Russian Government-owned research institute linked to Triton attacks
24.10.18 securityaffairs BigBrothers ICS Virus
Security experts from FireEye found evidence that links the development of the Triton malware (aka Trisis and HatMan) to a Russian government research institute.
In December 2017, experts from FireEye discovered a new strain of malware dubbed Triton that was specifically designed to target industrial control systems (ICS).
The Triton malware has been used in attacks aimed at a critical infrastructure organization in the Middle East, experts speculate the involvement of a state-sponsored actor for sabotage purpose due to the lack of financial motivation and the level of sophistication of the attacks.
According to experts at Dragos firm, threat actors behind the malware tracked as Xenotime, have been around since at least 2014, The APT group was uncovered in 2017 after they caused a shutdown at a critical infrastructure organization somewhere in Saudi Arabia.
The Triton malware is designed to target Schneider Electric’s Triconex Safety Instrumented System (SIS) controllers that are used in industrial environments to monitor the state of a process and restore it to a safe state or safely shut it down if parameters indicate a potentially hazardous situation.
Once gained access to the SIS system, the threat actor deployed the TRITON malware, a circumstance that indicates that attackers had a knowledge of such systems. According to FireEye the attackers pre-built and tested the tool which would require access to hardware and software that is not widely available. TRITON is also designed to communicate using the proprietary TriStation protocol which is not publicly documented, this implies that the attackers reverse engineered the protocol to carry out the attack.
The Triton malware interacts with Triconex SIS controllers., it is able to read and write programs and functions to and from the controller.
FireEye experts discovered a link between the Triton malware, tracked by the company as TEMP.Veles, and the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (CNIIHM), a Russian government research institute in Moscow.
FireEye collected strong evidence suggesting that the Russian CNIIHM institute has been involved in the development of some of the tools used in the Triton attack.
“FireEye Intelligence assesses with high confidence that intrusion activity that led to deployment of TRITON was supported by the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (CNIIHM; a.k.a. ЦНИИХМ), a Russian government-owned technical research institution located in Moscow. The following factors supporting this assessment are further detailed in this post.” reads the analysis published by FireEye.
FireEye uncovered malware development activity that is very likely supporting TEMP.Veles activity. This includes testing multiple versions of malicious software, some of which were used by TEMP.Veles during the TRITON intrusion.
Investigation of this testing activity reveals multiple independent ties to Russia, CNIIHM, and a specific person in Moscow. This person’s online activity shows significant links to CNIIHM.
An IP address registered to CNIIHM has been employed by TEMP.Veles for multiple purposes, including monitoring open-source coverage of TRITON, network reconnaissance, and malicious activity in support of the TRITON intrusion.
Behavior patterns observed in TEMP.Veles activity are consistent with the Moscow time zone, where CNIIHM is located.
We judge that CNIIHM likely possesses the necessary institutional knowledge and personnel to assist in the orchestration and development of TRITON and TEMP.Veles operations.”
Experts pointed out that Triton is linked to Russia, the CNIIHM, and an individual located in Moscow. Some of the TEMP.Veles hacking tools were tested using an unnamed online scan service. A specific user of the service who has been active since 2013 has tested various tools across the time.
The user also tested several customized versions of widely available tools, including Metasploit, Cobalt Strike, PowerSploit, the PowerShell-based WMImplant, and cryptcat.
In many cases, the custom versions of the tools were used in TEMP.Veles attacks just days after being submitted to the testing environment.
The experts discovered that a PDB path contained in a tested file included a string that appears to be an online moniker associated with a Russia-based individual active in Russian information security communities since at least 2011.
According to a now-defunct social media profile, the individual was a professor at CNIIHM.
FireEye also discovered that one IP address registered to the Russian research institute was involved in the Triton attacks.
“While we know that TEMP.Veles deployed the TRITON attack framework, we do not have specific evidence to prove that CNIIHM did (or did not) develop the tool.” continues the expert.
“We infer that CNIIHM likely maintains the institutional expertise needed to develop and prototype TRITON based on the institute’s self-described mission and other public information.”
Experts cannot exclude that some employees of CNIIHM carried out the attack without any involvement of the institute.
“Some possibility remains that one or more CNIIHM employees could have conducted the activity linking TEMP.Veles to CNIIHM without their employer’s approval. However, this scenario is highly unlikely.” FireEye concludes.