Attackers Increase Focus on North American Electric Utilities: Report

Electric utilities continue to be a target of nation-state attackers, even before the latest tensions between Iran and the United States, says a critical-infrastructure security firm.

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The companies responsible for the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity have attracted the attention of an increasing number of cyberattack groups, industrial-control system security firm Dragos said in a report published on January 9.

In recent months, four groups have expanded their activities to conduct early reconnaissance and attack efforts against electric utilities. Two of the groups, which Dragos refers to as Parisite and Magnallium, appear to have links to an Iranian state-sponsored cyber-espionage group, dubbed APT33 and Elfin by other security firms. Dragos does not attribute attacks to specific actors, but noted in the report that Magnallium's "increased activity coincides with rising escalations between the US ... and Iran in the Middle East."

Overall, seven of the 11 groups that Dragos tracks now appear interested in reconnoitering and compromising electric utilities, says Amy Bejtlich, director of intelligence analysis for Dragos.

"Across the board we are seeing an increase in activity, an increase in targeting, and an increase in sophistication," she says. "Adversary groups are recognizing the value of targeting industrial environments, so as defenders, we have to be aware of activity, not just in one sector, but across all sectors."

The report comes as tensions continued to rise between the United States and Iran, following the US assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the subsequent Iranian missile attack on military bases housing American soldiers in Iraq, and the revelation that the downing of a Ukraine International Airlines plane flying from Iran was likely due to an anti-missile system. Security experts have worried that the tensions may manifest as cyberattacks against US companies and infrastructure, and the US Department of Homeland Security warned firms this week to be on heightened alert.

The Dragos report, a summary of the current threat landscape, had been completed before the latest events, however. 

"Historically, adversaries have demonstrated the capabilities to significantly disrupt electric operations in large-scale cyber events through specialized malware and deep knowledge of targets’ operations environments," the report stated. "Although North America has not experienced similar attacks, ICS-targeting adversaries exhibit the interest and ability to target such networks with activities that could facilitate such attacks." 

Two of the activity groups — Parisite and Wassonite — are new entries into Dragos's pantheon of threats, but are not new groups. Parisite has operated since at least 2017, targeting utilities, aerospace firms, and oil-and-gas companies. Wassonite focuses on electric generation, nuclear energy and manufacturing targets in Asia. 

The groups' decisions to target North American power companies is not surprising. The North American electric grid is a favored target of attackers. Two-thirds of the groups tracked by Dragos are focused on reconnaissance and disruption of the grid, according to the firm. For example, Xenotime has focused on oil-and-gas companies, but shifted its targeting to also include power companies in the US, Dragos stated in the report.

Critical infrastructure firms take cybersecurity seriously, but many are not ready for focused attackers. A Ponemon Institute survey found that more than half of respondents had suffered a "shutdown or operational data loss" in the past year. Only 42% of those surveyed felt their organization was prepared for an attack, despite the fact that a quarter of utilities and industrial companies had been targeted by nation-state actors, according to the report.  

Utilities, and any company with an operational network, should learn about cyber actors targeting not just their industry, but adjacent verticals as well, says Selena Larson, an intelligence analyst with Dragos.

"We want to get the point across to utilities that you should be aware of the tactics, techniques and procedures, and the behaviors we are observing from these groups, regardless of whether they are targeting your specific vertical or not," she says. "At any point, they could expand or change focus." 

The cautionary tale for companies in the power industry is the December 2015 cyberattack on a utility's power distribution capabilities, causing an hours-long black out for hundreds of thousands of people in the Ukraine. The following year, the same attackers — called Sandworm by many companies, but Electrum by Dragos — caused failures in the generator systems in Kiev, Ukraine.

"Although adversaries have not disrupted electric distribution operations in North America, the behaviors and tool use exhibited by activity groups including Sandworm and Electrum could be deployed in electric distribution facilities within North America," Dragos stated in its report.

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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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