Browsing Tag

ICS malware

Marketing ICS Vulnerabilities and POC Malware – You’re Doing it Wrong

April 30, 2017

There’s been two cases recently of industrial control system (ICS) security firms identifying vulnerabilities and also creating proof of concept (POC) malware for those vulnerabilities. This has bothered me and I want to explore the topic in this blog post; I do not pretend there is a right or wrong answer here but I recognize by even writing the post I am passing judgement on the actions and I’m ok with that. I don’t agree with the actions and in the interest of a more public discussion below is my rationale.


At the beginning of April 2017 CRITIFENCE an ICS security firm published an article on Security Affairs titled “ClearEnergy ransomware aim to destroy process automation logics in critical infrastructure, SCADA, and industrial control systems.” There’s a good overview of the story here that details how it ended up being a media stunt to highlight vulnerabilities the company found. The TL;DR version of the story is that the firm wanted to highlight the vulnerabilities they found in some Schneider Electric equipment that they dubbed ClearEnergy so they built their own POC malware for it that they also dubbed ClearEnergy. But they published an article on it leaving out the fact that it was POC malware. Or in other words, they led people to believe that this was in-the-wild (real and impacting organizations) malware. I don’t feel there was any malice by the company, as soon as the article was published I reached out to the CTO of CRITIFENCE and he was very polite and responded that he’d edit the article quickly. I wanted to write a blog calling out the behavior and what I didn’t like about it as a learning moment for everyone but the CTO was so professional and quick in his response that I decided against it. However, after seeing a second instance of this type of activity I decided a blog post was in order for a larger community discussion.

On April 27th, 2017 Security Week published an article titled “New SCADA Flaws Allow Ransomware, Other Attacks” based on a presentation by ICS security firm Applied Risk at SecurityWeek’s 2017 Signapore ICS Cyber Security Conference. The talk, and the article, highlighted ICS ransomware that the firm dubbed “Scythe” that targets “SCADA devices.” Applied Risk noted that the attack can take advantage of a firmware validation bypass vulnerability and lock out folks’ ability to update to new firmware. The firm did acknowledge in their presentation though and in the article that this too was POC malware.




Figure: Image from Applied Risk’s POC Malware

Why None of this is Good (In My Opinion):

In my opinion both of these firms have been irresponsible in a couple of ways.

First, CRITIFENCE obviously messed up by not telling anyone that ClearEnergy was POC malware. In an effort to promote their discovery of vulnerabilities they were quick to write an article and publish it and that absolutely contributed to hype and fear. Hype around these types of issues ultimately leads to the ICS community not listening to or trusting the security community (honestly with good reason). However, what CRITIFENCE did do that I liked (besides being responsive which is a major plus) was work through a vulnerability disclosure process that led to proper discussion by the vendor as well as an advisory through the U.S.’ ICS-CERT. In contrast, Applied Risk did not do that so far as I can tell. I do not know what all Applied Risk is doing about the vulnerabilities but they said they contacted the vendors and two of the vendors (according to the SecurityWeek article) acknowledged that the vulnerability is important but difficult to fix. The difference with the Applied Risk vulnerabilities is that the community is left unaware of what devices are impacted, the vendors haven’t been able to address the issues yet, and there are no advisories to the larger community through any appropriate channel. Ultimately, this leaves the ICS community in a very bad spot.

Second, CRITIFENCE and Applied Risk are both making a marketing spectacle out of the vulnerabilities and POC malware. Now, this point is my opinion and not necessarily a larger community best-practice, but I absolutely despise seeing folks name their vulnerabilities or naming POC malware. It comes off as a pure marketing stunt. Vulnerabilities in ICS are not uncommon and there’s good research to be done. Sometimes, the things the infosec community sees as vulnerabilities may have been designed that way on purpose to allow things like firmware updates and password resets for operators who needed to get access to sensitive equipment in time-sensitive scenarios. I’m not saying we can’t do better – but it’s not like the engineering community is stupid (far from it) and highlighting vulnerabilities as marketing stunts can often have unintended consequence including the vendors not wanting to work with researchers or disclose vulnerabilities. There’s no incentive for ICS vendors to work with firms who are going to use issues in their products for marketing for a firm’s security product.

Third, vulnerability disclosure can absolutely have the impact of adversaries learning how to attack devices in ways they did not know previously. I do not advocate for security through obscurity but there is value in following a strict vulnerability disclosure policy even in normal IT environments because this has been an issue for decades. In ICS environments, it can be upwards of 2-3 years for folks to be able to get a patch and apply it after a vulnerability comes out. That is not due to ignorance of the issue or lack of concern for the problem but due to operations constraints in various industries. So in essence, the adversaries get informed about how to do something they previously didn’t know about while system owners can’t accurately address the issues. This makes vulnerability disclosure in the ICS community a very sensitive topic to handle with care. Yelling out to the world “this is the vulnerability and oh by the way here’s exactly how you should leverage it and we even created some fake malware to highlight the value to you as an attacker and what you can gain” is just levels of ridiculousness. It’s why you’ll never see my firm Dragos or myself or anyone on my team finding and disclosing new vulnerabilities in ICS devices to the public. If we ever find anything it’ll only be worked through the appropriate channels and quietly distributed to the right people – not in media sites and conference presentations. I’m not a huge fan of disclosing vulnerabilities at conferences and in media in general but I do want to acknowledge that it can be done correctly and I have seen a few firms (Talos, DigitalBond, and IOActive come to mind) do it very well. As an example, Eireann Leverett and Colin Cassidy found vulnerabilities in industrial Ethernet switches and worked closely with the vendors to address them. After working through a very intensive process they wanted to do a series of conference presentations about them to highlight the issues. They invited me to take part to show what could be done from a defense perspective. So I stayed out of the “here’s the vulnerabilities” and instead focused on “these exists so what can defenders do besides just patch.” I took part in that research because the work was so important and Eireann and Colin were so professional in how they went about it. It was a thrill to use the entire process as a learning opportunity to the larger community. Highlighting vulnerabilities and creating POC malware for something that doesn’t even have an advisory or where the vendor hasn’t made patches yet just isn’t appropriate.

