On December 23, a Ukrainian power company announced that a section of the country had gone dark. This temporary outage was not the result of purely physical sabotage—like the case a month earlier where explosives had knocked out power lines to Crimea—but instead, according to Ukrainian officials, was due to a cyberattack.
The country's SBU security service immediately castigated Russia for the outage, according to Reuters, and Ukraine started an official investigation into what exactly happened.
Over the past few days, more details around the attack have emerged, including an apparent sample of malware found in a network of the regional control center. If that malware was indeed responsible for causing a blackout throughout parts of Ukraine, it would be a signal that industrial control systems (ICS), and in particular electric grids, really are under threat from cyberattacks, something that researchers have been warning for years.
"It was easily recoverable, but obviously it's a bad thing for the power to go out"
Around a week after the attack announcement, Robert M. Lee, a former US Air Force cyber warfare operations officer as well as the founder and CEO of Dragos Security, wrote on the SANS ICS Security Blog that his team had obtained a sample of the malware found within the affected network.
“The fact that malware was recovered from the network at all, and the fact that it's newer, gives a high confidence assessment that the cyberattack on Ukraine was legitimate,” Lee told Motherboard in a phone interview. Lee said the malware was “unique,” implying that it likely wasn't something that just happened be on the grid network during the outage.
“The malware is a 32 bit Windows executable and is modular in nature indicating that this is a module of a more complex piece of malware,” Lee wrote in his blog post, who passed the sample over to Kyle Wilhoit, a senior threat researcher at cybersecurity company Trend Micro. Wilhoit said that the malware had a wiping function that would impact the targeted system.
“The resolution of APIs that are not used elsewhere in the code probably means that some of the code was borrowed from another program,” wrote Jake Williams, founder of Rendition Security and a SANS instructor, to whom Lee also provided the malware. Williams added that the malware appears to have a code “base,” on which modules are then added.
Other pieces of malware have targeted industrial systems in the past: "Havex" has infected technology commonly used in process control systems, such as water pumps and turbines; and "BlackEnergy," which has been used in straight-up cybercriminal campaigns, has also been used to hit energy engineering facilities.
An Associated Press investigation published in December last year found that “sophisticated foreign hackers” had gained enough access to control power plant networks around a dozen times in the last decade. More broadly, the Wall Street Journal recently revealed that Iranian hackers had breached a New York dam in 2013. At the latest Chaos Communication Congress, a security, politics and art conference in Hamburg, Germany, researchers warned of the serious vulnerabilities in automated railroad systems. All of those require varying degrees of sophistication, with some of them needing expert knowledge of the target network’s protocols and idiosyncrasies.
After Lee's post, more researchers published their own findings. Analysts from ESET claimed that the malware found in Ukraine was actually the BlackEnergy malware. Others went a step further, and wrote that BlackEnergy has been found within other Ukrainian power companies during the week of Christmas last year.
One group that has made heavy use of the BlackEnergy malware, and has previously targeted power facilities and other ICS, is alleged Russian hacking group Sandworm. It would be easy to assume that, because of the target and presence of supposed BlackEnergy malware, that Sandworm was behind the attack.
But that's a logical leap too far, at least with the currently available evidence.
“The BlackEnergy malware has been in existence since 2007 and lots of different actors have used it,” Lee told Motherboard.
“People are saying that this piece of malware is linked to BlackEnergy. I can buy that, and there is some good analysis to say that is likely true," he added. "But just because the BlackEnergy malware was used, does not mean that it's linked at all” to Sandworm.
Irrespective of who committed the attack, what appears to have happened is that hackers “caused a power outage that was temporary in nature. It was easily recoverable, but obviously it's a bad thing for the power to go out,” Lee said. “It's not trivial—it still takes getting on the system and exploiting all that—but it's not hard.”
One possible explanation is that the attackers may have remotely accessed a digital control panel located within the control center's system. Other researchers have pointed towards the data wiping feature of the malware; presumably, wiping out vital data could have a negative impact on the electric grid’s systems. At this point, both of those theories are largely speculative.
But while either of those approaches are relatively easy for a hacker to carry out, attacks that would cause much more impact—that lasted for say, weeks or months—are much less likely to occur.
“Taking down the power grid, or cascading failures, or weeks of impact: that is incredibly hard. People have oversold how easy that is to achieve,” Lee added.
Although experts say it is likely that the power outage in Ukraine was caused by an cyberattack, there are still plenty of questions to be answered. More news is sure to follow in the coming days or weeks, as several research teams now have access to the malware sample.
Correction 1/4/16: This story originally referred to systems being compromised in a power plant or plants on the affected grid. As Michael Toecker pointed out, local sources report it was a regional control center that was affected.