Attack a warning on vulnerabilities in energy networks, security analysts say.

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Several cybersecurity experts this week cautioned against underestimating the seriousness of a cyberattack on an EDI service provider that disrupted data communication services at four major US interstate gas pipeline companies in the last few days.

The attack does not appear to have interrupted gas pipeline operations or cause any damage to operational systems at any of the four organizations. So far there is no information on motive or whether the attack was targeted in nature or merely opportunistic. Even so, it would be a mistake to treat the attack with anything other than the most serious attention, say several security analysts.

"Due to interdependencies in the energy sector organizations should be extremely concerned," says Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at Carbon Black. "Attacks like these create systemic risk and foreshadow nefarious campaigns." 

Oneok Inc, Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, Energy Transfer Partners, and Eastern Shore Natural Gas had to discontinue using their Electronic Data Interchange system for communicating with customers following a cyberattack on Latitude Technologies, their third-party service provider, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday.

The attack did not impact any operational systems, and to date no customer data is believed compromised. Energy Transfer Partners and Eastern Shore Natural reported restoring EDI services Monday evening. A Boardwalk spokesman says customers are conducting business via a company customer activities website until EDI service is fully operational.

Oneok did not respond immediately to a Dark Reading request for a status update. But in a statement on its website, the company said it had temporarily disabled EDI services as a precautionary measure and had advised customers to use alternate communication methods for gas scheduling purposes.

Latitude — a subsidiary of Energy Service Group — alsodid not respond immediately to a Dark Reading request seeking more details on the attack and its efforts to restore impacted services. The company touts its EDI services as being used by dozens of interstate gas pipeline companies, energy marketers, data aggregators, and management firms to protect, translate and track key energy transactions.

The attack comes amid heightened concerns about government-sponsored actors in Russia and China targeting US organizations in critical infrastructure sectors. Just last month, the US government in a rare move, formally accused Russian operatives of targeting energy companies in the US while slapping sanctions on several of them.

Some executives, including Patrick McBride, a vice president at ICS security vendor Claroty, think what happened to Latitude most likely was financially motivated. Attackers may have been hoping to hijack Latitude's network or systems and extort money from the company as happens with any ransomware attack. Another possibility is that they could have been hoping to find information of value they could monetize in the EDI streams.

The third, and most troubling, possibility is that they were hoping to find a way into the energy companies via a third-party network. "All of these industrial environments have vendors that support different aspects of the control system," McBride says. Not all of those vendors "are driving their cars out to the pumping station or water treatment plant. They are logging in from a remote location," which attackers can target, he says.

It's not so much a matter of attacking EDI communications specifically. It's more about looking for any open attack vector in which to gain a foothold for jumping into a broader network or set of critical systems adds Mike Kail, CTO at CYBRIC. "Think of it as squeezing through a pet door in order to gain access to an entire house and more valuable assets."

Kellermann believes the attackers went after Latitude in order to gather information on the energy strategies and operational dependencies of organizations using the company's EDI services. "This was the first stage of an attack campaign. This attack was focused on recon," Kellermann says. "They are discerning the vulnerability of gas distribution networks to cyberattack. This is very concerning as a non-rational actor like a rogue regime might decide to light the cyber match." 

The attack — and its impact on the four companies — is sure to prompt a greater review of the security risks posed by third-party support services in the energy sector as elsewhere. Networks belonging to suppliers, partners, and service providers typically have trusted access to enterprise networks but are very often far less protected. Unsurprisingly, attackers have repeatedly targeted these networks to try and gain access to their ultimate targets.

In fact, according to penetration-testing firm IOActive, almost three-quarters of attacks targeting industrial control systems have their initial point of entry via a third-party system. In penetration tests that the company has conducted within the energy sector, most often its testers have been able to break into a network via a third-party connector, according to Bryan Singer, director of security services at IOActive. 

In one instance, IOActive gained access into an industrial network at a refinery via old websites belonging to companies that the organization no longer even worked with. "And these attack paths bypassed most security controls such as IDS and firewalls," he says.

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

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 career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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