Russia is leading the way, as new technology is combined with old spying techniques,
says Owen Matthews
IN hacker jargon, a ‘cyber-to-physical effect’ is when a hacker reaches out from the virtual world into the real one — often with catastrophic consequences.
The Americans and Israelis pioneered the technique in 2009, when the Stuxnet programme infiltrated Iranian computer systems and wrecked thousands of uranium-enriching centrifuges.
But now other players — especially the Russians and Chinese — are also remotely using computer networks to destroy infrastructure and threaten lives.
Last year, according to a report by Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security, a blast furnace melted down in an unnamed industrial city in Germany, after a digital attack on its control systems, causing “massive damage.”
It nearly happened in the United States, too, when unknown hackers penetrated U.S. electrical, water and fuel distribution systems in 2014.
While old-fashioned, low-tech data hacks make headlines — for instance, high-profile break-ins to the email systems and databases of the White House, the US State Department, US Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Defence and Sony Pictures Inc. — what has security officials worried is the new and dangerous world of cyber-to-physical infrastructure attacks.
“This is not theoretical,” National Security Agency director admiral, Michael Rogers, told the US House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee recently.
“Hacking attacks on the US and its allies are “costing us hundreds of billions of dollars,” Rogers warned, and will result in “truly significant, almost catastrophic failures if we don’t take action.”
That warning hit home last week — millions of US government personnel files were compromised.
The giant hack is probably the work of foreign spies who could use the information to fake their way into more-secure computers and plunder US secrets.
US federal employees were told to change their passwords, put fraud alerts on their credit reports, and watch for attempts by foreign intelligence services to exploit them.
That message came from Dan Payne, a senior counterintelligence official for the US Director of National Intelligence.
“Some of you may think that you are not of interest, because you don’t have access to classified information,” he said. “You are mistaken.”
US federal officials said the cyber-attack appeared to have originated in China, but they didn’t point fingers at the Chinese government. The Chinese said any such accusation would be “irresponsible and unscientific.”
The latest security breach shows that governments are vulnerable.
According to Alexander Klimburg, an affiliate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center and senior research fellow at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, “cyber-space today is like Europe in 1914, before World War I. Governments are like sleepwalkers. They do not comprehend the power of new technology and the consequences of misunderstanding each other’s activities.”
According to the US Intelligence Community’s 2015 ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment’ report, Russia and China are the “most sophisticated nation-state actors” in the new generation of cyber warfare, and Russian hackers lead in terms of sophistication, programming power and inventiveness.
“The threat from China is over-inflated, while the threat from Russia is underestimated,” says Jeffrey Carr, head of web security consultancy, Taia Global, and author of the book, Inside Cyber Warfare.
“The Russians are the most technically proficient. For instance, we believe that Russian hackers-for-hire were responsible for the Sony attack.”
Last year, hackers gained access to thousands of Sony company emails and threatened further damage unless a film lampooning North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, was withdrawn from cinemas. “We spoke to [one of the hackers] via an intermediary,” says Carr.
“Even after Sony lost 80% of its network capability, the hackers were still operating. That shows an incredibly high level of technical ability.”
The Moscow connection is worrying, because Russia is the only country to have combined cyber-warfare with conventional assaults by guns and tanks.
“The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 was a perfect example of a combined kinetic and cyber operation,” says Carr.
“Nobody else has ever done anything like that.”
Similarly, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in April, 2014, ground assaults were accompanied by a deluge of mostly low-tech cyber-assaults on over a hundred government and industrial organisations in Poland and Ukraine, and attacks on the European Parliament and the European Commission.
Many of these attacks featured a modified version of ‘BlackEnergy,’ a malware program known as a Trojan horse that remotely takes over computers.
A network of such infected computers, or ‘bots,’ is known as a ‘botnet.’ This can be mobilised to overwhelm a target server with requests for information and crash it — an attack known as distributed denial of service, or DDoS.
“The BlackEnergy malware was authored by a Russian hacker and originally used for DDoS attacks, bank frauds and spam distribution,” says Pierluigi Paganini, founder of the Security Affairs blog and a member of a European Union Agency for Network and Information Security working group.
