On March 15, 2018, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a joint Technical Alert (TA18-074A) warning "network defenders" in critical sector industries that "Russian government cyber actors" have been intentionally targeting U.S. government entities and organizations in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors since at least March 2016. These threat actors, according to the joint alert, have used this campaign to engage in reconnaissance missions and to obtain operational control of industrial control processes and systems.
The joint alert identifies two targets of the ongoing attack: "staging" and "intended" targets. Staging targets are those "peripheral organizations such as trusted third-party suppliers with less secure networks." The threat actors use the "staging" targets' networks as "pivot points and malware repositories when targeting their final intended victims," the intended targets. Once compromised, the staging targets are used to download source code from intended targets' websites and to remotely access infrastructure such as corporate web-based email and virtual private network (VPN) connections. The threat actors ultimately seek to gain information from the intended target on "network and organizational design and control system capabilities within organizations."
The joint alert identifies a variety of tactics used by the threat actors, including spear-phishing campaigns, watering-hole domain attacks, and collecting publicly available information:
- Spear-Phishing. Through spear-phishing, the threat actors use email attachments to leverage legitimate Microsoft Office functions for retrieving a document from a remote server, which allows the threat actor to gain access to user credentials. With user credentials, and using a password-cracking technique, "the threat actors are able to masquerade as authorized users in environments that use single-factor authentication."
- Watering-Hole. Through watering-hole attacks, the threat actors compromise "the infrastructure of trusted organizations to reach intended targets. Approximately half of the known watering holes are trade publications and informational websites related to process control, ICS, or critical infrastructure." These watering-holes host legitimate content developed by reputable organizations, but the threat actor alters the website to contain and reference malicious content. The threat actors use legitimate credentials to access and directly modify the website content. Once on the website, the victim provides credentials.
- Public Information. The threat actors review information "posted to company websites, especially information that may appear to be innocuous, [to gain access to] operationally sensitive information." In one example, the threat actors downloaded a small photo from a publicly accessible human resources page, which when expanded was "a high-resolution photo that displayed control systems equipment models and status information in the background."
Once threat actors gain access to the network, the DHS and FBI warn they conduct "reconnaissance operations within the network," including "identifying and browsing file servers within the intended victim's network." Perhaps most troubling, the DHS and FBI identified in multiple instances "the threat actors accessed workstations and servers on a corporate network that contained data output from control systems within energy generation facilities." This access would allow the threat actors to control operations within the organization, including control of certain energy sectors.
The new joint alert highlights the dynamic threat landscape facing organizations. Although the alert provides technical advice concerning the identification and deterrence of the ongoing attacks, it also provides best practices applicable to the campaign. Many of the recommendations apply outside of the critical sector industries, and provide a timely reminder that all organizations should review their cybersecurity practices and policies on an ongoing basis. Some of the recommended best practices include:
- Reviewing your existing third party contracts to determine cybersecurity vulnerabilities and protections;
- Monitoring VPN logs for abnormal activity;
- Deploying web and email filters on the network;
- Ensuring proper training to inform end users on proper email and web usage;
- Establishing a complex password policy;
- Using multi-factor authentication;
- Assigning appropriate personnel to review logs;
- Completing "independent security (as opposed to compliance) risk review"; and
- Preparing a robust incident response plan.
If you or your organization is looking to create new, or update existing cybersecurity policies or practices, or you have any questions about this joint alert and how your organization may be impacted, please reach out to the Dentons cybersecurity team to discuss how our cost effective strategies can help mitigate your risk and provide an assessment of your overall cybersecurity readiness.
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