Tag Archives: cyberattack

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

Who is Afraid of Shamoon? How to Wipe a Country Off the Face of the Earth

Suspected Iranian hackers infiltrated critical infrastructure and government computers in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in July-August  2019, raising fears among leaders in the region that Tehran is stepping up its cyberattacks amid growing tensions…Hackers broke into the systems of Bahrain’s National Security Agency—the country’s main criminal investigative authority—as well as the Ministry of Interior and the first deputy prime minister’s office, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

On July 25, 2019 Bahrain authorities identified intrusions into its Electricity and Water Authority. The hackers shut down several systems in what the authorities believed was a test run of Iran’s capability to disrupt the country, the person said. “They had command and control of some of the systems,” the person said.  The breaches appeared broadly similar to two hacks in 2012 that knocked Qatar’s natural-gas firm RasGas offline and wiped data from computer hard drives belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Aramco national oil company, a devastating attack that relied on a powerful virus known as Shamoon.  Bahrain is the smallest country in the Persian Gulf, but it is strategically important because it’s the permanent home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Navy Central Command. It is closely allied with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.

The Bahrain authorities haven’t definitively attributed the attack to Iran, but they have been provided intelligence by the U.S. and others suggesting Iran is behind it, the people familiar with the matter said….“In the first half of 2019, the Information & eGovernment Authority successfully intercepted over 6 million attacks and over 830,000 malicious emails. The attempted attacks did not result in downtime or disruption of government services,” 

Excerpt from High-Level Cyber Intrusions Hit Bahrain Amid Tensions With Iran, WSJ, Aug. 7, 2019

The Brutal Kangaroos

On June 22nd 2017, WikiLeaks published documents from the Brutal Kangaroo project of the CIA. Brutal Kangaroo is a tool suite for Microsoft Windows that targets closed networks by air gap jumping using thumbdrives…

The documents describe how a CIA operation can infiltrate a closed network (or a single air-gapped computer) within an organization or enterprise without direct access. It first infects a Internet-connected computer within the organization (referred to as “primary host”) and installs the BrutalKangaroo malware on it. When a user is using the primary host and inserts a USB stick into it, the thumbdrive itself is infected with a separate malware. If this thumbdrive is used to copy data between the closed network and the LAN/WAN, the user will sooner or later plug the USB disk into a computer on the closed network. By browsing the USB drive with Windows Explorer on such a protected computer, it also gets infected with exfiltration/survey malware. If multiple computers on the closed network are under CIA control, they form a covert network to coordinate tasks and data exchange. Although not explicitly stated in the documents, this method of compromising closed networks is very similar to how Stuxnet worked.

Excerpts from Brutal Kangaroo Press Release Wikileaks, June 22, 2017

Biometrics: Behavioral and Physical

From DARPA pdf document available at  FedBizOpps. Gov Enhanced Attribution
Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-34

Malicious actors in cyberspace currently operate with little fear of being caught due to the fact that it is extremely difficult, in some cases perhaps even impossible, to reliably and confidently attribute actions in cyberspace to individuals. The reason cyber attribution is difficult stems at least in part from a lack of end-to-end accountability in the current Internet infrastructure…..The identities of malicious cyber operators are largely obstructed by the use of multiple layers of indirection… The lack of detailed information about the actions and identities of the adversary cyber operators inhibits policymaker considerations and decisions for both cyber and non-cyber response options (e.g., economic sanctions under EO-13694).

The DARPA’s Enhanced Attribution program aims to make currently opaque malicious cyber adversary actions and individual cyber operator attribution transparent by providing high-fidelity visibility into all aspects of malicious cyber operator actions and to increase the Government’s ability to publicly reveal the actions of individual malicious cyber operators without damaging sources and methods….

The program seeks to develop:

–technologies to extract behavioral and physical biometrics from a range of devices and
vantage points to consistently identify virtual personas and individual malicious cyber
operators over time and across different endpoint devices and C2 infrastructures;
–techniques to decompose the software tools and actions of malicious cyber operators into semantically rich and compressed knowledge representations;
–scalable techniques to fuse, manage, and project such ground-truth information over time,toward developing a full historical and current picture of malicious activity;

–algorithms for developing predictive behavioral profiles within the context of cyber campaigns; and
–technologies for validating and perhaps enriching this knowledge base with other sources of data, including public and commercial sources of information.

