Cybersecurity / Digital access / Startups

Md. cybersecurity startup helped uncover a new threat to power grids

Fulton-based Dragos analyzed a December attack in Ukraine, and found malware that can cause power outages. “It’s never been seen before,” said Ben Miller.

Power lines. (Photo by Flickr user Owen Viriyincy, used under a Creative Commons license)

In December 2016, a cyber attack in Ukraine turned out the lights.
The power was restored after about an hour, but cybersecurity firms continue to analyze how the attackers caused a blackout.
Dragos was behind a key finding this week. The Fulton-based startup said in a new report that the malware used in the attack shut down parts of the power grid itself. Dragos dubbed it CRASHOVERRIDE.
“It’s never been seen before,” said Ben Miller, director of threat operations for the company, which specializes in security of industrial control systems and is supported by DataTribe.
The malware operates on a systemic level, and it was automated. Building on analysis conducted by Slovakian firm ESET, Dragos concluded that it’s capable of cutting off the flow of electricity by opening circuit breakers at power grid substations. The breakers are forced into an infinite loop, keeping them open even if operators try to close them. It also destroys files and affects the operating system of the station, making it more difficult to turn the power back on. The attack required knowledge of many different devices involved in the power grid, Miller said.
“This is actually fairly straightforward from a backdoor perspective,” he said of the process the attackers used to gain access to the system. “But that component of adding the power systems knowledge to it makes it very unique and very disruptive.”
Power can only be restored manually. While the ability to cause a blackout is alarming, the report concluded that the outages it causes would likely last “hours or days not in weeks or months.”

Dragos cofounders Jon Lavender, Robert M. Lee and Justin Cavinee. (Courtesy photo)

Dragos cofounders Jon Lavender, Robert M. Lee and Justin Cavinee. (Courtesy photo)

The threat isn’t limited to Ukraine. The malware could be used again in a different country with some modifications. Additionally, Dragos concluded that the attack in Ukraine may have been a “proof of concept,” as all of the malware’s capabilities were not used.
“This isn’t something that’s going away, so I think it’s important to understand the new capability and the importance of that,” Miller said.
The analysis concludes the group behind the attack is called ELECTRUM. They have ties to the Russia-based Sandworm team, which is believed to have carried out a separate attack that caused a power outage in Ukraine in 2015. Dragos doesn’t make any conclusions about who organized the attack. For its part, Ukraine has blamed the Russian government.


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