US-CERT Warns of Active Attacks Against Industrial Control Systems

US-CERT releases a technical alert based on information from the DHS and FBI about ongoing cyber-attacks that are taking aim at critical industrial infrastructure across the U.S.

industrial control systems vulnerabilities

US-CERT issued a technical alert on Oct.21 warning of advanced persistent threat activity targeting energy and other critical infrastructure sectors across the United States. 

The technical alert was compiled with information provided from both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI. According to the analysis, energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors are at risk from an ongoing cyber-attack.

"DHS assesses this activity as a multi-stage intrusion campaign by threat actors targeting low security and small networks to gain access and move laterally to networks of major, high value asset owners within the energy sector," the US-CERT alert warns. "Based on malware analysis and observed IOCs [indicators of compromise], DHS has confidence that this campaign is still ongoing, and threat actors are actively pursuing their ultimate objectives over a long-term campaign."

The attack has been ongoing since at least May and is related to a campaign that Symantec reported on Sept. 6 identified as Dragonfly 2.0. According to Symantec's analysis, the attacks have been under way since December 2015, with an increasing number of attacks in 2017.

According to US-CERT, the industrial cyber-attacks have two categories of victims: staging and intended targets. The staging victims are used as launch points from which the attackers are able to reach intended targets. 

The US-CERT technical alert provides detection and prevention guidelines to help defend against the industrial cyber-attack campaign. Among the guidelines are IOCs, IP addresses, domain names and IPS signatures to help detect potentially malicious activity.

"Reviewing network perimeter netflow will help determine whether a network has experienced suspicious activity," the technical alert states.

Security experts contacted by eWEEK were not surprised by the US-CERT technical alert.

"What I can say is that in over 10 years now, I have yet to not find ongoing active issues in every ICS facility I've been to," Bryan Singer, director of security services for IOActive, told eWEEK. "I’ve noticed, somewhat anecdotally, a broad increase in ICS-specific malware and targeted threats, particularly in the last three years." 

Dean Weber, CTO of Mocana, said this is not the first time that he's heard of attacks against industrial control systems (ICS) with command and control capabilities on the energy, nuclear and critical manufacturing sectors. That said, Weber noted that this is the first recent cyber-attack campaign targeting water utilities and aviation.

"The recon attacks reported by US-CERT have brought to light the fact that cyber-attacks on our critical infrastructure are starting with an attack against Windows-based computer systems," Weber said. "Unfortunately, corporate IT networks are not always separated from the operational technology (OT) networks, making them particularly vulnerable."

David Zahn, general manager of the Cybersecurity Business Unit at PAS, also wasn't surprised by the US-CERT technical alert. The critical infrastructure is a high value target that, if exploited, can produce significant political or financial gain, he said. In Zahn's experience, approximately, 80 percent of all cyber-assets in an industrial facility are not visible to cyber-security personnel. Many industrial cyber-assets were built and implemented with a focus on function and not security, he added.   

"This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation if an attacker can gain access, which is what much of the US-CERT advisory describes," Zahn said. "Companies are focusing on security fundamentals right now. They are adopting technology and business processes that answer questions such as, what are my cyber-assets, where do I have vulnerabilities, was there an unauthorized change, and can I recover quickly?"

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.