Closing Thoughts:

There is a lot of research to be done into ICS and how to address the vulnerabilities that these devices have. Vendors must get better at following best-practices for developing new equipment, software, and networking protocols. And there are good case-studies of what to do and how to carry yourself in the ICS security researcher community (Adam Crain and Chris Sistrunk’s research into DNP3 and all the things that it led to is a fantastic example of doing things correctly to address serious issues). But the focus on turning vulnerabilities into marketing material, discussing vulnerabilities in media and at conferences before vendors have addressed them and before the community can get an advisory through proper channels, and creating/marketing POC malware to draw attention to your vulnerabilities is simply, in my opinion, irresponsible.

Try these practices instead:

  • Disclose vulnerabilities to the impacted vendors and work with them to address them
    • If they decide that they will not address the issue or do not see the problem talk to impacted asset owners/operators to ensure what you see as a vulnerability is an issue that will introduce risk to the community and use appropriate channels such as the ICS-CERT to push the vendor or develop defensive/detection signatures and bring it to the community’s attention; sometimes you’re left without a lot of options but make sure you’ve exhausted the good options first
  • After the advisory is available (for some time you feel comfortable with) if you or your firm would like to highlight the vulnerabilities at a conference or in the media that’s your choice
    • I would encourage focusing the discussion on what people can do besides just patch such as how to detect attacks that might leverage the vulnerabilities
  • Avoid naming your vulnerabilities, there’s already a whole official process for cataloging vulnerabilities
  • (In my opinion) do not make POC malware showing adversaries what they can do and why they should do it (the argument “the adversaries already know” is wrong in most cases)
  • If you decide to make POC malware anyway at least avoid naming it and marketing it (comes off as an extremely dirty marketing approach)
  • Avoid hyping up the impact (talking about power grids coming down and terrorist attacks in the same article is just a ridiculous attempt to illicit fear and attention)

In my experience, ICS vendors are difficult to work with at times because they have other priorities too but they care and want to do the right thing. If you are persistent you can move the community forward. But the vendors of the equipment are not the enemy and they will absolutely blacklist researchers, firms, and entire groups of folks for doing things that are adverse to their business instead of working with them. Research is important, and if you want to go down the route of researching and disclosing vulnerabilities there’s value there and proper ways to do it. If you’re interested in vulnerability disclosure best practices in the larger community check out Katie Moussouris who is a leading authority on bug bounty and vulnerability disclosure programs. But please, stop naming your vulnerabilities, building marketing campaigns around them, and creating fake malware because you don’t think you’re getting enough attention already.

Analytical Leaps and Wild Speculation in Recent Reports of Industrial Cyber Attacks

December 31, 2016

“Judgement is what analysts use to fill gaps in their knowledge. It entails going beyond the available information and is the principal means of coping with uncertainty. It always involves an analytical leap, from the known into the uncertain.”

– Chapter 4, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Richards J. Heuer.


Analytical leaps, as Richards J. Heuer said in his must-read book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, are part of the process for analysts. Sometimes though these analytical leaps can be dangerous, especially when they are biased, misinformed, presented in a misleading way, or otherwise just not made using sound analytical processes. Analytical leaps should be backed by evidence or at a minimum should include evidence leading up to the analytical leap. Unfortunately, as multiple analytical leaps are made in series it can lead to entirely wrong conclusions and wild speculation. There have been three interesting stories relating to industrial attacks this December as we try to close out 2016 that are worth exploring in this topic. It is my hope that looking at these three cases will help everyone be a bit more critical of information before alarmism sets in.

The three cases that will be explored are:

  • IBM Managed Services’ claim of “Attacks Targeting Industrial Control Systems (ICS) Up 110%”
  • CyberX’s claim that “New Killdisk Malware Brings Ransomware Into Industrial Domain”
  • The Washington Post’s claim that “Russian Operation Hacked a Vermont Utility, Showing Risk to U.S. Electrical Grid Security, officials say”


“Attacks Targeting Industrial Control Systems (ICS) Up 110%”

I’m always skeptical of metrics that have no immediately present quantification. As an example, the IBM Managed Security Services posted an article stating that “attacks targeting industrial control systems increased over 110 percent in 2016 over last year’s numbers as of Nov. 30.” But there is no data in the article to quantify what that means. Is 110% increase an increase from 10 attacks to 21 attacks? Or is it 100 attacks increased to 210 attacks?

The only way to understand what that percentage means is to leave this report and go download the IBM report from last year and read through it (never make your reader jump through extra hoops to get information that is your headline). In their 2015 report IBM states that there were around 1,300 attacks in 2015 (Figure 1). This would mean that in 2016 IBM is reporting they saw around 2,700 ICS attacks.


Figure 1: Figure from IBM’s 2015 Report on ICS Attacks


However, there are a few questions that linger. First, this is a considerable jump from what they were tracking previously and from their 2014 metrics. IBM states that the “spike in ICS traffic was related to SCADA brute-force attacks, which use automation to guess default or weak passwords.” This is an analytical leap that they make based on what they’ve observed. But, it would be nice to know if anything else has changed as well. Did they bring up more sensors, have more customers, increase staffing, etc. as the stated reason for the increase would not alone be responsible.

