This post was written with contributions from IBM Security X-Force’s Michael Worley.

Operational technology (OT) — the networks that control industrial control system processes — face a more complex challenge than their IT counterparts when it comes to updating operating systems and software to avoid known vulnerabilities. In some cases, implementation of a patch could lead to hours or days of costly downtime. In other cases, full mitigation would require net new purchases of potentially millions of dollars worth of machinery to replace already functional systems simply because they are timeworn.

It’s no secret OT systems face this conundrum — and it’s become increasingly obvious cyber criminals are aware of this weakness, too. While there’s no shortage of recent headlines decrying the vulnerability of these systems to the more sophisticated malware commonly used by threat actors today, those conversations have overlooked another potential — yet equally serious — threat to OT: older malware still floating in the ether.

This is malware for which most systems have been patched and protected against, immunizing large swaths of networks and effectively dropping the older malware from the radar of IT teams (and headlines). Two examples of this kind of older malware include Conficker and WannaCry.

While occurrences of these malware types plaguing OT environments are relatively rare, they do occur — and often leave organizations combating a threat that was largely forgotten.

WannaCry: The scourge of 2017… and beyond

The WannaCry ransomware outbreak was a watershed for cybersecurity professionals in 2017 — a moment in time many in this industry will never forget. The fast-spreading worm that leveraged the Eternal Blue exploit ended up affecting more than 200,000 devices in over 150 countries. From X-Force’s perspective, WannaCry is the ransomware type they have most commonly seen at organizations with OT networks since 2018 — and, occasionally, WannaCry will even migrate into OT portions of the network itself.

One example of WannaCry infecting an OT network is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in 2018. Despite having robust network segmentation and cybersecurity practices in place, human error led to a vendor installing a software update on the OT portion of the network using a machine unknowingly infected with WannaCry ransomware. Because the laptop used for the software installation had been patched and was using an up-to-date operating system, it was not susceptible to the ransomware — but the OT network, on the other hand, was very susceptible.

The WannaCry ransomware spread quickly across TSMC’s network and infected several systems, since the OT network included multiple unpatched Windows 7 systems. The ransomware affected sensitive semiconductor fabrication equipment, automated material handling systems, and human-machine interfaces. It also caused days of downtime estimated to cost the company $170 million. CC Wei, the CEO of the company, said in a statement, “We are surprised and shocked. We have installed tens of thousands of tools before, and this is the first time this happened.” As a result of the incident, the company implemented new automated processes that would be less likely than human error to miss a critical security step.

WannaCry continues to affect organizations with OT networks, although — thankfully — X-Force observes such incidents much less frequently today than they did in 2018 and 2019, as many organizations are able to apply patches or identify workarounds to more effectively insulate networks from WannaCry.

Enter Conficker: Continuing to emerge in 2021

An old worm — even older than WannaCry — that X-Force has observed on OT networks in 2021, however, is Conficker. This worm emerged in late 2008 as threat actors quickly leveraged newly released vulnerabilities in Microsoft XP and 2000 operating systems. Conficker seeks to steal and leverage passwords and hijack devices running Windows to run as a botnet. Because the malware is a worm, it spreads automatically, without human intervention, and has continued to spread worldwide for well over a decade.

Conficker — sometimes with different names and variants — is still present in some systems today, including in OT environments. As with WannaCry, the presence of legacy technologies and obsolete operating systems — including Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and proprietary protocols that are not updated or patched as often as their IT network counterparts — make these environments especially vulnerable to Conficker. In addition, many legacy systems have limited memory and processing power, further constraining administrators’ ability to insulate them from infections such as Conficker or WannaCry, as the system will not even support a simple antivirus software installation.

The Conficker worm is particularly effective against Windows XP machines, especially unpatched versions, which are common in OT environments. The fast-spreading nature of the Conficker worm can be a challenge for network engineers — once infected, every Windows machine connected to the network could be impacted in as little as one hour. Since many OT environments are built on 20- to 30-year-old designs, partially modified to have connectivity for ease of access, it provides the ideal environment for even the simplest malware, Conficker included.

From Conficker infections X-Force has observed, the worm is able to affect human machine interfaces (HMIs), which have transmitted network traffic initially alerting security staff of the infection. X-Force malware reverse engineering of the Conficker worm indicates that it exploits the MS08-067 vulnerability to initially infect the host. Fortunately, in some cases Conficker malware — even when present in OT environments — has not led to operational damage or product quality degradation. Of course, this may not be the case for all network architectures on which Conficker malware may appear.

Defending OT networks from old malware: Lessons from the trenches

Even though many OT environments are running obsolete software and network topographies, there are measures organizations can take to defend against older malware strains such as WannaCry and Conficker. Often, the highest priority in an OT environment is maximizing uptime, leaving little room for maintenance, re-design, updates and their associated downtime. Yet even within these confines, there are many measures organizations can take to decrease the opportunities for old malware to get onto, spread within, and negatively affect their network.

