US officially blames Russia’s ‘Dragonfly’ hackers for attacks on energy grid

16 Mar 2018

Image: AgriTech/Shutterstock

US authorities detail numerous attacks on critical infrastructure, including energy grids and nuclear facilities.

In an unprecedented alert, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI have warned of persistent attacks by Russian government hackers on critical US government sectors, including energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation and manufacturing.

The alert details numerous attempts extending back to March 2016 when Russian cyber operatives targeted US government and infrastructure.

The DHS and FBI said: “DHS and FBI characterise this activity as a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber-actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks, where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing and gained remote access into energy sector networks.

“After obtaining access, the Russian government cyber-actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved laterally and collected information pertaining to industrial control systems.”

The threat was first described in a report last year by researchers at Symantec who singled out ‘Dragonfly’, a sophisticated group of hackers supported by the Kremlin.

In some cases, Dragonfly successfully broke into the core systems that control US and European energy companies, Symantec revealed.

“The energy sector has become an area of increased interest to cyber-attackers over the past two years,” Symantec said in its report.

“Most notably, disruptions to Ukraine’s power system in 2015 and 2016 were attributed to a cyberattack and led to power outages affecting hundreds of thousands of people. In recent months, there have also been media reports of attempted attacks on the electricity grids in some European countries, as well as reports of companies that manage nuclear facilities in the US being compromised by hackers.

“The Dragonfly group appears to be interested in both learning how energy facilities operate and also gaining access to operational systems themselves, to the extent that the group now potentially has the ability to sabotage or gain control of these systems should it decide to do so. Symantec customers are protected against the activities of the Dragonfly group.”

The Dragonfly 2.0 attack heralds a new cyber Cold War

US officially blames Russia’s ‘Dragonfly’ hackers for attacks on energy grid

Image: Symantec

In recent weeks, senior US intelligence officials said that the Kremlin believes it can launch hacking operations against the West with impunity.

Yesterday (15 March), the US treasury department imposed sanctions on 19 Russian people and five groups, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the US 2016 presidential election and other malicious cyberattacks.

Russia, for its part, has vowed to retaliate against the new sanctions.

The DHS and FBI report further elaborated: “This campaign comprises two distinct categories of victims: staging and intended targets. The initial victims are peripheral organisations such as trusted third-party suppliers with less-secure networks, referred to as ‘staging targets’ throughout this alert.

“The threat actors used the staging targets’ networks as pivot points and malware repositories when targeting their final intended victims. National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center and FBI judge the ultimate objective of the actors is to compromise organisational networks, also referred to as the ‘intended target’.”

According to the US alert, hackers used a variety of attack methods, including spear-phishing emails, watering-hole domains, credential gathering, open source and network reconnaissance, host-based exploitation, and deliberate targeting of ICS infrastructure.

The attackers also targeted VPN software and used password cracking tools.

Once inside, the attackers downloaded tools from a remote server and then carried out a number of actions, including modifying key systems to store plaintext credentials in memory, and built web shells to gain command and control of targeted systems.

“This actors’ campaign has affected multiple organisations in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation, construction and critical manufacturing sectors,” the DHS said, before outlining a number of steps that IT managers in infrastructure organisations can take to cleanse their systems and defend against Russian hackers.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years