Excerpts from Enhanced Attribution, Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-34, April 22, 2016

Iran Wants to Be North Korea: nuclear weapons

The US tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme five years  (2010) ago but ultimately failed, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.  The operation began in tandem with the now-famous Stuxnet attack that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear programme in 2009 and 2010 by destroying a thousand or more centrifuges that were enriching uraniumc. Reuters and others have reported that the Iran attack was a joint effort by US and Israeli forces.

According to one US intelligence source, Stuxnet’s developers produced a related virus that would be activated when it encountered Korean-language settings on an infected machine…But the National Security Agency-led campaign was stymied by North Korea’s utter secrecy, as well as the extreme isolation of its communications systems...North Korea has some of the most isolated communications networks in the world. Just owning a computer requires police permission, and the open internet is unknown except to a tiny elite. The country has one main conduit for internet connections to the outside world, through China.  In contrast, Iranians surfed the net broadly and had interactions with companies from around the globe.

The US has launched many cyber espionage campaigns, but North Korea is only the second country, after Iran, that the NSA is now known to have targeted with software designed to destroy equipment.

Experts in nuclear programmes said there were similarities between North Korea and Iran’s operations, and the two countries continue to collaborate on military technology. Both countries use a system with P-2 centrifuges, obtained by Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan, who is regarded as the father of Islamabad’s nuclear bomb, they said. Like Iran, North Korea probably directs its centrifuges with control software developed by Siemens AG that runs on Microsoft Corp’s Windows operating system, the experts said. Stuxnet took advantage of vulnerabilities in both the Siemens and Microsoft programmes…

Despite modest differences between the programmes, “Stuxnet can deal with both of them. But you still need to get it in,” said Olli Heinonen, senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency…

The Stuxnet campaign against Iran, code-named Olympic Games, was discovered in 2010. It remains unclear how the virus was introduced to the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz, which was not connected to the Internet.,,,According to cybersecurity experts, Stuxnet was found inside industrial companies in Iran that were tied to the nuclear effort. As for how Stuxnet got there, a leading theory is that it was deposited by a sophisticated espionage programme developed by a team closely allied to Stuxnet’s authors, dubbed the Equation Group by researchers at Kaspersky Lab…

In addition, North Korea likely has plutonium, which does not require a cumbersome enrichment process depending on the cascading centrifuges that were a fat target for Stuxnet, they said.

Excerpts from NSA tried Stuxnet cyber-attack on North Korea five years ago but failed, Reuters, May 29, 2015

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

Cyber-Warriors: US and China

On May 19th, 2014 the Justice Department unveiled 31 charges against five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving breaking six laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots of the men beneath the legend “wanted by the FBI”. They may never be punished, but that is not the point. Google any of their names and the mugshots now appear, the online equivalent of a perp walk.

That China’s government spies on the commercial activities of companies in America is not news in itself. Last year Mandiant, a cyber-security firm based in Virginia, released a report that identified Unit 61398 of the PLA as the source of cyber-attacks against 140 companies since 2006. But the indictment does reveal more details about what sorts of things the Chinese cybersnoops have been snaffling.

Hackers stole designs for pipes from Westinghouse, an American firm, when it was building four nuclear power stations in China, and also took e-mails from executives who were negotiating with a state-owned company. They took financial information from SolarWorld, a maker of solar panels; gained access to computers owned by US Steel while it was in a trade dispute with a state-owned company; and took files from Alcoa, an aluminium producer, while it was in a joint venture with another Chinese government-backed firm. ATI, another metal firm, and the United Steelworkers union were hacked, too.

American firms that do business in China have long lobbied behind closed doors for Uncle Sam to do something about Chinese hackers. America’s government has hitherto followed a similar logic, pressing China in private. The decision to make a fuss reflects the failure of that approach. When the existence of Unit 61398 became public its troops paused for a while, then continued as before.

Confronting the PLA’s hackers comes at a cost. China has pulled out of a bilateral working group on cyber-security in response to the indictments. Global Times, a Chinese English-language daily, denounced America as: “a mincing rascal”. But doing nothing has a cost, too. Companies like Westinghouse and US Steel have a hard enough time competing with Chinese firms, without having their business plans and designs pinched by thieves in uniform. Nor is the spying limited to manufacturers: tech companies have been targeted by the same group…

Second, America’s spying on Huawei, a Chinese maker of telecoms and networking equipment, makes China’s government doubt that America follows its own rules.

Chinese spying: Cybersnoops and mincing rascals,  Economist, May 24, at 28