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New Suspected Cyber Attack on Ukraine Power Grid – Advice as Information Emerges

December 19, 2016

Reporting in Ukraine has emerged indicating another suspected cyber attack on the electric grid (the first being the confirmed one in 2015). Initial reporting is often inaccurate or a small view of incidents but it’s worth cautiously watching and seeing what information emerges. Here’s what we know so far:

Reports of Suspected Cyber Attack:
Around noon of December 19th, 2016 reports began to surface related to a possible cyber attack on the Ukraine electric grid. The attack is suspected to have taken place near midnight local Ukraine time on the 17th. The Pivnichna transmission-level substations have been called out as possibly being the site attacked.  This is of course concerning for numerous reasons including the cyber attack on the Ukraine grid in December 2015 as well as traditional ongoing military actions in Ukraine. The reporting is from various Ukrainian sources including a press release from the impacted company Kyivenergo confirming that there was an unintentional outage and that they took actions to restore operations.

The first 24 and often 48 hours of reporting are notoriously bad for OSINT analysts but still should be utilized. Simply leverage caution and do not present information as facts yet. At this point I would assess with low confidence that the cyber attack has occurred. This is not to say there is doubt around the event only that there are other theories that have equal weighting until more evidence is available.  However, based on the sourcing of the information (internal Ukraine sources) and the Ukrainian grid operators’ experience dealing with a similar situation last year I have a higher trust level of the sources (thus the low confidence assessment that the attack is real). We will learn more later and it may be revealed that the outage was not related to a cyber attack; however I am aware of an investigation on going by Ukrainian authorities and they are treating the leading theory for the outage as a cyber attack.  I will caution again though that no one with direct knowledge of the attack has confirmed that it is a cyber attack; only that it is the leading theory and the disconnect was unintentional.

What Should Be Done:
Right now the best actions for those not on the ground or working at infrastructure companies is to wait and see if more information is revealed. Journalists should be cautious to infer or jump to conclusions and those in security community should stay tuned for more information. I would recommend journalists contact sources in the area but realize that the information is very preliminary and those not on the ground in Ukraine will have very little to add to knowledge on the situation.

If you are in the infrastructure (ICS/SCADA) security community it would be wise to use established channels to send decision makers a situational awareness report on the news; I would note it’s a low confidence assessment currently due to lack of first hand evidence but that it is a situation worth watching. This should be paired with security staff taking an active defense posture of monitoring the ICS network looking for abnormal activity. Preliminary information from the investigation underway by the Ukrainian authorities indicates that a remote attack is suspected.  I would stay far away from linking this to the Sandworm attack currently (attribution right now is not possible) but I would review the methods they achieved the remote attack on Ukraine last year and use that information to hunt for threats. As an example, look in logs for abnormal VPN session length, increased frequency of use, and unusual connection requests times.

If you happen to be a customer of Dragos, Inc. you will have received a notification already with some recommendations for strategic, operational, and tactical level players. Check your portal and be on the look out for a briefing request coming from us if you would like to attend remotely. For the wider community ensure that you are wary of phishing attempts taking advantage of this possible attack.

In Closing:
My chief recommendation is for everyone to avoid alarmism and utilize this as an opportunity to review logs and information from the ICS and search TTPs we’ve seen before such as remote usage of the ICS through legitimate accounts, VPNs, and remote desktop capabilities. If this attack turns out to be true it is unlikely it will be anything that is novel that couldn’t have been detected. It’s important to remember that defense is doable – now go do it.