Second, how is IBM defining an attack. Attacks in industrial contexts have very specific meaning – an attempt to brute-force a password simply wouldn’t qualify. They also note that a pentesting tool on GitHub was released in Jan 2016 that could be used against the ICS protocol Modbus. IBM states that the increase in metrics was likely related to this tools’ release. It’s speculation though as they do not give any evidence to support their claim. However, it leads to my next point.

Third, is this customer data or is this honeypot data? If it’s customer data is it from the ICS or simply the business networks of industrial companies? And if it’s honeypot data it would be good to separate that data out as it’s often been abused to misreport “SCADA attack” metrics. From looking at the discussion of brute-force logins and a pentesting tool for a serial protocol released on GitHub, my speculation is that this is referring mostly to honeypot data. Honeypots can be useful but must be used in specific ways when discussing industrial environments and should not be lumped into “attack” data from customer networks.

The article also makes another analytical leap when it states “The U.S. was also the largest target of ICS-based attacks in 2016, primarily because, once again, it has a larger ICS presence than any other country at this time.” The leap does not seem informed by anything other than the hypothesis that the US has more ICS. Also, again there is no quantification. As an example, where is this claim coming from, how much larger is the ICS presence than other countries, and are the quantity of attacks proportional to the US ICS footprint when compared to other nations’ quantity of industrial systems? I would again speculate that what they are observing has far more to do with where they are collecting data (how many sensors do they have in the US compared to China as an example).

In closing out the article IBM cites three “notable recent ICS attacks.” The three case studies chosen were the SFG malware that targeted an energy company, the New York dam, and the Ukrainian power outage. While the Ukrainian power outage is good to highlight (although they don’t actually highlight the ICS portion of the attack), the other two cases are poor choices. As an example, the SFG malware targeting an energy company is something that was already debunked publicly and would have been easy to find prior to creating this article. The New York dam was also something that was largely hyped by media and was publicly downplayed as well. More worrisome is that the way IBM framed the New York dam “attack” is incorrect. They state: “attackers compromised the dam’s command and control system in 2013 using a cellular modem.” Except, it wasn’t the dam’s command and control system it was a single read-only human machine interface (HMI) watching the water level of the dam. The dam had a manual control system (i.e. you had to crank it to open it).

Or more simply put: the IBM team is likely doing great work and likely has people who understand ICS…you just wouldn’t get that impression from reading this article. The information is largely inaccurate, there is no quantification to their numbers, and their analytical leaps are unsupported with some obvious lingering questions as to the source of the data.


“New Killdisk Malware Brings Ransomware Into Industrial Domain”

CyberX released a blog noting that they have “uncovered new evidence that the KillDisk disk-wiping malware previously used in the cyberattacks against the Ukrainian power grid has now evolved into ransomware.” This is a cool find by the CyberX team but they don’t release digital hashes or any technical details that could be used to help validate the find. However, the find isn’t actually new (I’m a bit confused as to why CyberX states they uncovered this new evidence when they cite in their blog an ESET article with the same discovery from weeks earlier. I imagine they found an additional strain but they don’t clarify that). ESET had disclosed the new variant of KillDisk being used by a group they are calling the TeleBots gang and noted they found it being used against financial networks in Ukraine. So, where’s the industrial link? Well, there is none.

CyberX’s blog never details how they are making the analytical leap from “KillDisk now has a ransomware functionality” to “and it’s targeting industrial sites.” Instead, it appears the entire basis for their hypothesis is that Sandworm previously used KillDisk in the Ukraine ICS attack in 2015. While this is true, the Sandworm team has never just targeted one industry. iSight and others have long reported that the Sandworm team has targeted telecoms, financial networks, NATO sites, military personnel, and other non-industrial related targets. But it’s also not known for sure that this is still the Sandworm team. The CyberX blog does not state how they are linking Sandworm’s attacks on Ukraine to the TeleBots usage of ransomware. Instead they just cite ESET’s assessment that the teams are linked. But ESET even stated they aren’t sure and it’s just an assessment based off of observed similarities.

Or more simply put: CyberX put out a blog saying they uncovered new evidence that KillDisk had evolved into ransomware although they cite ESET’s discovery of this new evidence from weeks prior with no other evidence presented. They then make the claim that the TeleBots gang, the one using the ransomware, evolved from Sandworm but they offer no evidence and instead again just cite ESET’s assessment. They offer absolutely no evidence that this ransomware Killdisk variant has targeted any industrial sites. The logic seems to be “Sandworm did Ukraine, KillDisk was in Ukraine, Sandworm is TeleBots gang, TeleBots modified Killdisk to be ransomware, therefore they are going to target industrial sites.” When doing analysis always be aware of Occam’s razor and do not make too many assumptions to try to force a hypothesis to be true. There could be evidence of ransomware targeting industrial sites, it does make sense that they would eventually. But no evidence is offered in this article and both the title and thesis of the blog are completely unfounded as presented.


“Russian Operation Hacked a Vermont Utility, Showing Risk to U.S. Electrical Grid Security, officials say”

This story is more interesting than the others but too early to really know much. The only thing known at this point is that the media is already overreacting. The Washington Post put out an article on a Vermont utility getting hacked by a Russian operation with calls from the Vermont Governor condemning Vladimir Putin for attempting to hack the grid. Eric Geller pointed out that the first headline the Post ran with was  “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through utility in Vermont, officials say” but they changed to “Russian operation hacked a Vermont utility, showing risk to U.S. electrical grid, officials say.” We don’t know exactly why it was changed but it may have been due to the Post overreacting when they heard the Vermont utility found malware on a laptop and simply assumed it was related to the electric grid. Except, as the Vermont (Burlington) utility pointed out the laptop was not connected to the organization’s grid systems.

