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Larry Loeb
Larry Loeb
Larry Loeb

XENOTIME Threat Actor Laying the Groundwork to Disrupt Utilities

Malware targets Schneider Electric's Triconex safety instrumented system.

Dragos has been watching the XENOTIME threat actor since it first came on the scene in 2014. It wrote a new advisorythat says this threat actor is showing new signs of expansion into new verticals.

XENOTIME has always been focused on industrial control systems. The 2017 TRISIS malware attack on a Saudi Arabian oil and gas facility represented a general escalation of attacks on ICS. TRISIS targeted safety systems and was designed to cause loss of life or physical damage.

FireEye Intelligence assesses with high confidence that the intrusion activity was supported by the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (CNIIHM; a.k.a. ЦНИИХМ), a Russian government-owned technical research institution located in Moscow. This is bolstered by trace elements in the malware used.

The malware is called TRISIS because it targets Schneider Electric's Triconex safety instrumented system (SIS) enabling the replacement of logic in final control elements. TRISIS is highly targeted and likely does not pose an immediate threat to other Schneider Electric customers, let alone other SIS products. Schneider initially thought that the malware had not leveraged any vulnerabilities in its product, but the company has now said that it did in fact exploit a flaw in older versions of the Triconex Tricon system.

Triconex safety systems are used in numerous industries. But Dragos found that each SIS is unique and to understand process implications would require specific knowledge of the process. This means that TRISIS is not a highly scalable attack that could be easily deployed across numerous victims without significant additional work.

But following that Saudi incident, Dragos has found that XENOTIME had expanded its operations to include oil and gas entities outside the Middle East. Additionally, the group compromised several ICS vendors and manufacturers in 2018.

In February 2019, while working with clients across various utilities and regions, Dragos said that they had identified a persistent pattern of activity which was "attempting to gather information and enumerate network resources associated with US and Asia-Pacific electric utilities."

Dragos says that, "XENOTIME used credential capture and replay to move between networks, Windows commands, standard command-line tools such as PSExec, and proprietary tools for operations on victim hosts."

The observed XENOTIME activity focuses on initial information gathering and access operations that would be necessary for any follow-on ICS intrusion operations.

Dragos does not think that XENOTIME is currently capable of executing a prolonged disruptive or destructive event on electric utility operations. What the Dragos people think is important about the observed activity is that it shows the adversary's interest in meeting the prerequisites for doing so. They are getting ready to do mischief.

— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.

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