Tag Archives: cyber warfare

Cyber-Attacking Nuclear Plants: the 3 000 cyber bugs

In the first half of 2019 , no country endured more cyber-attacks on its Internet of Things—the web of internet-connected devices and infrastructure—than India did. So asserts Subex, an Indian telecommunications firm, which produces regular reports on cyber-security. Between April and June of 2019, it said, recorded cyber-attacks jumped by 22%, with 2,550 unique samples of malware discovered. Some of that malicious code is turning up in hair-raising places.

On October 28, 2019 reports indicated that malware had been found on the computer systems of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the newest and largest such power station in India. Pukhraj Singh, a cybersecurity researcher who formerly worked for the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), India’s signals-intelligence agency, says he was informed of the malware by an undisclosed third party in September, and notified the government.The attackers, he said, had acquired high-level access and struck “extremely mission-critical targets”…. On October 30, 2019 the body that operates nuclear power plants acknowledged, sheepishly, that a computer had indeed been infected, but it was only an “administrative” one.

Sensitive sites such as power plants typically isolate the industrial-control systems (those that control the workings of a plant) from those connected to the wider internet. They do so using air-gaps (which involve disconnecting the system from the wider world), firewalls (which monitor data-flows for suspicious traffic) or data diodes (which allow information to flow out but not in).

But breaching a computer on the outside of these digital moats is nevertheless troubling. It could have given the attackers access to sensitive emails, personnel records and other details which would, in turn, make it easier to gain access to the more isolated operational part of the plant. America and Israel are thought to have sneaked the devastating Stuxnet virus into Iran’s air-gapped uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz around 2007 by planting a USB stick on a worker, who carried it inside and plugged it in.

The culprit behind the Kudankulam attack is unknown, but left some clues. The malware in question is from a family known as DTrack, which gives attackers an intimate look at what victims are doing—down to their keystrokes. It is typically used to monitor a target, making it easier to deliver further malware. DTrack was originally developed by a group of hackers known as the Lazarus Group, who are widely assumed to be controlled or directed by North Korea.

Excerpts from On the DTrack: A cyber-attack on an Indian nuclear plant raises worrying questions, Economist, Nov. 1, 2019

Cyberwar: government hackers

The mysterious hacking group that supplied a critical component of the WannaCry “ransomware” software attack that spread across the globe in mid-May 2017 has been releasing alleged National Security Agency secrets for the past eight months.  Former intelligence officials now fear that the hackers, who go by the name Shadow Brokers, are taking a new tack: exposing the identities of the NSA’s computer-hacking team. That potentially could subject these government experts to charges when traveling abroad.

The Shadow Brokers on April 14, 2017 posted on a Russian computer file-sharing site what they said were NSA files containing previously unknown attack tools and details of an alleged NSA hack affecting Middle Eastern and Panamanian financial institutions.

But something went largely unnoticed outside the intelligence community. Buried in the files’ “metadata”—a hidden area that typically lists a file’s creators and editors—were four names. It isn’t clear whether the names were published intentionally or whether the files were doctored. At least one person named in the metadata worked for the NSA, a person familiar with the matter said.  Additionally, the hacking group in April, 2017 sent several public tweets that seemingly threatened to expose the activities of a fifth person, former NSA employee Jake Williams, who had written a blog post speculating the group has ties to Russia… Security experts who have examined the documents believe they contain legitimate information, including code that can be used in hacks, as well as the names of the files’ creators and editors.

Because nation-state hackers might run afoul of other countries’ laws while discharging their duties, they could, if identified, face charges when outside their country. So, to keep their own people safe, governments for decades have abided by a “gentleman’s agreement” that allows government-backed hackers to operate in anonymity, former intelligence officials say….

Some former intelligence officials suggested the U.S. prompted the outing of state-sponsored hackers when it indicted five Chinese military hackers by name in 2014, and more recently brought charges against two officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service over a 2014 Yahoo Inc. breach.  By exposing cyberagents, the Shadow Brokers appear to be taking a page from the U.S. playbook, said Mr. Williams, who worked for the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking group until 2013. An NSA spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment about “most individuals’ possible current, past or future employment with the agency.”  “We’ve fired first,” Mr. Williams said, referring to the U.S. charging the alleged Chinese hackers by name. “This is us taking flak.”…

The documents revealed jealously guarded tactics and techniques the NSA uses to access computer systems…For example, the files include source code for software designed to give its creators remote access to hacked machines, and to evade detection from antivirus software. If the code was created by the NSA, it now gives security professionals a digital fingerprint they can use to track the NSA’s activities prior to the leak.

That could prove disruptive to NSA activities, forcing the agency to consider pulling its software from others’ networks and taking other steps to erase its tracks. And while the information could help companies determine whether they have been hacked by the NSA, it could also be used to create more malicious software. The Shadow Brokers tools, for example, are now being used to install malicious software such as WannaCry on corporate networks.

Mr. Williams initially thought the Shadow Brokers had access only to a limited set of NSA tools. His assessment changed after three tweets directed at him April 9, 2017 included terms suggesting the group had “a lot of operational data or at least operational insight” into his work at the NSA, he said.  The tweets, which are public, are cryptic. They express displeasure over an article Mr. Williams wrote attempting to link the Shadow Brokers to Russia. They also mention apparent software code names, including “OddJob” and “Windows BITS persistence.”…..OddJob is a reference to software released by the Shadow Brokers five days after the tweets. “Windows BITS persistence” is a term whose meaning isn’t publicly known.