Electric and other industrial facilities have plenty of business and corporate network systems that are often not connected to the ICS network at all. It’s not good for them to get infected, and they aren’t always disconnected, but it’s not worth alarming anyone over without additional evidence.  However, the bigger analytical leap being made is that this is related to Russian operations.

The utility notes that they took the DHS/FBI GRIZZLY STEPPE report indicators and found a piece of malware on the laptop. We do not know yet if this is a false positive but even if it is not there is no evidence yet to say that this has anything to do with Russia. As I pointed out in a previous blog, the GRIZZLY STEPPE report is riddled with errors and the indicators put out were very non-descriptive data points. The one YARA rule they put out, which the utility may have used, was related to a piece of malware that is publicly downloadable meaning anyone could use it. Unfortunately, after the story ran with its hyped-up headlines Senator Patrick Leahy released a statement condemning the “attempt to penetrate the electric grid” as a state-sponsored hack by Russia. As Dimitri Alperovitch, CTO of CrowdStrike who responded to the Russian hack of the DNC, pointed out “No one should be making attribution conclusions purely from the indicators in the USCERT report. It was all a jumbled mess.”

Or more simply put: a Vermont utility acted appropriately and ran indicators of compromise from the GRIZZLY STEPPE report as the DHS/FBI instructed the community to do. This led to them finding a match to the indicator on a laptop separated from the grid systems but it’s not yet been confirmed that malware was present. The Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin then publicly chastised Vladimir Putin and Russia for trying to hack the electric grid. U.S. officials then inappropriately gave additional information and commentary to the Washington Post about an ongoing investigation which lead them to run with the headline that the this was a Russian operation. After all, the indicators supposedly were related to Russia because the DHS and FBI said so – and supposedly that’s good enough. Unfortunately, this also led a U.S. Senator to come out and condemn Russia for state-sponsored hacking of the utility.

Closing Thoughts

There are absolutely threats to industrial environments including ICS/SCADA networks. It does make sense that ICS breaches and attacks would be on the rise especially as these systems become more interconnected. It also makes perfect sense that ransomware will be used in industrial environments just like any other environment that has computer systems. And yes, the attribution to Russia compromising the DNC is very solid based on private sector data with government validation. But, to make claims about attacks and attempt to quantify it you actually have to present real data and where that data is coming from and how it was collected. To make claims of new ransomware targeting industrial networks you have to actually provide evidence not simply make a series of analytical leaps. To start making claims of attribution to a state such as Russia just because some poorly constructed indicators alerted on a single laptop is dangerous.

Or more simply put: be careful of analytical leaps especially when they are made without presenting any evidence leading into them. Hypotheses and analysis requires evidence else it is simply speculation. We have enough speculation already in the industrial industry and more will only lead to increasingly dangerous or embarrassing scenarios such as a US governor and senator condemning Russia for hacking the electric grid and scaring the public in the process when we simply do not have many facts about the situation yet.

Common Analyst Mistakes and Claims of Energy Company Targeting Malware

July 13, 2016

A new blog post by SentinelOne made an interesting claim recently regarding a “sophisticated malware campaign specifically targeting at least one European energy company.”  More extraordinary though was the claim by the company that this find might indicate something much more serious: “which could either work to extract data or insert the malware to potentially shut down an energy grid.” While that is a major analytical leap, we’ll come back to this, the next thing to occur was fairly predictable – media firms spinning up about a potential nation-state cyber attack on power grids.

I have often critiqued news organizations in their coverage of ICS/SCADA security when there was a lack of understanding of the infrastructure and its threats but this sample of hype originated from SentinelOne’s bold claims and not the media organizations. (Although I would have liked to see the journalists validate their stories more). News headlines included “Researchers Found a Hacking Tool that Targets Energy Grids on the Dark Web” to EWeek’s “Furtim’s Parent, Stuxnet-like Malware, Aimed at Energy Firms.” It’s always interesting to see how long it takes for an organization to compare malware to Stuxnet. This one seems to have won the race in terms of “time-to-Stuxnet”, but the worst headline was probably The Register’s with “SCADA malware caught infecting European energy company: Nation-state fingered”. No this is not SCADA malware and no nation-states have been fingered (phrasing?).

The malware is actually not new though and had been detected before the company’s blog post. The specific sample SentinelOne linked to, that they claim to have found, was first submitted to VirusTotal by an organization in Canada on April 21st, 2016. Later, a similar sample was identified and posted on the forum on April 25th, 2016 (credit to John Franolich for bringing it to my attention). On May 23rd, 2016 a KernelMode forum user posted on their blog some great analysis of the malware. The KernelMode users and blogger identified that one of the malware author’s command and control servers was misconfigured and revealed a distinct naming convention in the directories that very clearly seemed to correlate to infected targets. In total there were over 15,000 infected hosts around the world that had communicated to this command and control server. This puts a completely different perspective on the malware that SentinelOne claimed was specifically targeting an energy company and it’s obvious it is most certainly not ICS/SCADA or energy company specific. It’s possible energy companies are a target, but so far there’s no proof of that provided.

I do not have access to the dataset that SentinelOne has so I cannot and will not critique them on all of their claims. However, I do find a lot of the details they have presented odd and I also do not understand their claims that they “validated this malware campaign against SentinelOne [their product] and confirmed the steps outlined below [the malware analysis they showed in their blog] were detected by our Dynamic Behavior Tracking (DBT) engine.” I’m all for vendors showcasing where their products add value but I’m not sure how their product fits into something that was submitted to VirusTotal and a user forum months before their blog post. Either way, let’s focus on the learning opportunities here to help educate folks on potential mistakes to avoid.

