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Researchers Offer a 'VirusTotal for ICS'

Free online sandbox, honeypot tool simulates a real-world industrial network environment.

S4x18 CONFERENCE – Miami – A team of researchers plans to release an open source online tool for capturing and vetting industrial control system (ICS) malware samples that operates as a sandbox with honeypot features.

David Atch, vice president of research for CyberX, here today outlined details of the free, Web-based sandbox tool he and his team initially developed for research purposes. "It's like a VirusTotal for ICS," he explains in an interview.

VirusTotal is the wildly popular online tool that uses multiple antivirus and scan engines to analyze suspicious files and URLs for malware.

The goal was to create a sandbox that simulates real-world industrial networks. The sandbox tool allows ICS malware to execute and unpack, and then detects telltale malicious activities such as OPC (Open Platform Communications) scanning or overwriting programmable logic controller (PLC) configuration files, and provides quick offline detection, according to CyberX, which plans to roll out the tool in the next couple of months.

Atch says existing network sandbox technology for non-ICS, or IT environments, often misses ICS-specific malware because it doesn't account for OT protocols and devices, for example, and doesn't simulate OT components. "There are not enough tools for the ICS community," Atch says. And VirusTotal isn't ideal for ICS-specific malware, either, he says.

Take Stuxnet. The first Stuxnet variant was sent to VirusTotal in 2007, notes Ralph Langner, founder and CEO of Langner Communications, but Stuxnet wasn't detected until 2012, he says. "I strongly support the idea" of a VirusTotal for ICS malware, he says.

Langner, a top Stuxnet expert, says ICS malware analysis is time-consuming. "It took me three years to analyze Stuxnet," he says.

The ICS malware sandbox tool is aimed at more efficiently spotting ICS-specific malware, and can simulate the types of traffic to and from a PLC, for example, as its honeypot function. That allows the malware to execute in a safe space while unpacking and uncovering its functions and matching them with other known variants. The tool includes OT software, virtualized ICS processes and files, and a low-interaction ICS network (the honeypot element).

The concept of an ICS sandbox isn't new: researchers at Trend Micro in 2013 stood up two honeypot-based architectures that posed as a typical ICS/SCADA environment at a water utility, including one that included a Web-based application for a water pressure station. There were 39 attacks from 14 different nations over a 28-day period. Most attacks on ICS/SCADA systems appeared to come from China (35%), followed by the US (19%) and Laos (12%).

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