As time marches on, many are forgetting the two Russian attacks on Ukraine that shut down their power supply during their cold winters. Memories fade, but the energy threat continues. Total shut-down of the electric grid were traditionally rare and inconceivable. But, attacks targeting energy sector companies are now being initiated with growing frequency. In 2017, Russian APT known as DragonFly 2.0, compromised US and European energy companies and gained access to interfaces its engineers utilize to supply energy to homes and businesses. That same year, a computer virus was introduced remotely on controllers used in 18,000 internationally located power plants that regulate voltage, pressure, and temperatures in nuclear and water treatment facilities; which nearly triggered an explosion in Saudi Arabia. And nearly two years after malware jeopardized operations during US hurricane recovery, which was then quickly followed by a ransomware attack, a North Carolina utility provider (water) is still trying to recover. More recently, a DDoS attack for more than 10 hours crippled the network of a company supplying power to consumers in California, Utah, and Wyoming.
The energy and utilities sectors are so critical to the maintenance of any country, which make attacks to these venues a national security risk. Traffic signal operations, heating and air conditioning services (HVAC) in hospital, offices and our homes, and the Internet and cell phone services used for vital communications and a normal way of life in 2020, and in essence – taken for granted. That until the electricity is maliciously shut-off.
Naturally occurring power outages are most inconvenient, yet we can overcome these obstacles and in general, normalcy returns in a matter of hours and we get back to business as usual. Cyber-attacks targeting the energy sector are different in that they penetrate networks, which could cause days of research and analysis to recirify operations; especially if unprepared.
If an attacker (at any hacker tier level) is bent on bringing a nation to its knees for political, military or extortion objectives, the energy sources are a prime and lethal target. These cyber-attacks are often motivated by the high value of energy industry assets and data, as well as the energy sector’s heavily automated and loosely protected processes, networks, and organizations. Coupled with low investments in digital risk management, at least as compared to sectors like financial services, this leaves energy facilities and suppliers vulnerable to damaging and costly attacks.
Although attacks in this sector mirror those in other industries, the social ramifications are significantly higher. Theft of information is not as important to utilities as the extortion aimed at the company to pay a ransom or face a shutdown of energy. The impacts of a full attack would be catastrophic. Multiple hacking groups currently have the capability to attack and compromise industrial control system environments. Phishing, malware and other attack methods, if successful, can give hackers the credentials necessary to access power grids, oil wells, generators, and other sensitive control areas. Energy and utility organizations in the US spend approximately 80 percent of its budget on external suppliers, making third party attacks another serious concern.
Cyber threat actors will continue to penetrate critical infrastructure worldwide. While this is partially due to the natural expansion of the Internet and IoT devices, it can also be attributed to poor cyber security practices and a lack of employee training. However, a few simple steps can help utility companies avoid being vulnerable to breaches and public utility outages.
Understanding which attack vectors most commonly affect energy utilities is the first step in a solid defensive posture. The energy sector is traditionally slow at improving and keeping updated on infrastructure and process software, thus making it a bullseye target for DDoS and exploit attacks. Implementing good quality cyber hygiene, by updating operating systems and applying patches immediately, is integral to proactively safeguarding against cyber compromise. Constantly monitoring and auditing for risk via open source threat intelligence (like Red Sky Alliance provides) can help organizations learn more about attack patterns and threat actors, which industries or companies are being targeted and whether criminals are in the planning stages of an attack before an incident occurs.
Effective cybersecurity awareness training is another essential action that organizations can take to keep corporate users safe on the network. Teach your employees to identify phishing, ransomware, social engineering, and other threats to keep information and accounts secure and mitigate the risk of a breach. For an example, attackers collect email addresses and strategically craft phishing emails that contain malicious links. Train employees to avoid clicking on unsolicited links and pop ups, especially on social media or from unknown sources, and to proactively report security suspected incidents to your network security folks. Additionally, restrict employees’ access to only the data and systems those individuals need to do their jobs. This limits the attack surface and can reduce damage and incident remediation costs should a breach occur.
Also important is reducing third-party risk by understanding vendors’ (supply chain) security posture. Evaluate suppliers and vendors before engaging them as part of the contract and throughout the relationship. Ask questions to identify their potential exposure areas, technical controls to data and systems, network segmentation practices and authentication tools used. After determining cybersecurity practices and enforcement capabilities, a security baseline can then be set for continuous partner monitoring, protecting sensitive data from unauthorized access that might result from gaps in extended parties’ and partners’ security infrastructure or from networks. This is very important and often overlooked.
Like organizations everywhere, the energy sector is afflicted by an ever-growing catalog of constantly evolving cyber threats. Threat actors are always trying to gain access to utility networks, each with the potential to expose ultra-sensitive data or bring critical infrastructure to a stop. There is no way to guarantee 100 percent cyber safety from malicious threats or vulnerabilities. But, a pro-active, strategic and all-inclusive security approach is the only way to safeguard against bad actors. By keeping informed of the latest security threats and maintaining visibility into their own and third parties’ information security infrastructure, along with maintaining a proactive cyber defense and a strong culture of cybersecurity awareness, organizations in the energy sector can prevent an attack from turning into a huge mess.
Red Sky Alliance is in New Boston, NH USA and is a Cyber Threat Analysis and Intelligence Service organization. We provide diagnostic tools RedXray and RedXray-Plus, in addition to providing cyber insurance through Cysurance. For questions, comments or assistance, please contact the office directly at 888-RED-XRAY or (888)-733-9729, or email firstname.lastname@example.org