Cyber-Attacks on Infrastructure Firms Highlight Need for New Defenses

Spear-phishing against energy firms and online attacks targeting building-management systems underscore the need for improved security defenses.

Multiple campaigns against a variety of critical industries and manufacturing firms in the past year have underscored the changing nature of online threats, security experts claimed following a report highlighting the attacks.

In January, attackers successfully compromised specialty Websites, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and Capstone Turbine Corp. The attacker succeeded in hosting malware on the sites to infect visitors. Such a tactic, known as a waterhole attack, was one of the types of campaign highlighted in a quarterly report released by the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT).

The success of the attacks—as well as targeted email-based attacks known as spear-phishing—should worry corporate executives and government officials, especially after the damaging attacks that deleted data at oil giant Saudi Aramco last year and at major South Korean organizations last month, Anup Ghosh, CEO and co-founder of endpoint-protection firm Invincea, told eWEEK.

"Business as usual is no longer good enough," he said. "We have to wonder if, whatever groups are doing this, are preparing for cyber-attacks like against Saudi Aramco."

Neither of the attacks was totally new: Spear-phishing has been around for years. But the fact that traditional defenses—such as antivirus and anti-spam—still fail to stop the attacks should raise alarms, Ghosh said. In another attack detailed in the report, 11 energy firms were targeted last year with convincing email messages designed to infect the companies' systems. Those attacks failed, but spear-phishing has landed other major catches, such as RSA, Google and many defense contractors.

With intellectual property regularly stolen from U.S. and European companies and government agencies, a more reliable strategy needs to be developed to counter the attacks, which previous reports have laid at the feet of nation-states—most often China—or independent hackers acting on behalf of a national government. Despite a February report released by Mandiant detailing the evidence linking a Chinese military agency with widespread hacking and information theft, the U.S. response is still anemic, says Ghosh.

"It's time to start calling these guys out," he said. "Why don't we find out who is behind these attacks and publicize that and hold them accountable in as many ways as possible?"

Other CEOs are equally frustrated with the lack of progress in stemming the loss of information to nation-state hackers. In prepared remarks to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on March 7, David E. Kepler, chief information officer at Dow Chemical Co. stressed that, with all his company's efforts to secure data, the government has a major and aggressive role to play.

"Industry must rely on the federal government to approach cyber-security, working in partnership with other countries, to deploy an offensive perspective by preempting attacks when possible and through the pursuit and prosecution of the criminals behind these threats," Kepler said.

Asking companies to rely on their employees as a front line defense against these attacks is unreasonable, said Invincea's Ghosh. In the ICS-CERT report, one of the recommended actions is for users to "not click on Web links or open attachments from unsolicited emails." It's time to do better than that, he said.

"They have to stop putting out guidance that isn't working and hasn't worked for more than a decade," Ghosh said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...