Excerpts from In Modern Cyber War, the Spies Can Become Targets, Too, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017

 

Hacked to be Framed: N. Korea – Wapomi Worm

Foreign hackers could have broken into North Korean computers and used them to make the country look responsible for hacking Sony, experts have said.  Any attempt to blame North Korea for the attack because hackers used a North Korean IP address “must be treated as suspect”, security firm Cloudmark said. That is one of the reasons that the FBI has given for suspecting the country for the attack, which took down Sony Pictures’ systems for weeks.  Security experts have continued to be dubious of the claim, but FBI officials have continued to blame North Korea.

The country has a very small connection to the internet, run by its national telecom ministry and a Thai firm. As a demonstration of how few connections North Korea has to the internet, Cloudmark said that it has the same amount of IP addresses allocated to it as the entire country.  Cloudmark said that the North Korean addresses it traces tend to send out spam, which is usually the sign of an infected machine. It identified the Wapomi worm, which is transmitted by USB drives and file server shares, as the code that is allowing outside people to control the machine.

While there is no guarantee that the same worm is present on the computers that have carried out the attack, the prevalence of infected computers in the country shows how easy it could have been for Sony’s hackers to give the impression they were based on North Korea.  Cloud mark said that “unless the FBI releases more specific details of their case against North Korea, including email headers and mail server logs, some experts will continue to question if they are in fact correct”.

ANDREW GRIFFIN ,North Korea might have been hacked to frame it for Sony cyberattack, say experts, Independent, January 12, 2015

DARPA for Transparent Computing

From the DARPA website
Modern computing systems act as black boxes in that they accept inputs and generate outputs but provide little to no visibility of their internal workings. This greatly limits the potential to understand...advanced persistent threats (APTs). APT adversaries act slowly and deliberately over a long period of time to expand their presence in an enterprise network and achieve their mission goals (e.g., information exfiltration, interference with decision making and denial of capability). Because modern computing systems are opaque, APTs can remain undetected for years if their individual activities can blend with the background “noise” inherent in any large, complex environment. ..

The Transparent Computing (TC) program aims to make currently opaque computing systems transparent by providing high-fidelity visibility into component interactions during system operation across all layers of software abstraction, while imposing minimal performance overhead. The program will develop technologies to record and preserve the provenance of all system elements/components (inputs, software modules, processes, etc.); dynamically track the interactions and causal dependencies among cyber system components; assemble these dependencies into end-to-end system behaviors; and reason over these behaviors, both forensically and in real-time. By automatically or semi-automatically “connecting the dots” across multiple activities that are individually legitimate but collectively indicate malice or abnormal behavior, TC has the potential to enable the prompt detection of APTs and other cyber threats, and allow complete root cause analysis and damage assessment once adversary activity is identified. In addition, the TC program will integrate its basic cyber reasoning functions in an enterprise-scale cyber monitoring and control construct that enforces security policies at key ingress/exit points, e.g., the firewall.

Excerpt from http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/I2O/Programs/Transparent_Computing.aspx

Cyberwar: USA Official Doctrine

 

In his first major speech [March 28, 2014] on cyber policy, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sough to project strength but also to tame perceptions of the United States as an aggressor in computer warfare, stressing that the government “does not seek to militarize cyberspace.”…

Hagel said that the fighting force at U.S. Cyber Command will number more than 6,000 people by 2016, making it one of the largest such ­forces in the world. The force will help expand the president’s options for responding to a crisis with “full-spectrum cyber capabilities,” Hagel said, a reference to cyber operations that can include destroying, damaging or sabotaging an adversary’s computer systems and that can complement other military operations.

But, Hagel said, the military’s first purpose is “to prevent and de-escalate conflict.” The Pentagon will maintain “an approach of restraint to any cyber operations outside of U.S. government networks.”  Although some U.S. adversaries, notably China and Russia, which also have formidable cyber capabilities, may view his remarks with skepticism, Hagel said the Pentagon is making an effort to be “open and transparent” about its cyber­forces and doctrine. The hope, senior officials said, is that transparency will lead to greater stability in cyberspace.  To underscore the point, Hagel’s speech was broadcast live from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, the first such broadcast from the agency…

Tensions over U.S. cyber operations intensified again last weekend after a report that the NSA had penetrated the networks of a Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei Technologies, in search of evidence that it was involved in espionage operations for Beijing and to use its equipment to spy on adversaries such as Iran. After the disclosure, first reported by the New York Times and Der Spiegel, China demanded a halt to any such activity and called for an explanation…

Analysts said that China and Russia were unlikely to be convinced by Hagel’s remarks. Revelations about the NSA’s activities, based on documents provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, make U.S. assertions that it is focused on protecting U.S. national security — and not actively infiltrating others’ networks — that much harder to accept, they said.

Excerpts from: Ellen Nakashima, U.S. cyberwarfare force to grow significantly, defense secretary says, Washington Post, Mar. 28, 2014

See also http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=121928