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DHS called in for fewer industrial hacks, but accounts of intrusions intensified


The number of industrial cybersecurity incidents requiring onsite government assistance decreased between 2010 and 2011, although incidents reported by facilities spiked nearly five-fold, according to a new report from the U.S. Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team.

ICS-CERT, run by the Homeland Security Department, received 198 notifications about unusual network events at organizations in chemical, water, power and other critical industries – seven of which prompted onsite investigations. Of the 41 incidents reported in 2010, eight needed response teams. In 2009, the year ICS-CERT was established, nine reports were filed and teams were dispatched for two of those incidents.

The report does not necessarily convey the threat landscape because the private sector is not required to report anything to Homeland Security and DHS only responds when a company asks for help. “Deploying a team onsite is always conducted at the request of the asset owner [or] operator and only when appropriate thresholds have been met,” the report stated. A major argument in Congress over pending cybersecurity legislation is the amount of power DHS should be granted to regulate computer security at critical industries.

The situations investigated apparently did not impact the industrial operation components of computers: “No intrusions were identified directly into control system networks,” the report stated. 

Still, DHS officials added, although the networks controlling machinery were not hit this time, they could be next time because back-office networks and operational networks often are interlinked. “Given the flat and interconnected nature of many of these organization’s networks, threat actors, once they have gained a presence, have the potential to move laterally into other portions of the network, including the control system, where they could compromise critical infrastructure operations,” the report noted.

Among the confirmed incidents, a hacking technique called “spear-phishing” that tricks a computer user into divulging passwords or downloading viruses seemed to be a prevalent problem.

“Sophisticated threat actors were present in 11 of the 17 incidents, including the actors utilizing spear-phishing tactics to compromise networks,” DHS officials wrote. “These threat actors were responsible for data exfiltration in several cases, which seems to have been the primary motive for intrusion.”

One of the complex intrusions in 2011 befell a chemical industry organization. “ICS-CERT concluded that a sophisticated adversary compromised multiple machines and uploaded tools onto the network,” the report stated.

In 2011, incidents involving the water sector accounted for more than half of the documented events because independent researchers reported  facilities were using devices that could be located through a special type of Internet search. Many of the companies were relying on a setup for accessing water systems remotely that was sold by one supplier and was not configured securely, according to the report.

Homeland Security worked with the vendor to alert affected water services. In 2010, the department was not able to notify victims of a compromise at a nuclear industry conference. A tainted thumb drive used by a conference instructor infected attendees’ computers but the speaker declined to fully cooperate with Homeland Security officials who wished to warn participants, according to the report.

The discovery was made when ISC-CERT evaluated hard drives at a nuclear company’s network and found six carrying a common type of malicious software. “The infection occurred when an employee attended an industry event and used an instructor’s universal serial bus (USB) flash drive to download presentation materials to a laptop. The USB drive was infected -- and when the user connected the laptop to the corporate network upon returning to work, the virus spread to over 100 hosts on the enterprise network.”

DHS later unsuccessfully tried to spread the word to other conference guests. “ICS-CERT obtained the instructor’s name, contacted him to inform him of the infected drive, and requested a list of attendees for notification purposes,” the report states. “The instructor declined the offer and said that he would reach out to the entities himself to inform them of the malware.” Homeland Security never learned if the speaker ever communicated the message to participants or if they were affected.

(Image via Michelangelus/

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