence gathering. The claims of ties to the Russian secret services seem to be completely unsubstantiated as well.

So, does this all mean that there is not threat to our energy infrastructures after all? Of course, it does not! If anything, the whole Dragonfly story has again demonstrated the abysmal state of information security in the Industrial Control Systems around the world. Keep in mind, this time the cause of the attack wasn’t even weak security of an energy infrastructure. Protecting your website from hacking belongs to the basic “security hygiene” norms and does not require any specialized software, a traditional antivirus and firewall would do just fine. Unfortunately, even SCADA software vendors seem to share the relaxed approach towards security typical for the industry.

The fact that the Dragonfly case have been publicized so much is actually good news, even if not all publications are up to a good journalism standard. If this publicity leads to tighter regulations for ICS vendors and increases awareness of the risks among ICS end users, we all win at the end. Well, maybe except the hackers.



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