Some of these include:

1. Network segmentation: Micro-segment the networks within an OT environment. If different lines do not need to communicate with each other, there is no need to create and maintain a large network subnet for all systems. Improve reliability of systems by segregating those in smaller subnets and restricting traffic at boundaries. In addition, an industrial demilitarized zone (iDMZ) is your best ally for compartmentalization and network segmentation. Avoid dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) as much as possible; should you be required to use it, subnet it to the lowest possible net mask. Configure virtual local area networks (VLANs) if possible.

2. Know what you have: Systems older than 20 years probably do not have a good electronic record in a configuration management database (CMDB) and may be missing or have outdated network drawings. Reverse engineering this information during an incident is not productive, and ensuring assets and network information is maintained accurately can go a long way. Be aware of the IPs, MACs, operating systems, and software licenses in your asset inventory. Get to know your environment up to the revision date of your software. Make clear which users are allowed to log on to machines based on specific roles; if possible, link users to a machine’s serial number.

3. Harden legacy systems to maintain a secure configuration: Remove all unused users and revoke all unnecessary administrative privileges, remove all unused software, disable all unused ports (running a packet capture can help), and prohibit using these assets for personal use. Insecure configuration of endpoints can leave open vulnerabilities for exploitation by adversaries or self-propagating malware. Identify unused and unwanted applications and delete them to reduce the attack surface. Avoid proprietary protocols as much as possible, unless they are constantly updated; check for and use better, newer protocols that are standardized.

4. Continuous Vulnerability Management: A vulnerability management program allows organizations to reduce the likelihood of vulnerability exploitation and unauthorized network access by a malicious actor and is necessary to make informed vulnerability treatment decisions based on risk appetite and regulatory compliance requirements. All necessary security and safety relevant patches must be applied as soon as feasible. If it is not possible to patch the system, ensure other compensating security controls are implemented to reduce the risk. Identify the lowest demand times in a day or week and commit to having downtime and maintenance windows for patching and updating. Routinely check for advisories on ICS-CERT and note whether your vendors are impacted.

5. Reduce SMB Attack Surface: Both WannaCry and Conficker are known to exploit SMB. Server Message Block (SMB) is a network communication protocol used to provide shared access to services on a network, such as file shares and printers. Because of its prevalence in information technology environments, adversaries commonly use this protocol to move laterally within a compromised environment, interact with remote systems, deploy malware, and transfer files. Moreover, SMB can provide a convenient way to bypass Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) and remotely execute code. To reduce the attack surface and the overall risk associated with SMB-based lateral movement, consider the following hardening measures:

  • Configure Windows firewall to DENY all inbound SMB communications to workstations. This control will disable inbound connections on TCP ports 139 and 445.
  • Audit server SMB requirements and explicitly DENY SMB inbound on servers that do not require the protocol as part of their functionality.
  • Consider disabling legacy versions of the SMB protocol and migrating business applications to SMB v3.1. This activity requires careful planning and risk evaluation due to its potential impact on business operations.

6. Avoid the use of Portable Media: Uncontrolled portable media significantly increase the risks to the legacy OT environments, as OT systems may not have the latest security patches to defend against newer attack methodologies. Uncontrolled and unsecured allowance of portable media can expose an OT network to exploits and unplanned outages and downtime.

  • Have a security policy for secure use of portable media in OT environments.
  • Ideally, strictly prohibit use of USB flash drives. Should there be an absolute necessity of using one, designate a single USB stick for any maintenance and re-format it every time you use it.
  • Implement processes and technical controls that adequately support the security policy requirements. Controls may include, but are not limited to the following:
    • Every use of the device is documented in the logbook
    • The devices are scanned on designated quarantine PCs to ensure robust AV scan before using on OT endpoints. Ensure that anti-malware software is configured to automatically scan portable media
    • Control the number of portable media devices approved to be used in the environment
    • Disable autorun and autoplay auto-execute functionality for removable media.
  • Consider implementing Secure Media Exchange solutions such as Honeywell SMX or OPSWAT MetaDefender.

7. Rehearse Disaster Recovery (DR) and Incident Response (IR) scenarios regularly: DR plans should be documented, reliable backups should be available, and OT personnel must have an understanding and intimate knowledge of how the system should be recovered. IR and DR exercises should be conducted regularly to build the muscle memory needed for reliable recovery. Educate your team about imminent security threats and make them part of the security process. As part of any plan, have a direct line with your organization’s CSIRT: your best play is always a fast response and a transparent environment, so be organized and report everything.

8. Employ network monitoring solutions: Firewalls, Access Control Lists (ACLs) and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) can assist in keeping a close eye on traffic traversing your network. Check for new nodes or machines communicating with suspicious assets. If you employ an intrusion detection system (IDS), ensure your signatures are up to date. Even when monitoring for old malware, new signatures appear every day.

While it isn’t common for an OT network to be infected with older malware like WannaCry or Conficker, documented cases do indeed exist, and they can leave costly destruction and even safety consequences in their wake.

To learn how X-Force can keep your network safer, download the X-Force for OT solution brief.

Read the 2022 X-Force Threat Intelligence Index Report to understand the latest OT Threats

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