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A continuous threat to industrial control systems (ICS) has new targets in its sights with the XENOTIME activity group expanding its targeting beyond oil and gas to the electric utility sector.

This expansion to a new vertical illustrates a trend that will likely continue for other ICS-targeting adversaries, said researchers at Dragos in a post.

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ICS cyber threats are proliferating as more capable adversaries are investing heavily in the ability to disrupt critical infrastructure like oil and gas, electric power, water, and more. Attacking any industrial sector requires significant resources, which increases as capabilities and targeting expand. The high resource requirement previously limited such attacks to a few potential adversaries, but as more players see value and interest in targeting critical infrastructure – and those already invested see dividends from their behaviors – the threat landscape grows.

To illustrate and highlight this major strategic risk to industrial environments worldwide and across every industry, Dragos published new intelligence on XENOTIME. I

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ICS Shift
XENOTIME, the group behind the Triton/Trisis event, where a control system and safety system at a refinery in Saudi Arabia ended up taken over forced a shut down of the facility, previously focused on oil and gas related targeting. In February 2019, Dragos identified a change in XENOTIME behavior: Starting in late 2018, XENOTIME began probing the networks of electric utility organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere using similar tactics to the group’s operations against oil and gas companies.

Multiple ICS sectors now face the XENOTIME threat; this means individual verticals – such as oil and gas, manufacturing, or electric – cannot ignore threats to other ICS entities because they are not specifically targeted. As such, a key element in defense against sophisticated, expanding threats is understanding threat behaviors and methodologies, beyond indicators of compromise.

Asset owners and operators across ICS should be aware of XENOTIME’s tactics, techniques, and procedures.

The 2017 Triton/Trisis malware attack on a Saudi Arabian oil and gas facility represented an escalation of attacks on ICS. The attack targeted safety systems and was designed to cause loss of life or physical damage. Following that attack, XENOTIME expanded its operations to include oil and gas entities outside the Middle East. Additionally, the group compromised several ICS vendors and manufacturers in 2018, providing potential supply chain threat opportunities and vendor-enabled access to target ICS networks.

Persistent Pattern
XENOTIME operations since the initial event in 2017 included significant external scanning, network enumeration, and open source research of potential victims, combined with attempts at external access. This activity emphasized North American and European companies.

In February 2019, while working with clients across various utilities and regions, Dragos identified a persistent pattern of activity attempting to gather information and enumerate network resources associated with US and Asia-Pacific electric utilities.

This behavior could indicate the activity group was preparing for a further cyberattack, or at minimum satisfying the prerequisites for a future ICS-focused intrusion. The activities are consistent with Stage 1 ICS Cyber Kill Chain reconnaissance and initial access operations, including observed incidents of attempted authentication with credentials and possible credential “stuffing,” or using stolen usernames and passwords to try and force entry into target accounts.

While none of the electric utility targeting events has resulted in a known, successful intrusion into victim organizations to date, the persistent attempts, and expansion in scope is cause for definite concern. XENOTIME has successfully compromised several oil and gas environments which demonstrates its ability to do so in other verticals. Specifically, XENOTIME remains one of only four threats (along with ELECTRUM, Sandworm, and the entities responsible for Stuxnet) to execute a deliberate disruptive or destructive attack.

On The Defense
Asset Identification and Environmental Awareness: ICS asset owners and operators across all industries must prepare for potential breach and disruption scenarios. The most important thing a security team can do is improve visibility and awareness of ICS network activity, chiefly through a combination of network observables, host-based logs, and process-specific data.

Threat Behavior Detection: ICS-specific threat intelligence can also be leveraged to identify unique threat behavior patterns, evolving adversary methodology, and specific conduct.

Investigation, Response, and Recovery: When investigating or detecting ICS-specific intrusions and manipulation for hostile purposes, defenders must leverage all available information sources — from IT- like observations to process-specific impacts — and fuse them to gain a complete view of ICS network operations enabling informed response and root cause analysis of industrial incidents.

Given that XENOTIME is capable of and willing to execute a fundamental attack on process safety through attempted SIS modification, asset owners and operators must begin planning now for response and recovery scenarios related to a loss of SIS integrity. Specific items relating to response and recovery which can be immediately implemented include:
• Identify vendor contacts for support and analysis on specialized equipment not amenable to standard IT-based investigation techniques
• Have appropriate incident response capabilities either in-house or on call
• Maintain known-good configuration and process data both for comparison to possible compromised devices, and to enable rapid recovery in the event of a breach
• Identify operational workarounds to maintain known-good, known-safe production or generating capability

Irrespective of how an organization addresses these questions, ICS operators must address such concerns in advance, rather than trying to figure out such sensitive, complex items mid- or post-intrusion.

Threat Expansion
Ultimately, XENOTIME’s expansion to an additional ICS vertical is deeply concerning given this entity’s willingness to undermine fundamental process safety in ICS environments placing lives and environments at great risk.

Dragos emphasizes the observed behavior is an expansion, a proliferation of the threat, and not a shift – oil and gas entities must still grapple with this adversary’s activity. While unfortunate, the expansion should serve as a clear signal to ICS operators – not only in oil and gas or electric utility operations – that the time to plan, implement, and enforce security standards and response processes in industrial environments is now.

Click here for the complete Dragos blog post.

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