ICS-CERT Surge In attacks against Energy Industry

Pierluigi Paganini July 02, 2013

The ICS-CERT issued a new Monitor report that revealed a surge of brute force attacks against control systems mainly belonging to the energy sector.

The ICS-CERT issued a new Monitor report that revealed an intensification for brute force attacks against control systems mainly belonging to the energy sector. The ICS-CERT received notification for more than 200 cyber attacks against critical infrastructure operators between October 2012 and May 2013.

ICS-CERT Monitor Report Energy sector


Analyzing the sectors hit by the cyber attacks it is possible to note that 53% (111) of the offensives targeted control systems in Energy sector followed by Critical Manufacturing Industry at 17% (32).

Which kind of attacks hit the industries?

According the ICS-CERT the victims were targeted by mostly by watering hole attacks, SQL injection, and spear phishing.

ICS-CERT reported an increase of brute force attacks against a gas compressor station owner, the attack campaign fortunately didn’t result in any actual breaches. The ICS-CERT issued an official alert on its secure portal about the attacks against the gas compressor plant providing also the 10 IP addresses being used in the offensives.  The attacks were concentrated against Gas compressor stations located in the Midwest and Plains region, they try to exploit weak or default passwords used to protect component of control systems exposed on the Internet, in the past numerous attacks of this type was notified to the ICS-CERT.

“On February 22, 2013, ICS-CERT received a report from a gas compressor station owner about an increase in brute force attempts to access their process control network. ICS-CERT posted an alert on the US-CERT secure portal (Control Systems Center), containing 10 IP addresses, to warn other critical infrastructure asset owners, especially in the natural gas industry, to watch for similar activity. That alert elicited additional reports from critical infrastructure owners who, using the indicators in the alert, had discovered similar brute force attempts to compromise their networks. Those new reports yielded 39 new IP addresses, which ICS-CERT included in an update to the original alert (also posted on the secure portal),” the ICS-CERT states in its Monitor Report.

Lila Kee, North American Energy Standards Board member highlighted the fact that ICS-CERT report is the demonstration of the concrete risk of cyber attacks against critical infrastructures and in particular against the energy sector. Kee confirmed the need to rapidly report that incidents and share data on attacks to prevent further damage.

“The report notes that the first half of 2013 yielded 200 brute-force cyber attacks, surpassing 2012’s total of 198 attacks. Although attacks on major gas and electric systems are nothing new to those in the industry, these facts serve as evidence that low-level criminals, all the way up to state-sponsored groups, see the value in compromising our nation’s critical infrastructure,” Kee commented.

“Although the North American Energy Standards Board has done a fantastic job by drafting and recommending security standards, it is necessary that the critical infrastructure as a whole implement these standards to best apply preventative measures that prepare for the ever-increasing number and methods of targeted attacks,” Kee added.

The majority of attacks according ICS-CERT occurs remotely, what is concerning in my opinion is that despite ICS-CERT analysts went on-site for five incidents in the first half of FY 2013 to investigate sophisticated incidents, in many cases their analysis was inconclusive because of limited or non-existent logging and forensics data from the ICS network

“While onsite, ICS-CERT analysts examined networks and artifacts to determine if ICS networks were also compromised. Unfortunately, in many cases that analysis was inconclusive because of limited or non-existent logging and forensics data from the ICS network,” the report said.

The theme of cyber security for critical infrastructures is highly debated, cyber threats could hit foreign countries causing loss of human lives identically to a conventional attack, government are facing with a silently and unpredictable menace that could be conducted by state-sponsored hackers or cyber criminals with the different purposes, sabotage  or cyber espionage.

Emergency Response Teams of every country are approaching the problem, they are working to complete a census of the structures examining their safety level, these groups of works are also working on awareness programs and information sharing, key activities to mitigate the risks.

Recently the U.S. Industrial Control System Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) has released a report that alerts on the increasing number of attacks against US critical infrastructure between 2009 to 2011, it is registered an impressive growth of the number of incidents, following its progression:

The fact that the attempts were failed should not make us feel safe, the situation is critical and the level of alert must be high, cyber security of critical infrastructures is a must for any government like reinforced by this report.

“While none of the brute force attempts were successful, these incidents highlight the need for constant vigilance on the part of industry asset owners and operators. The ability to detect anomalous network activity and network intrusions early in an incident greatly increases the chance of a successful mitigation and resolution,” 

The most common attack vector for network intrusion was spear-phishing, used for seven of the 17 incidents, critical is the risk assessment phase, according Lamar Bailey, director of security research and development at nCircle:

“We need a lot more collaboration between IT and security organizations to dramatically improve the accuracy of risk assessments.”

The guideline provided by the report are clear:

  • Conduct detailed censuses of the structures and rated risk assessments to identify the main vulnerabilities and the cyber threats that could exploit them.
  • Define, divulgate and adopt best practices to defend the critical infrastructures.
  • To deal with spear-phishing firms must develop a security training program that will prepare the employees for the possible vector attacks and the main social engineering techniques.

In this scenario we will expect that the number of attacks will increase also in the next years, however the increased level of awareness and the high interest in the matter could avoid serious consequences.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – ICS-CERT, Cyber security)

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