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Widespread APTs targeting Energy and Critical Infrastructure

by Avivah Litan  |  November 2, 2017  |  1 Comment

On October 20, U.S. Cert issued Alert TA17-293A ( see Alert (TA17-293A) Advanced Persistent Threat Activity Targeting Energy and Other Critical Infrastructure Sectors ) based on joint analysis between DHS and the FBI, that warned of APTs against government entities and organizations in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.

This came as no surprise to most industry observers, as threat intelligence firms such as CrowdStrike and Symantec have been alerting on similar activity since last July.

But some of the threat intelligence data I have seen certainly gave me pause as long-followed threat actors have been clearly stepping up their APT activity since the start of 2017 across multiple sectors. For example, CrowdStrike has been following a group they refer to as BERSERK BEAR since 2014, and reported this actor’s stepped up concentrated activity throughout 2017 across the energy, financial, defense infrastructure base, government, and transportation sectors.

Diskin Advanced Technologies (DAT) based in Israel, similarly noticed highly organized global threats against several industrial sectors, including the energy sector (See Figure 1).  DAT thinks the activity could be an outcome of an adversary’s detailed mapping of the targeted energy companies’ managed services and supply chain, which would be used as their attack vectors.

Figure 1: Targeted sectors and countries in highly organized and advanced threat campaign against critical infrastructure; Source Diskin Advanced Technologies


Several different threat actors and groups – some seemingly more organized and advanced than others — are targeting the energy sector. Symantec identified threat actor DragonFly as busily targeting the energy sector (see Dragonfly: Western energy sector targeted by sophisticated attack group ). DAT found that five other energy-sector related campaigns published under the names of Shamoon, Magic Hound, APT33 New Beef, and Stonedrill were correlated to the same threat actors’ activities, and that they crossed Iranian, Chinese and other hacker forums.

It’s crystal clear the energy and adjacent sectors are being heavily targeted, and it seems at least two separate highly methodical nation state actors have their sights on these sectors, especially in Europe, the U.S., South Korea, Russia, India, the UAE and Australia. The different threat actors are targeting different countries. What these actors are doing is not clear, but I think it’s safe to assume they are heavily engaged in reconnaissance activities that could lead to subsequent steps in the kill chain.

What can be done?

There is no shortage of technology solutions to ward off these attacks, provided organizations align their processes and priorities to implement and manage them.

I was in Boston yesterday and saw some innovative approaches towards endpoint security, which models or maps “GOOD” applications and processes running on endpoints, so that anything not on the “GOOD” list is an exception that organizations must explicitly take note of and act on accordingly. These solutions, offered by startups Digital Immunity (that maps good applications and processes within an organization for validation) and Barkly Protects (that uses machine learning to model “good” applications within an organization along with “bad” applications across organizations) should make sound security practices – conceptually similar to application whitelisting — easier to implement.

Organizations of all sizes and across all sectors must be vigilant, as these state actors cross many sectors in their efforts. The same platforms and techniques they use to attack the energy sector are used to attack the healthcare, transportation, aviation, utilities, and chemical sector, just to name a few.   Criminals are time stretched like the rest of us, and when they find a technique that works, they repeat it as often as possible.

Bottom Line

U.S. Cert’s Alert includes actionable IOCs, network signatures, host based rules and other detailed pattern information that can be inserted into organizational security systems to block these nefarious efforts. They should go a long way to stopping this threatening activity, at least for now.

Surely no one needs to be left in the dark.

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Avivah Litan
VP Distinguished Analyst
19 years at Gartner
34 years IT industry

Avivah Litan is a Vice President and Distinguished Analyst in Gartner Research. Ms. Litan's areas of expertise include endpoint security, security analytics for cybersecurity and fraud, user and entity behavioral analytics, and insider threat detection. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Widespread APTs targeting Energy and Critical Infrastructure

  1. John Sculley says:

    Some groups of cyber criminals have been known to recruit people from all over the globe and it’s possible for them to never meet face to face even a single time. you gotta keep in your mind that all data-cache’s from large to small are at risk at any moment if you don’t take the correct steps in encrypting the info-chain from end-to-end.

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