Common Analyst Mistake: Malware Uniqueness

A common analyst mistake is to look at a dataset and believe that malware that is unique in their dataset is actually unique. In this scenario, it is entirely possible that with no ill-intention whatsoever SentinelOne identified a sample of the malware independent from the VirusTotal and user forum submission. Looking at this sample and not having seen it before the analysts at the company may have made the assumption that the malware was unique and thus warranted their statement that this campaign was specifically targeting an energy company. The problem is, as analysts we always work off of incomplete datasets. All intelligence analysis operates from the assumption that there is some data missing or some unknowns that may change a hypothesis later on. This is one reason you will often find intelligence professionals give assessments (high, medium, or low confidence assessments usually) rather than making definitive statements. It is important to try to realize the limits of our datasets and information by looking to open source datasets (such as searching on Google to find the previous KernelMode forum post in this scenario) or establishing trust relationships with peers and organizations to share threat information. In this scenario the malware was not unique and determining that there were at least 15,000 victims in this campaign would add doubt that a specific energy company was the target of the campaign. Simply put, more data and information was needed.

Common Analyst Mistake: Assuming Adversary Intent

As analysts we often get familiar with adversary campaigns and capabilities to an almost intimate level knowing details ranging from behavioral TTPs to the way that adversaries run their operations. But one thing we as analysts must be careful of is assuming an adversary’s intent. Code, indicators, TTPs, capabilities, etc. can reveal a lot. They can reveal what an adversary may be capable of doing and they should reveal the potential impact to a targeted organization. It is far more difficult though to determine what an adversary wishes to do. If an adversary crashes a server an analyst may believe the malicious actor wanted to deny service to it whereas the actor just messed up. In this scenario the SentinelOne post stopped short of claiming to know what the actors were trying to do (I’ll get to the power grid claims in a following section) but the claim that the adversary specifically targeted the European energy company is not supported anywhere in their analysis. They do a great job of showing malware analysis but do not offer any details around the target nor how the malware was delivered. Sometimes, malware infects networks that are not even the adversary’s target. Assuming the intent of the adversary to be inside specific networks or to take specific actions is a risky move and even worse with little to no evidence.

Common Analyst Mistake: Assuming “Advanced” Means “Nation-State”

It is natural to look at something we have not seen before in terms of tradecraft and tools and assume it is “advanced.” It’s a perspective issue based on what the analyst has seen before. It can lead to analysts assuming that something particularly cool must be so advanced that it’s a nation-state espionage operation. In this scenario, the SentinelOne blog authors make that claim. Confusingly though, they do not seem to have even found the malware on the energy company’s network they referenced. Instead, the SentinelOne blog authors claimed to have found the malware on the “dark web”. This means that there would not have been accompanying incident response data or security operations data to support a full understanding of this intrusion against the target, if we assume the company was a target. There are non-nation-states that run operations against organizations. HackingTeam was a perfect example of a hackers-for-hire organization that ran very well-funded operations. SentinelOne presents some interesting data and along with other data sets this could reveal a larger campaign or even potentially a nation-state operation – but nothing presented so far supports that conclusion right now. A single intrusion does not make a campaign and espionage type activity with “advanced” capabilities does not guarantee the actors work for a nation-state.

Common Analyst Mistake: Extending Expertise

When analysts become experts on their team in a given area it is common for folks to look to them as experts in a number of other areas as well. As analysts it’s useful to not only continually develop our professional skills but to challenge ourselves to learn the limits of our expertise. This can be very difficult when others look to us for advice on any given subject. But being the smartest person in the room on a given subject does not mean that we are experts on it or even have a clue of what we’re talking about. In this scenario, I have no doubt that the SentinelOne blog authors are very qualified in malware analysis. I do however severely question if they have any experience at all with industrial and energy networks. The claim that the malware could be used to “shut down an energy grid” shows a complete lack of understanding of energy infrastructure as well as a major analytical leap based on a very limited data set that is quite frankly inexcusable. I do not mean to be harsh, but this is hype at its finest. At the end of their blog the authors note that if anyone in the energy sector would like to learn more that they can contact the blog authors directly. If anyone decides to take them up on the offer, please do not assume any expertise in that area, be critical in your questions, and realize that this blog post reads like a marketing pitch.

Closing Thoughts

My goal in this blog post was not to critique SentinelOne’s analysis too much, although to be honest I am a bit stunned by the opening statement regarding energy grids. Instead, it was to take an opportunity to identify some common analyst mistakes that we all can make. It is always useful to identify reports like these and without malice to tear apart the analysis presented to identify knowledge gaps, assumptions, biases, and analyst mistakes. Going through this process can help make you a better analyst. In fairness though, the only reason I know a lot about common analyst mistakes is because I’ve made a lot of rookie mistakes at one point or another in my career. We all do. The trick is usually to try not to make a public spectacle out of it.

IRONGATE Malware – Lessons Learned for ICS/SCADA Defenders

June 2, 2016

I first posted this blog on the SANS ICS blog here.


FireEye uncovered a new piece of ICS malware that they released today and their way of approaching it both to the public and in pre-briefing to the media has been outstanding. The malware is not in the wild, is not a threat to the industry, but offers lessons learned and I believe the FireEye/Mandiant team’s handling of it deserves a good nod. This blog post will explain the background context to the malware, the details of the malware with my thoughts, and why it is important.

