Experts are warning of a sophisticated new cyber weapon that could target the last line of defense in U.S. water treatment facilities, transportation systems, and nuclear power stations. FireEye, a cyber security firm believes Russia is fine tuning a cyber weapon aimed at disabling safety systems that prevent catastrophic industrial accidents. There has never been “a blatant, flat out intent to hurt people”, warns Bradford Hegrat, a consultant who specializes in industrial cyber security. Martin Giles of MIT Technology Review discusses Triton, the world’s most murderous malware, and warns of the red flags that could cripple America’s infrastructure.
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.
Other experts were also shocked when they saw news of the killer code. “Even with Stuxnet and other malware, there was never a blatant, flat-out intent to hurt people,” says Bradford Hegrat, a consultant at Accenture who specializes in industrial cybersecurity.
It’s almost certainly no coincidence that the malware appeared just as hackers from countries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea stepped up their probing of “critical infrastructure” sectors vital to the smooth running of modern economies, such as oil and gas companies, electrical utilities, and transport networks.
In a speech last year, Dan Coats, the US director of national intelligence, warned that the danger of a crippling cyberattack on critical American infrastructure was growing. He drew a parallel with the increased cyber chatter US intelligence agencies detected among terrorist groups before the World Trade Center attack in 2001. “Here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again,” said Coats. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
At first, Triton was widely thought to be the work of Iran, given that it and Saudi Arabia are archenemies. But cyber-whodunnits are rarely straightforward. In a report published last October, FireEye, a cybersecurity firm that was called in at the very beginning of the Triton investigation, fingered a different culprit: Russia.
The hackers behind Triton had tested elements of the code used during the intrusion to make it harder for antivirus programs to detect. FireEye’s researchers found a digital file they had left behind on the petrochemical company’s network, and they were then able to track down other files from the same test bed. These contained several names in Cyrillic characters, as well as an IP address that had been used to launch operations linked to the malware.
That address was registered to the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics in Moscow, a government-owned organization with divisions that focus on critical infrastructure and industrial safety.
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