Triton Malware Is Spreading

Triton is the name given to a  rogue code can disable safety systems designed to prevent catastrophic industrial accidents. It was discovered in the Middle East, but the hackers behind it are now targeting companies in North America and other parts of the world, too.

In the summer of 2017, a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia experienced a worrisome security incident that cybersecurity experts consider to be the first-ever cyberattack carried out with “a blatant, flat-out intent to hurt people.” The attack involved a highly sophisticated new malware strain called Triton, which was capable of remotely disabling safety systems inside the plant with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Luckily, a flaw in the Triton code triggered a safety system that responded by shutting down the plant. If it hadn’t been for that flaw, the hackers could have released toxic hydrogen sulfide gas or caused explosions. As a result, employees of the plant and residents of the surrounding area could have been killed or injured.

Triton is almost certainly the work of state-backed hackers. While Iran was the initial suspect, later reports indicate that Russia may have been behind the attack.

The hackers had deployed malicious software, or malware, that let them take over the plant’s safety instrumented systems. These physical controllers and their associated software are the last line of defense against life-threatening disasters. 
Fortunately, a flaw in the code gave the hackers away before they could do any harm. It triggered a response from a safety system in June 2017, which brought the plant to a halt. Then in August, several more systems were tripped, causing another shutdown.

The first outage was mistakenly attributed to a mechanical glitch; after the second, the plant's owners called in investigators. The sleuths found the malware, which has since been dubbed “Triton” (or sometimes “Trisis”) for the Triconex safety controller model that it targeted, which is made by Schneider Electric, a French company. In a worst-case scenario, the rogue code could have led to the release of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas or caused explosions, putting lives at risk both at the facility and in the surrounding area.

Those behind Triton are now on the hunt for new victims. Dragos, a firm that specialises in industrial cybersecurity, and where Gutmanis now works, says it’s seen evidence over the past year or so that the hacking group that built the malware, and inserted it into the Saudi plant, is using some of the same digital tradecraft to research targets in places outside the Middle East, including North America. And it’s creating new strains of the code in order to compromise a broader range of safety instrumented systems.

Red Alert
Over the past couple of years, cybersecurity firms have been racing to deconstruct the malware, and to work out who’s behind it. Their research paints a worrying picture of a sophisticated cyber-weapon built and deployed by a determined and patient hacking group whose identity has yet to be established with certainty.

The hackers appear to have been inside the petrochemical company’s corporate IT network since 2014. From there, they eventually found a way into the plant’s own network, most likely through a hole in a poorly configured digital firewall that was supposed to stop unauthorised access. They then got into an engineering workstation, either by exploiting an unpatched flaw in its Windows code or by intercepting an employee’s login credentials.

Since the workstation communicated with the plant’s safety instrumented systems, the hackers were able to learn the make and model of the systems’ hardware controllers, as well as the versions of their firmware, software that’s embedded in a device’s memory and governs how it communicates with other things.

It’s likely they next acquired an identical Schneider machine and used it to test the malware they developed. This made it possible to mimic the protocol, or set of digital rules, that the engineering workstation used to communicate with the safety systems. The hackers also found a “zero-day vulnerability”, or previously unknown bug, in the Triconex model’s firmware. This let them inject code into the safety systems’ memories that ensured they could access the controllers whenever they wanted to.

Thus, the intruders could have ordered the safety instrumented systems to disable themselves and then used other malware to trigger an unsafe situation at the plant.

The results could have been horrific. The world’s worst industrial disaster to date also involved a leak of poisonous gases. In December 1984 a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released a vast cloud of toxic fumes, killing thousands and causing severe injuries to many more. The cause that time was poor maintenance and human error. But malfunctioning and inoperable safety systems at the plant meant that its last line of defense failed.

More Red Alerts
There have been only a few previous examples of hackers using cyberspace to try to disrupt the physical world. They include Stuxnet, which caused hundreds of centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear plant to spin out of control and destroy themselves in 2010, and CrashOverride, which Russian hackers used in 2016 to strike at Ukraine’s power grid. 

However, not even the most pessimistic of Cyber-Cassandras saw malware like Triton coming. “Targeting safety systems just seemed to be off limits morally and really hard to do technically,” explains Joe Slowik, a former information warfare officer in the US Navy, who also works at Dragos.

An Analog Future?
Over the past decade or so, companies have been adding internet connectivity and sensors to all kinds of industrial equipment. The data captured is being used for everything from predictive maintenance, which means using machine-learning models to better anticipate when equipment needs servicing, to fine-tuning production processes. There’s also been a big push to control processes remotely through things like smartphones and tablets.

All this can make businesses much more efficient and productive, which explains why they are expected to spend around $42 billion this year on industrial Internet gear such as smart sensors and automated control systems, according to the ARC Group, which tracks the market. But the risks are also clear: the more connected equipment there is, the more targets hackers have to aim at.

To keep attackers out, industrial companies typically rely on a strategy known as “defense in depth.” This means creating multiple layers of security, starting with firewalls to separate corporate networks from the internet. Other layers are intended to prevent hackers who do get in from accessing plant networks and then industrial control systems.

MIT Technology Review:                Oodaloop

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