The US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has sanctioned a Russian government research institution connected to the Triton malware.
Triton, also referred to as TRISIS and HatMan in open source reporting, was designed to target and manipulate industrial safety systems. These systems allow for the industrial processes at critical infrastructure facilities to safely shut down in order to protect the people working there.
In August 2017, attackers used Triton to target a petrochemical facility in the Middle East. The attack infected six Triconex Emergency Shut Down (ESD) machines, all of which provide emergency shutdown for plant processes to prevent physical threats when conditions are unsafe. This attack was supported by the State Research Center of the Russian Federation FGUP Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics, the US Treasury reports today.
In this 2017 attack, Triton was deployed through a phishing attack that targeted the facility; once inside, its operators tried to manipulate the industrial control system (ICS) controllers. During the attack, the facility automatically shut down after several ICS controllers went into a "failed safe state," which blocked the malware from deploying its full functionality and led to an investigation in which Triton was discovered.
Two years later, another critical infrastructure organization was infected with Triton malware. Analysts found a set of custom Triton attack tools linked to the second victim organization while conducting research. Overlap in the tools gave "high confidence" it was the same attacker.
"With control of these safety systems, hackers could potentially allow an unsafe state to occur or, worse yet, use their access to other control systems to cause an unsafe state, [and] then allow that state to continue, potentially causing dangerous conditions and threatening human life," says Nathan Brubaker, senior manager of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, who found the Russian link to Triton.
In recent years, Triton has been used against US partners in the Middle East, and its operators have reportedly been scanning US facilities. In 2019, attackers behind Triton were seen probing at least 20 electric utilities in the United States for security flaws.
Read the full US Treasury release for more details.