April 19, 2023 By Jonathan Reed 4 min read

In the lead-up to the 2021 Super Bowl, a water treatment plant 15 miles away from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa was targeted in a cyberattack. The perpetrator manipulated the water’s sodium hydroxide levels from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million. This change would have poisoned the water supply. Thanks to the quick action of an observant staff member, the attack was thwarted before any harm could be done. While ransomware and data leaks are concerning, a successful cyberattack on a physical industrial facility could be catastrophic.

Recently, the industrial cybersecurity firm Dragos reported on a development that puts industrial installations at even higher risk. According to the report, in 2022, the Chernovite threat group created Pipedream, a new modular malware designed to attack industrial control systems (ICS). This powerful toolkit has the potential for disruptive and destructive attacks on tens of thousands of crucial industrial devices. The risk impacts entities that are responsible for managing the electrical grid, oil and gas pipelines, water systems and manufacturing plants.

Growing industrial control system threat

Chernovite developers created Pipedream, a modular ICS attack framework that is now the seventh known ICS-specific malware, according to the Dragos report. Pipedream is the first ever cross-industry disruptive and destructive ICS / operational technology (OT) malware. Its existence proves that industrial adversarial capabilities have ramped up considerably.

Dragos states that the Chernovite group possesses a breadth of ICS-specific knowledge beyond what’s observed in other threat actors. The ICS expertise demonstrated in Pipedream includes capabilities to disrupt, degrade and potentially destroy physical processes in industrial environments.

While Pipedream itself is a new ICS capability, its appearance reveals a trend toward more technically capable and adaptable adversaries targeting ICS/OT, as per Dragos. In addition to implementing common ICS/OT-specific protocols, Pipedream improves upon techniques from earlier ICS malware. Threat groups such as Crashoverride and Electrum exploited the OPC Data Access (OPC DA) protocol to manipulate breakers and electrical switchgear. Meanwhile, Chernovite uses a newer but comparable OPC UA protocol.

Dragos has high confidence that a state actor developed Pipedream intending to leverage it for future disruptive or destructive operations. Pipedream’s capabilities provide an adversary with a range of options for learning about a target’s OT network architecture and identifying its assets and processes. This information lays the groundwork for further disruptive and destructive attacks. It also increases an adversary’s knowledge to develop more capabilities to wreak havoc on a much broader scale.

Ransomware attacks against industrial organizations

While ICS/OT attacks are cause for worry, the industrial sector isn’t immune to ransomware attacks either. Along these lines, the Dragos report also included tidbits of information about ransomware, such as:

  • Ransomware attacks against industrial organizations increased by 87% over last year
  • 35% more ransomware groups impacted ICS/OT in 2022
  • Ransomware attacks targeted 437 manufacturing entities in 104 unique manufacturing subsectors.

The Dragos report says, “As ransomware activity increases, it results in more risk for OT networks, particularly networks with poor segmentation.”

5 critical controls for strong ICS/OT cyber defense

Dragos recommends following the SANS Five ICS Cybersecurity Critical Controls as a guide for ICS/OT cybersecurity strategy. According to the Dragos report, a review of these controls revealed the following findings along with recommendations on how to improve:

  1. ICS-specific incident response: The evaluation of this critical control showed mixed results. Detection, elevation and plan activation all improved. But scores declined in the ability to communicate, document and recover. Electric utilities showed the best preparedness, followed by oil and gas, while manufacturing performed the worst. Mitigating the potential impact of an incident is different for pipelines, electrical grids and manufacturing plants. A dedicated ICS-specific plan must include the right contact points. This means identifying which employees have the right skills within the plant, plus a well-developed plan of action for specific scenarios at specific locations.
  2. Defensible architecture: This second critical control includes elements such as segmentation, least privilege, visibility, resilience and automation. Dragos found marked improvements in network segmentation, but 50% of environments still have room to improve. Uncontrolled external connections into OT were found in 53% of Dragos engagements in 2022. OT security strategies start with hardening the environment. This includes removing extraneous OT network access points, maintaining strong policy control at IT/OT interface points and mitigating high-risk vulnerabilities.
  3. ICS network visibility: The third critical control evaluation revealed 80% of environments had little or no visibility into traffic and devices in ICS/OT environments. Far too many environments find it difficult to detect and investigate important issues. Maintaining accurate asset inventory is even more challenging. An effective OT security posture maintains an inventory of assets, maps vulnerabilities against those assets (and mitigation plans) and actively monitors traffic for potential threats.
  4. Secure remote access: Evaluation of the fourth critical control showed users in 54% of environments using the same credentials for IT systems and OT systems. Remote access is the most common way for threat groups to penetrate OT systems. Credential sharing makes it much easier for threats to cross from IT to OT. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) can and should be applied to OT. Implementing MFA across systems adds an extra layer of security for a relatively small investment.
  5. Risk-based vulnerability management: The final critical control showed that only 15% of CVEs included errors in 2022, down 4% from 2021. But 77% of vulnerabilities still lack mitigation steps. This demonstrates the challenge of employing a risk management approach that can both mitigate the risk of exploitation and reduce production downtime from patches. A successful OT vulnerability management program requires timely awareness of key vulnerabilities with the right information and risk ratings. Also, alternative mitigation strategies will minimize exposure while continuing to operate.

Securing industrial processes

The emergence of the Pipedream malware should serve as a wake-up call. Industrial cyberattack capabilities and incidents are increasing, and the results could be disastrous. Meanwhile, the security response contains gaps that require immediate attention.

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