Crypto-ransomware groups are increasingly adopting malware and tools that can probe and attack operational technology, such as industrial control systems, according to an assessment of current threats.

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Ransomware groups are increasingly adopting techniques that could be used to hurt the operations of manufacturing companies, such as incorporating code that looks for and exploits industrial control systems (ICSes) and can spread from IT networks to OT networks, according to ICS security firm Dragos.

In a report released today, the company points to multiple codebases — including EKANS, Megacortex, and Clop — that now include code for stopping processes in ICSes, and pointed to multiple public ransomware incidents that shut down manufacturing firms. In March 2020, for example, a strain of the Ryuk ransomware hit steel maker EVRAZ, shutting down production and leading to the temporary furloughing of more than 1,000 workers for at least four days, Dragos stated, citing media reports.

While other types of attacks have targeted manufacturers, ransomware poses the most risk in 2020, especially for many critical subsectors of the industry, says Selena Larson, senior cyberthreat analyst at Dragos.

"Manufacturing is incredibly important and crucial as a supplier to many other industries," he says. "Pharmaceutical makers are hugely important, especially when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. And take the defense industrial base — that supports government and military infrastructure."

The focus on manufacturing companies is not surprising given ransomware's evolution. Healthcare, local government, and school districts have all been highly visible targets of ransomware groups because they all have an operational component. Taking down those organizations' capabilities has a direct impact on services and operations, often leading to the disclosure of the breach and making the payment of the ransom the best business decision.

In 2019, Dragos' incident response team found two-thirds of incidents involved attackers accessing an ICS directly from the Internet, while all attacks were able to connect out from their operational environments, allowing adversaries to exfiltrate data.

In July, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned companies that adversaries were increasingly targeting operational networks using spear-phishing, searching for Internet-connected industrial equipment controllers, and often deploying commodity ransomware.

"Since the Ukraine cyberattack of 2015, organizations must assume in their planning of not only a malfunctioning or inoperative control system, but a control system that is actively acting contrary to the safe and reliable operation of the process," the advisory warned. 

In its report, Dragos also warned that adversaries, especially nation-state actors, were targeting manufacturer's intellectual property and that third-party suppliers and partners were often compromised as a way into a manufacturer's network.

"Leveraging third-party connections can enable an adversary to conduct espionage, reconnaissance, and data theft operations to pre-position themselves for a potentially disruptive OT attack," Dragos stated in the report. "Due to interconnected relationships [that] manufacturing companies have across industrial verticals, asset owners and operators should be aware of threats to all ICS entities and incorporate ICS-specific threat intelligence into security operations and risk management." 

While Dragos does attribute attacks to specific groups based on their capabilities, infrastructure, who they target, and the details of their online footprint — referred to as the diamond threat model — the company did not link attacks back to specific nation-states. In general, however, many ransomware attacks do seem connected to nation-state actors and likely are a way for some actors to gain experience and funding. The groups that Dragos dubbed Chrysene, Magnallium, and Parisite, for example, all target other companies and organizations in the Middle East.

In addition, Dragos' Larson believes nation-state actors likely use attacks on manufacturing networks as a way of training to compromise other critical infrastructure.

"Certainly, there is a concern with ICS-targeting malware, like we've seen with Trisys and CrashOverride, because manufacturing could be a training space for many of these adversaries in developing ICS-specific attacks and crossing from IT into OT," Larson says.

Experts continue to debate which industries are most often attacked by ransomware groups. While Beazley Breach Response Services, for example, noted a 156% increase in the number of ransomware attacks on manufacturing firms in the first quarter of the year, antivirus firm Sophos found manufacturing to be the eighth-most commonly targeted industry by ransomware groups in a global survey of 5,000 IT managers. Media and entertainment and IT firms actually top ransomware's list of victims, according to that survey.

About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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