On April 25th I noticed the S4 European agenda noted that Rob Caldwell of the Mandiant ICS team would be doing a presentation on new ICS malware. I posted the blog here with some thoughts on what this meant for the community. Personally, I’m excited about DigitalBond’s inaugural ICS conference in Europe (the long running S4 in the US and Japan has always been a valued contribution to the larger community). I will offer one small critique though that is not meant to be negative in tone. The DigitalBond website lists that the malware is in the “wild”; the ICS malware that Mandiant released details about this morning, titled IRONGATE, is not in the wild, in my opinion. “In the wild” does not have a strict definition so I don’t think DigitalBond did anything wrong here, they were being extremely good stewards of the community to bring this information forward but when I consider malware “in the wild” I look for something actively infecting organizations. I was fortunate enough to exchange messages with Dale Peterson, who runs DigitalBond, and his understanding of the importance of the malware while avoiding hype matched my own. Shortly stated, he is spot on with his approach and I’m looking forward to the presentation on the malware at his conference. It is important to keep in mind though that this malware is more of a proof-of-concept or a security research project but still important. I will cover these details in the next section though.

After posting my blog I was able to get some insight into the malware from the Mandiant team under an embargo. I normally wouldn’t talk openly about the “behind the scenes” discussions but I want to call attention to this for a very heartfelt kudos to the Mandiant ICS team. I’m not a journalist and in no way could help the FireEye/Mandiant public relations (PR) effort with regards to the malware they were releasing. Like it or not this kind of PR has value to companies and so capitalizing on it is a big motivation to any company. But they wanted to run their analysis by me for outside critique. This is a lesson many companies would benefit from: no matter how expert your staff is it is always valuable to get an outside opinion to ensure you are defeating biases and groupthink. Luckily for both the Mandiant team and myself I was excited about their thoughts. They called attention to why the malware was important but were careful to note that it is not technically advanced, it is not an active threat, and that there should be caution in overhyping the malware itself.

Details on IRONGATE
IRONGATE is the name for a family of malware that the FireEye Labs Advanced Reverse Engineering (FLARE) team identified in late 2015. The malware targets a simulated Siemens control system environment and replicates the type of man-in-the-middle attack seen in Stuxnet. The man-in-the-middle attack allows it to record normal traffic to a PLC and play it back to an HMI. It has a number of decent capabilities like anti-Virtual Machine checks and Dynamic Link Library (DLL) swapping with a malicious DLL. In many ways it looks like a cool project although not technically advanced. The most important aspect of the malware itself is that it shows the interest and understanding of impacting ICS by the authors. The full report by FireEye has a good coverage of the malware. Moving past the technical paper though there are a few key points to extract out about the malware itself. The following is my analysis and should not be considered definitive:

  • The malware is the payload portion and not the delivery mechanism; the delivery mechanism has not been identified and likely does not exist. The malware looks to me as a research project, penetration testing tool, or a capability developed to test out a security product for ICS networks. This means it is standalone and I do not believe we will ever see it or a derivative in the wild although we may see the tactic it displayed in a different capability by different authors in the future
  • The main portions of the malware are written in Python and Mandiant identified the malware by searching VirusTotal. While the discovery of the malware was in 2015 the malware was submitted through the web interface (not automatically through an API) in Israel in 2014. The combination of a manual upload, the malware not being in the wild (e.g. actively infecting sites), and the tool being written in Python against a simulated environment makes me think that the malware is a penetration testing or security product demo tool and not a proof-of-concept for a capable adversary. Generally speaking, APTs do not normally write tools in Python and submit them to VirusTotal
  • The malware’s attention to ICS and its focus on mimicking capabilities present in Stuxnet reinforced what many of us in the community knew: ICS is a viable target and attackers are getting smarter on how to impact ICS with ICS specific knowledge sets. The unique nature of ICS offers defenders many advantages in countering adversaries but it is not enough. You cannot rest on the fact that “ICS is unique” or “ICS can be hard to figure out” as a defense mechanism. It is a great vantage point for defenders but must be taken advantage of or adversaries will overcome it.

With what appears to be a bit of downplaying the malware the question remains: is this important and why? The answer is: yes it is important.

Why Is This Important?
I’m personally not a huge fan of naming malware, especially malware not in the wild, so I will admit I’m not crazy about naming this tool “IRONGATE” but this is the state of the industry today and I would expect the same out of any security company. The malware is not in the wild and in my opinion looks more to be a research tool than it does a bearer of things to come. So why is it important? Simply put, we do not know a lot about the ICS specific capabilities and malware in the community. In other words: we do not have much insight into the ICS threat landscape. We often have overhyped and inaccurate numbers of incidents in the community (Dell’s 2015 review stating there were hundreds of thousands of ICS cyber attacks) or abysmally low numbers (the ICS-CERT’s metrics of ~250 incidents a year which are primarily reported from the intelligence community and not asset owner themselves). Somewhere in between those two numbers is the truth pertaining to how many cyber incidents there are each year in the ICS community. A much smaller portion of those incidents are targeted espionage, theft, or attacks. And yet we only know of three ICS specifically tailored pieces of malware: Stuxnet, HAVEX, and BlackEnergy2. Over focusing on the malware instead of the human threats who intend harm is a mistake. But malware is still the tool of choice for many adversaries. So learning about these tools and the tradecraft of adversaries is extremely important. Yet we are lacking insight into those data sets. This makes the IRONGATE malware more interesting in the ICS community than it would be in an IT security discussion.
Here are, in my opinion, the three most important takeaways from this piece of malware.