“But the new variant was used in targeted attacks on government entities, and private companies across a range of industries,” says Paganini.
One of the biggest mysteries of the latest generation of cyber-attacks — known in the US government as Offensive Cyber Effects Operations — is learning who is behind them and whether they are being launched with political or criminal intent.
What’s not in doubt is that Russian hackers have long been kings of the cyber-crime world.
A group of Russians and Ukrainians was named by US federal prosecutors as the culprit behind the biggest cyber-crime case in US history, a bank-card fraud spree from 2010 to 2013 that cost companies, including J.C. Penney, JetBlue and French retailer, Carrefour, $300m.
Russian ‘click-jackers’ were convicted in the US last year for hijacking users of Apple’s iTunes store, Netflix, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Amazon.com, ESPN.com and the Wall Street Journal website — as well as computers at NASA.
Another as-yet-unidentified hacking ring, based in a small city in south-central Russia, stole 1.2bn internet logins and passwords and 500mn email addresses, last year, by plundering data from 400,000 websites, according to US cyber-security firm, Hold Security.
In February, the Moscow-based internet security company, Kaspersky Labs, revealed details of the biggest internet heist of all time — a raid on 100 banks in Russia, Ukraine, Japan, the United States and Europe, from 2013 to 2014.
Kaspersky reported evidence of $300m in losses just from the banks that had hired it to clean up the mess — and estimated that the total amount stolen was $900m.
“This is cyber-crime on an industrial scale,” says one Moscow-based, western internet security consultant, who helped overhaul several Russian banks’ defences in the wake of the attack.
“In one case, in Kiev, they made the bank’s ATMs spew out money, which was collected by people walking by.”
The techniques used to break into the bank’s electronic systems, via flaws in Adobe and Microsoft programmes, “were not particularly sophisticated,” says the consultant, “but it was amazing how careful they were not to alert the victims and to keep their backdoor into their systems a secret.”
The exact nature of the links between these criminal hackers and the Russian government remains murky.
“Cyber-crime, cyber-terrorism and cyber-warfare share a common technological basis, tools, logistics and operational methods,” says Klimburg.
“They can also share the same social networks and have comparable goals. The differences between these categories of cyber-activity are often razor–thin. It’s hard to distinguish in cyber-space between financial and political motivation.”
The methods of delivering malware into a target computer are identical. Hackers seek vulnerabilities in popular programmes that allow them to introduce alien code, in particular a weak spot in the code known as a ‘zero-day’.
This means it remains unpatched and can be used for an attack before it is discovered by everyone else, so there are zero-days between an attack and the discovery of the vulnerability.
A good zero-day vulnerability can be sold for €170,000, says Klimburg, but there are many examples of Russian hackers ‘lending’ their zero-day hacks to the government for espionage purposes, then using them for crime later.
“Hundreds of ‘black-hat’ Russian hackers are doing this for a living — whether it’s at the order of Swiss bankers or Ukrainian oligarchs,” says Carr.
“Russian hackers who are caught are given the choice to work for the FSB [Federal Security Service] or to go to jail. The FSB also has some on contract hire.”
There is strong evidence, going back to cyber-attacks on Estonia as early as 2007, that Russian cyber-criminals were working either with, or for, the Russian state. But now, it seems, the Kremlin is directly involved.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, in March, that Russia’s Ministry of Defense is “establishing its own cyber-command” responsible for “conducting offensive cyber-activities.”
And the Russian is stepping up funding for the research and development of cyber-technology at world-class computer science centers, such as the prestigious St. Petersburg Polytechnic University and Samara State University, according to information gathered by Seattle-based Taia Global.
Possible evidence linking recent hacking attacks on the US government to the Russian state includes the digital signatures of a hacker group known as Advanced Persistent Threat 28 (or APT28, identified by the US-based internet security company, FireEye) and a family of hackers labelled CozyDuke, CosmicDuke, MiniDuke and OnionDuke (spotted by Kaspersky Labs).
These groups, which may or may not be related, have giveaway signatures that tie them to Russia.
