Ukraine Blackout – The Future Of War

For a look at how cyber will play into armed conflict, look at the Dec. 23 attack on the Ukrainian energy sector. This was no simple hack involving celebrity emails or embarrassing personal information, but a highly coordinated and complex cyber-physical assault that knocked out power to more than 225,000 people, in a war-torn country, in the dead of winter.

Recently, the head of Southern Company, one of America’s larger regional electricity producers, said that the United States was well protected against a similar attack. But that doesn’t mean that a repeat, or a similar event, couldn’t trigger a larger conflict even if it doesn’t shut off the lights.

Cyber security researchers have pointed the finger at pro-Russian hacktivist groups. US-based iSight Partners specifically accused the Moscow-based Sandworm. But a wide variety of pro-Russian groups are working against Ukraine and Western forces; one is Cyberberkut, which has taken credit for attacks on German media and NATO sites.

So how do these groups operate? History suggests: with stealth and subtlety.  Remember 2014, when masked gunmen, not officially affiliated with any larger nation-state, began waging war in Eastern Ukraine? The so-called “green men” completed their invasion before anyone was able to figure out that they were, in fact, invading.

The specific culprit in the Ukraine blackout is almost less important than the broader trend: the rise of cyber militias that work on behalf of state interests but whose veneer of independence gives governments plausible deniability.

Tom Kellermann, the CEO of Strategic Cyber Ventures, put it this way at the recent Suits and Spooks conference in Washington, DC. “There’s a cult of personality, particularly in the East. The greatest hackers in the world, the Russian-speaking blackhat community in the former Soviet bloc, are beholden to that cult of personality. They’re beholden to that cult of personality for a number of reasons. They’ve been allowed to act with impunity when hacking the US financial sector for more than 17 years in exchange for paying tribute or homage to the regime. The examples are Estonia, South Ossetia, and now Ukraine.”

But to read the way US outlets covered the Ukrainian outage, you might think that the cyber attack and the blackout occurred almost randomly. In fact, utilities and central services have emerged as a new front in the war in the Eastern part of the country. Less than a month before the Ukrainian energy outage, one occurred on the disputed Crimea peninsula. Ukrainian police blamed saboteurs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly reacted by promising to construct power lines into the region; Russian newspapers have reported that German company Siemens has a contract with the Russian government to build gas turbine powered-plants in the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol. Siemens reportedly refuted the claims, as building the plants would be a violation of international sanctions). Not long after that denial, Siemens became one of the key targets in the Ukraine blackout.  

The primary piece of software implicated in the attack was called BlackEnergy, according to DHS’s recently released report on the incident. It’s less of a weapon than a vehicle carrying a weapon.

The BlackEnergy malware was reportedly delivered via spear phishing emails with malicious Microsoft Office attachments. It is suspected that BlackEnergy may have been used as an initial access vector to acquire legitimate credentials, the report said.

BlackEnergy is still around in 2016 because it has a modular architecture, allowing people to write different plug-ins. By itself, it’s not the sort of software that could take down a power station. Rather, it would work in concert with an add-on, a very specifically designed package; in this case, one designed to attack the control equipment of the targeted Siemens power plants.

Still, recent attacks against US power entities are even more sophisticated than the one against Ukraine. Fanning pointed to a March 2015 attack on a Pacific Gas and Electric substation. The assailants broke into the station physically and then disabled the supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA system, before trying to damage other things.

The use of a self-destruct booby trap is the difference between an act of espionage—something that virtually every nation engages in—and an act of serious consequence, possibly requiring international sanctions or a response from US Cyber Command.

Think back to the Sony hack: the attackers not only took data but also destroyed it. “This is why I think many of us worry about Sony, the destructive nature of it. It wasn’t just the fun and games of, you know, what rich Hollywood executives were saying about rich Hollywood starlets, right?” Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, said last year. “…That is equally possible in our electric grid.”

If lawmakers decide that the use of software like KillDisk is tantamount to an act of war that could put the military in a difficult position. Adm. Michael Rogers, the head of Cyber Command has said that offensive cyber weapons would be used proportionally and in line with the rules of conflict.

DefenseOne:      The Conversation

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