  1. The malware was submitted in 2014 to VirusTotal and no security vendor alerted on it. Against dozens of security products none flagged this as malicious. It was written in Python, had a module titled scada.exe, and was obviously malicious yet no product flagged it. If ICS related malware is sitting in public data sets undiscovered by the vendors who focus entirely on detecting malware then you can be sure that there is malware in ICS environments today that we have not even begun to identify and understand.
  2. The Mandiant ICS team at FireEye released a number of pieces of technical information such as MD5 hashes and sample names for the pieces of this malware family. Although I disagree in calling them indicators of compromise (IOCs) because nothing was compromised, the technical details are an important exercise. With this information, could a standard ICS organization search through the network traffic and host information for matches against this malware? I would state that the significant majority of the industry could not. That’s a serious issue. This is likely researcher malware or a pentesting tool and we as a community could not search community-wide for it. Although I’m a huge advocate of the amazing work being done in the industry today we are simply behind where we need to be. If we cannot search our environments for possible pentester malware we’re playing in a different league to find the top capabilities of foreign intelligence teams.
  3. Nothing displayed in this capability or any capability we have seen to date (Stuxnet, HAVEX, and BlackEnergy2 as well as non-targeted capabilities such as Slammer and Conficker) would be undetectable to a human analyst. We need security products in our environments although we cannot rely solely upon them. Those passive defenses that rule out the Conficker infections and ransomware malware are important to rule out noise that human analysts shouldn’t be focusing on. But at the end of the day it must be human defenders against human adversaries that secure the ICS. That active defense approach of monitoring the ICS and responding to real threats is required. Nothing about the capabilities to date would have bypassed human defenders. The harsh truth is many organizations simply are not looking at their ICS networked environment. The harsh truth is that as a community we are not where we need to be today but the inspiring reality is that we can change the industry quickly by countering threats in our environment by empowering and training our people to do so.

In closing, I would caution the community to not overhype IRONGATE. The Mandiant ICS team did not overhype it nor should journalists. It could be a resume generating event to go to your management and claim that the malware itself is a reason for security investments at the company. But this is still an important find. Going to decision makers and ICS organizations and simply asking: “How would you find this if it was in your network?” is an important question and exercise. Hype is not needed to show why this is worth your time to discuss and counter. Ultimately, as we consider this malware and capabilities like it we as a community will move to better understand the threat landscape and counter the capabilities we have not discovered yet. Defense is doable – but you actually have to do something, you cannot just buy a product to place on the network and claim victory.



Fourth Sample of ICS Tailored Malware Uncovered and the Potential Impact

April 25, 2016

I first posted this piece on the SANS ICS blog here.


I looked at the S4 Europe agenda which was sent out this morning by Dale Peterson and saw an interesting bullet: “Rob Caldwell of Mandiant will unveil some ICS malware in the wild that is doing some new and smarter things to attack ICS. We are working with Mandiant to provide a bit more info on this in early May without doing the big reveal until S4xEurope.”
For those of you that don’t know, S4 is a conference run by Dale Peterson and this is their European debut (the other versions are in Florida and Japan and are staples of the ICS security conference scene always having hard hitting and top notch presentations). As a trusted conference, S4, and friend, Dale, I give a higher bit of credibility to anything that comes out of there than your typical conference. Add that to the fact that the Mandiant ICS team has a number of extremely credible voices (Rob Caldwell, Dan Scali, Chris Sistrunk, Mark Heard, etc.) this is even more interesting and credible.

Let’s break down what we know and why this is potentially very important.

Background on ICS Tailored Malware
To date there have been exactly three ICS tailored malware families that are publicly known. The first was Stuxnet which contained modules to target the Siemens’ systems at the Natanz facility in Iran and cause physical damage to the P-1 centrifuges. Second, there was the Havex malware used in the Dragonfly campaign (aliases include Energetic Bear and Crouching Yeti) that had a module that specifically searched for ICS specific ports (such as 102, 502, and 44818) and later more importantly an OPC module. Lastly, there was the BlackEnergy 2 malware which contained exploits and versions for GE’s CIMPLICITY and Siemens’ SIMATIC environments.

Why Haven’t We Seen More?
Most of us understand that ICS environments make for great targets especially for nation-state and APT styled actors. The ability for military posturing, political leverage, espionage, and even intellectual property theft make enticing targets. Yet, the numbers simply do not seem to align with the fear that many folks have about these environments being targeted. The question always comes up: why don’t see more ICS intrusions? I do not claim to know for sure but my running hypothesis is that it boils down primarily to three areas:

1. We do not have a lot of visibility into ICS networks. Many of the threats that we are aware of we know about due to vendors releasing reports. These vendors traditionally have end point security solutions and anti-virus in the networks that report back information to them. This allows the vendors to “see” tens of thousands of networks and the threats targeting them. In ICS we do not have these same products in scale and many are disconnected from the vendors (which is ok by the way and sometimes preferable). That combined with a lack of understanding of how to monitor these environments safely and interact with them creates a scenario where we don’t see much. Or in short, we aren’t looking.

2. Most malware families tend to be criminal in nature. APT styled malware is not as common in the larger security field. There simply isn’t as big of a motivation for criminals to make ICS specific malware families when ransomware, botnets, etc. work just as effectively in these environments anyway and they represent a smaller portion of the population. This is similar to the old Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux malware debate. One of the reasons we see more Windows malware is due to pure numbers and not because it’s less secure. There is more motive for criminals to write Windows based malware usually. For the APT styled actors, targeting ICS can be important for military and intelligence purposes but there isn’t as much motive to actually attack or bring down infrastructure outside of conflict scenarios; just to learn and position. I have my suspicions that there are a great number of ICS networks compromised with a large variety of ICS specific malware out there and we just haven’t seen the impacts to begin looking (see point #1).

3. ICS specific knowledge sets are rarer making it more difficult to create well-crafted and tailored ICS modules. The typical “cyber team” for nation-states are pretty good at Windows based environments but down in the lower ICS networks it requires system specific knowledge and engineering skills to truly craft something meaningful. This knowledge set is expanding though meaning we will definitely see more and more of these types of threats in the future.

