Cyber espionage on energy sector,Chinese hackers are not the only

Pierluigi Paganini September 27, 2012

Since last month a new campaign of cyber attacks have hit the Energy sector, all is started with the incidents to Saudi Aramco and RasGas companies, in both cases a malware infected internal networks without impacting on the production systems. Due the nature of the targets, the mode of attack and the specific malware behavior cyber security experts believe that the incidents were caused by cyber warfare operations but it wasn’t possible to discover the real origin of the offensive.

For both attacks experts believe that the malware has in a first phase collected sensible information on the target networks and in a second phase, to erase tracks of its operation, has destroyed the infected machines making hard the subsequent forensic analysis of computer experts.

According  Dell’s SecureWorks Counter Threat Unit since April 2012 a group of hackers has used a Remote Access Trojan named Mirage in cyber espionage campaign against energy firms in Canada and in the Philippines, against a military organization in Taiwan and also other entities in Brazil, Israel, Egypt and Nigeria. The same research team has already discovered a cyber espionage activities in February using similar malware against oil companies in Vietnam and other government agencies in several countries. To spread the malware the hackers have used a spearphishing email, containing a malicious attachment, targeting mid-level to senior-level executives.

The investigation revealed that the command and control (C&C) servers used in the two campaigns were the same and their IP addresses belong to China’s Beijing Province Network. The researchers discovered that same network was also implicated in the attacks on security vendor RSA and Command and control servers are linked to the 2009 GhostNetcyber espionage campaign that targeted government computers in more than 100 companies.

“The Mirage agent has been developed to avoid detection of common antivirus program, for example its communications with its command and control servers are disguised to appear like the URL traffic pattern associated with Google searches.” “One of the variants was seen in a subset of samples that had been modified specifically for the environment targeted by the threat actors,” SecureWorks analyst Silas Cutler wrote in the alert. “These samples had been configured with default credentials for the targeted environment’s web proxy servers,”

According last exclusive revelation of a company specialized in the producing of software and services for energy industry has warned its customers on a possible sophisticated attack detected in the United States, Canada and Spain.

The company Telvent Canada Ltd. communicated to its clients on Sept. 10, 2012 that it suffered of a breach of its internal network security systems, as a precautionary measure it had isolated the portion of impacted networks excluding the leak of sensible information. The fist official communication states:

“Although we do not have any reason to believe that the intruder(s) acquired any information that would enable them to gain access to a customer system or that any of the compromised computers have been connected to a customer system, as a further precautionary measure, we indefinitely terminated any customer system access by Telvent.”


Today Telvent confirmed a security breach involving the project files of some of its customers, a spokesman from Schneider Electric, company owner of Telvent, declared that the company has informed all affected customers of the breach.

“Telvent is actively working with law enforcement, security specialists and its affected customers to ensure the breach has been contained,”

Who is responsible for the attack and which are the motivations behind the offensive?

According the first analysis Chinese hackers are responsible for the attack, Telvent declared that they have used malware to steal information on its product OASyS SCADA adopted by energy firms.

“The product is a real-time SCADA solution that bridges the gap between an enterprise network and activities in the field, delivering real-time data for critical business and operations decisions”

The Stuxnet case highlighted the importance of security requirements in design of control systems exspecially when these industrial components are exposed on internet.

Telvent is anyway a company aware of the risks related to cyber attacks and for this reason it has recently announced a partnership with Foxborough, Mass. based Industrial Defender to expand its cyber security capabilities.

The events proposed raise a series of reflections:

  • first of all the great importance of security of control systems in critical infrastructures in the design phase. It’s fundamental consider the main cyber threats putting in place all the necessary countermeasures to mitigate them.
  • cyber espionage is one of the main concerns for government agencies and private industries. Recent incidents and data breach have demonstrated the inadequacy of many security defense systems and also the non-application of the prime best practices for the protection of sensitive data and intellectual property.
  • The Chinese groups of hackers are among the most active, but they are not the only one! In the cyberspace US, Russia and Israel have similar capabilities and event like this don’t have to surprise us.
  • We must consider the impact of cyber espionage mainly on small business that are historically defenseless to this type of offensive. Small business represent the weakest link of security chain in all sectors, in many cases these companies works with large enterprises and manage the same data, that’s why they are privileged targets, that’s why government must protect them including their defense in a proper cyber strategies.

If we desire to protect our countries we have to consider these argumentations.

Pierluigi Paganini

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