Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Attacks/Breaches

10/11/2017
05:45 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

North Korean Threat Actors Probe US Electric Companies

September spear phishing attack appeared to be more reconnaissance activity than sign of impending attack, FireEye says.

Known threat actors based in North Korea recently targeted several US electric companies in a spear-phishing campaign that appeared to be more of an early reconnaissance mission than an attempt to cause any immediate disruption.

Even so, the attacks are another indication of North Korea's willingness to go after cyber targets that others tend to leave alone for fear of retaliation, says Christopher Porter, chief intelligence strategist at FireEye, which this week issued an alert on the incident.

"North Korea probably is attempting intrusions into US energy companies to deter potential military action," Porter says. The goal is to try and increase anxiety over their capacity to retaliate, he says.

"They [have used] these same techniques against South Korea, compromising nuclear industry targets and exaggerating the access they had in order to instill fear disproportionate to North Korea’s ability to cause damage," Porter notes.

FireEye said its security controls detected and stopped spear phishing emails sent to targets at multiple US electric companies on Sept. 22. There was nothing about the campaign to suggest broader North Korean cyberattacks or capabilities against US critical infrastructure targets.

The threat actors did not use any tools or methods that were designed to compromise or to manipulate industrial control systems or disrupt electricity supply, according to FireEye.

State-sponsored spear phishing campaigns against energy sector targets are not at all unusual, especially during times of high geopolitical tensions between nations. Often the goal is to gather intelligence that could be used to formulate retaliatory attacks in case the situation warrants it. FireEye itself has detected more than 20 threat actor groups sponsored by at least four other nation states that have targeted energy sector companies for this reason.

What makes the North Korean campaign significant is the nation's willingness to use its offensive capabilities in cyberspace without a whole lot of thought to potential consequences. "North Korean hackers are highly skilled but, more importantly, they are willing to conduct operations that the other major cyber powers do not do," Porter says.

As examples, he points to North Korea's suspected involvement in the 2016 cyberattacks on the SWIFT financial network, its attacks on European financial regulators and banks in Southeast Asia, and on cryptocurrencies. Many, including the US National Security Agency (NSA) believe North Korea was also responsible for the WannaCry ransomware pandemic earlier this year.

Multiple nation-state sponsored groups have the ability to carry out similar attacks. North Korea is the only one to go ahead and carry them out with little regard for discovery and attribution. "Because North Korea is so isolated diplomatically and economically there is little downside for them to conduct aggressive operations," Porter says.

Compared to threat groups from other countries, those in North Korea still rely mostly on spear phishing and relatively simple malware to break into most targets. They have also been innovative in their deployment of state-controlled ransomware and disk wipers. But "the real danger from North Korea is that they are willing to experiment with new techniques against sensitive targets," he notes.

Concerns regarding the threat that North Korea poses to US critical infrastructure targets need to be taken seriously, says Eddie Habibi, CEO of PAS, a provider of ICS security services.

"Process control networks in the critical infrastructure industries are the most vulnerable cyber assets with the most significant physical consequences if compromised," he says. Many organizations do not maintain an accurate inventory of their ICS equipment and at best have visibility into about 20% of the devices on their process control network — meaning the remaining 80% is left unprotected.

North Korea itself has continued to evolve its network attack capabilities and all indications are that country's ability to target other nations will mature, Habibi says. At the same time, North Korea's own limited connectivity to the outside world and its use of third-party proxy operatives makes them less vulnerable to reciprocal attacks, he says.

FireEye's report on the phishing attack follows a new report from the New York Times this week about North Korean threat actors stealing classified wartime contingency plans from a South Korean military network last year.

During the Sept 2016 attack codenamed "Desert Wolf," North Korean actors managed to break into some 3,200 systems, including 700 apparently air-gapped computers belonging to the South Korean military. The breach resulted in the theft of some 235 gigabytes of classified data, which included plans to remove North Korean president Kim Jong-un in the event of a war in the Korean Peninsula.

Related Content:

 

Join Dark Reading LIVE for two days of practical cyber defense discussions. Learn from the industry’s most knowledgeable IT security experts. Check out the INsecurity agenda here.

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Threaded  |  Newest First  |  Oldest First
US Turning Up the Heat on North Korea's Cyber Threat Operations
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  9/16/2019
Preventing PTSD and Burnout for Cybersecurity Professionals
Craig Hinkley, CEO, WhiteHat Security,  9/16/2019
NetCAT Vulnerability Is Out of the Bag
Dark Reading Staff 9/12/2019
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Current Issue
7 Threats & Disruptive Forces Changing the Face of Cybersecurity
This Dark Reading Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at the biggest emerging threats and disruptive forces that are changing the face of cybersecurity today.
Flash Poll
The State of IT Operations and Cybersecurity Operations
The State of IT Operations and Cybersecurity Operations
Your enterprise's cyber risk may depend upon the relationship between the IT team and the security team. Heres some insight on what's working and what isn't in the data center.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-13552
PUBLISHED: 2019-09-18
In WebAccess versions 8.4.1 and prior, multiple command injection vulnerabilities are caused by a lack of proper validation of user-supplied data and may allow arbitrary file deletion and remote code execution.
CVE-2019-15301
PUBLISHED: 2019-09-18
A SQL injection vulnerability in the method Terrasoft.Core.DB.Column.Const() in Terrasoft Bpm'online CRM-System SDK 7.13 allows attackers to execute arbitrary SQL commands via the value parameter.
CVE-2019-5042
PUBLISHED: 2019-09-18
An exploitable Use-After-Free vulnerability exists in the way FunctionType 0 PDF elements are processed in Aspose.PDF 19.2 for C++. A specially crafted PDF can cause a dangling heap pointer, resulting in a use-after-free. An attacker can send a malicious PDF to trigger this vulnerability.
CVE-2019-5066
PUBLISHED: 2019-09-18
An exploitable use-after-free vulnerability exists in the way LZW-compressed streams are processed in Aspose.PDF 19.2 for C++. A specially crafted PDF can cause a dangling heap pointer, resulting in a use-after-free condition. To trigger this vulnerability, a specifically crafted PDF document needs ...
CVE-2019-5067
PUBLISHED: 2019-09-18
An uninitialized memory access vulnerability exists in the way Aspose.PDF 19.2 for C++ handles invalid parent object pointers. A specially crafted PDF can cause a read and write from uninitialized memory, resulting in memory corruption and possibly arbitrary code execution. To trigger this vulnerabi...