Why is the Mandiant Discovery Potentially Important?
The claim that Mandiant has found a new ICS tailored piece of malware is important for a few reasons.

First, I have a good amount of respect for the Mandiant ICS team and if they say they’ve found something ICS specific I’ll still require proof when the time comes but I’m more inclined to believe them. Knowing the team members though I’m confident they’ll release things like indicators of compromise (IoCs) and technical knowledge so that the community can independently verify the find. This is great because many times there are claims made, even by trusted companies, without any proof offered. My general stance is that no matter how trusted the company is if there isn’t proof (for example the recent Version claim about the water hack) then it simply does not count. The community has been abused a lot with false claims and proof is required for such important topics.

Second, given that there have only been three ICS tailored malware families to have a fourth is incredibly interesting for the research both into the defense of ICS but also into the threat landscape. Understanding how the intrusions took place, what the targets were, and extracting lessons learned will be very valuable to both the technical and culture challenges in this space. It remains to be seen exactly what Mandiant means by “ICS specific” although I have messaged some trusted contacts and have been told that the agenda point isn’t a misprint; Mandiant claims to have found tailored ICS malware and not just an ICS themed phishing email or something less significant. Although I never wish harm on anyone from a threat and defense research perspective this is an amazing find.

Third, it bodes well for the ICS security industry as a whole to start making some more positive changes. There have been many ICS security companies around for years (security and incident response teams like LoftyPerch, independent consultants and contractors, red teams like Red Tiger Security, etc.) and even some dabbling by larger companies like Kaspersky and Trend Micro (who both have contributed amazing information on the ICS threat landscape). But the Mandiant ICS team in a way represents a first in the community. Mandiant, and its parent company FireEye, is a huge player in the security community. For years the Mandiant team itself has been widely respected for their incident response expertise. To have them come out and make a specific ICS team to focus on incident response was actually a big risk. It is common to see ICS products and services but many of the startups struggle much more than the media and venture capitalists would let on. Mandiant’s ICS play was a hope that the market would respond. To have the team come out with a fourth specific ICS tailored malware family bodes very well for the risk they took and with the appropriate coverage while keeping down hype this could be very important for the industry and market writ large. Of course the customers always get a big vote in this area but it could mean more folks waking up to the fact that yes ICS represent a target and yes the security community can calmly and maturely approach the problem and add value (again, please no hype, wallpapers, and fancy logos though for exploits and malware).

But Aren’t Squirrels More Damaging to the Grid?
I gave an interview to a journalist for a larger piece on squirrels and cyber threats with regards to the power grid and I believe it warrants a discussion in this piece’s context. The common joke in the community is that squirrels have done more damage to power grids than the US, China, Iran, Russia, UK, etc. combined. And it’s true. It is often stated by us in the industry to remind folks that the “OMG Cyber!” needs to calm down a bit and realize that infrastructure operators on a daily basis deal more with squirrels and Conficker than APT styled malware. However, we should not equate the probability of attacks with the importance of them. As an example, let’s consider the recent DHS and FBI report on the risk to the U.S. electrical infrastructure.

I have a lot of love and respect for many of the FBI and ICS-CERT personnel I’ve worked with. I can only describe most of them as extremely passionate and hard working. But, the claim that the risk of a cyber attack against U.S. electrical infrastructure was low was upsetting to me because of how it comes across. On the heels of the cyber attack that impacted the Ukrainian power grid the report seemed to downplay the risk to the U.S. community. It stood in direct contrast to Cyber Command’s Admiral Rogers who stated that “It is only a matter of the when, not the if we’re going to see a nation-state, group, or actor engage in destructive behavior against critical infrastructure in the United States.” He was specifically talking in context of what happened in Ukraine and the importance of it. As the head of both the NSA and the U.S. military arm for cyber it is appropriate for Admiral Rogers to have a good understanding of the foreign intelligence and foreign military threat landscape. For the DHS and FBI to contradict him, even if unintentionally, seems very misplaced in what their expertise and mission is; and this leads back to the squirrel comment.

It is not as important to think of probability with regards to destructive attacks and ICS focused intelligence operations. When a community hears of a “low probability” event they naturally prioritize it under other more high probability events. As an example, prioritizing squirrels over nation-state operations based on probability. The problem with doing that though is that the impact is so much more severe for this “lower probability” scenario that the nation must prioritize it for national security reasons. Telling the infrastructure operators, who really defend the grid not the government, to stay calm and carry on is directly competing with that need although the message should admittedly always avoid hype and alarmism. Mandiant coming out with the fourth variety of ICS tailored malware helps highlight this at a critical point in the debate both among infrastructure operators and policy makers.

Conclusion and What to Do
We won’t know exactly what the ICS tailored malware is, what it’s doing, or technical knowledge of it until Mandiant releases it. It could be a dud or it could be extremely important (knowing the Mandiant team my bet is on extremely important but let’s all remain patient for the details before claiming it to be so). However, infrastructure owners and operators do not need to wait for the technical details to be released. It is important to be doing industry best practices now including things such as network security monitoring internal to the ICS. The other three samples of ICS tailored malware were all incredibly easy to identify by folks who were looking. Students in my SANS ICS515 ICS Active Defense and Incident Response class (shameless plug) all gets hands on with these threats and are often surprised at how easy they are to identify in logs and network traffic. The trick is simply to get access to the ICS and start looking. Or in other words: you too can succeed. Defense is doable. So do not feel you need to wait for the Mandiant report. It is potentially very important and technical details will help hunt the threats but you can look now and maybe you’ll spot it, something else, or at the very least you’ll get familiar with the networks you should be defending so that it’s easier to spot something in the future whether its APT styled malware or just misconfigured devices. Either way – the most important ICS is your ICS and learning it will return huge value to you.