“Indicators in APT28’s malware suggest that the group consists of Russian speakers operating during business hours in Russia’s major cities,” says a recent FireEye report.
“More than half of the malware samples...attributed to APT28 included Russian-language settings.”
But the real giveaway is not the forensics of the APT28 codes, but their targets over the past five years, which have included Georgia’s ministries of internal affairs and defense, the Polish and Hungarian governments, NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation, in Europe, the Norwegian army and US defence contractors.
The APT28 hacking crew “does not appear to conduct widespread intellectual property theft for economic gain, but, instead, is focused on collecting intelligence,” says FireEye. “That would be most useful to a government.”
Though there is evidence that the development teams of APT28 and the CosmicDuke, MiniDuke and OnionDuke “worked together and shared same knowledge and coding techniques,” and that they all have Russian origins, it’s likely they are separate groups, says Paganini.
“All these groups are state-sponsored hackers, probably backed by the Russian government, though it is likely that they operate under different divisions of the same cyber-army.”
Were APT28 and the Kremlin behind hacking attacks on the White House and US State Department this year, which cracked open confidential email records (though not, according to a spokesman, the US president’s personal email)?
The Kremlin strongly denies it.
“We know that blaming Russia for everything has turned into a sport,” Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, joked to journalists.
“At least they haven’t looked for Russian submarines in [Washington’s] Potomac River, as has been the case in a few other countries.”
Yet some code — in particular, the family of ‘backdoors’ into programmes, known as CHOPSTICK — regularly used by APT28 has been linked to those virtual break-ins.
And there’s less ambiguity about a similar attack on an unclassified military network at the US Department of Defence last year.
“We analysed their network activity, associated it with Russia, and then quickly kicked them off the network,” US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, said in April.
Cyber-spying on the West Wing’s emails may be cheeky, but it’s not much different from the old-school espionage and signals — intelligence games that Russia and America have been playing for decades.
What’s truly scary is the infiltration of physical infrastructure in a way that could herald a new generation of violent covert action and sabotage.
“This is an entirely new way of waging war,” says one former KGB general, once posted as a spy to London and who now works in the private security sector.
“It is like the invention of planes or submarines. Suddenly you can attack the enemy from a completely new and unexpected direction.... This is the essence of warfare: constant surprise.”
In April, Eugene Kaspersky, the Moscow-born CEO of Kaspersky Labs, noted that there has been a dramatic surge in targetted attacks against power grids, banks and transportation networks around the world — and warned that groups targetting crucial infrastructure have “the capacity to inflict very visible damage. The worst terrorist attacks are not expected.”
Among the most frightening new-generation cyber-weapons are those designed to target super-secure, so-called ‘air-gapped’ systems that have no links to the internet or outside networks.
The developers of Stuxnet bridged the air gap by developing ingenious programmes that infected CD-ROMs and memory sticks that then colonised Iran’s nuclear development computers, ultimately inflicting devastating physical damage on uranium centrifuges and forcing the Iranians to replace their entire computer infrastructure.
But a Stuxnet-like programme that can be carried by email and memory sticks, called Uroburos, has been around since 2011 — and was diagnosed as being of Russian origin.
Uroburos targets Microsoft Windows, sets up surreptitious communications with its parent network, and is able to leap across air gaps, isolating secure networks from the internet.
“The scary thing is that now everyone can do pretty much anything to anyone,” says Klimburg.
He says that one way to distinguish between criminal and government cyber-activity is to measure the amount of programming resources an attack requires — like malware designed to leap across air gaps.
“If you see a huge amount of organisation and programming going into an attack, that’s a good indicator that there’s a government involved.”
The US and Europe remain extremely vulnerable to infrastructure attacks — especially as so much of these developed economies’ vital infrastructure is now electronic, from financial systems to social networks.
One small example: in late April, a fleet of American Airlines Boeing 737s was temporarily grounded after an iPad application, known as an ‘electronic flight bag’, used by pilots for pre-flight checks, crashed.
The iPad app replaced 13 pounds of paper manuals — but when it went down, so did the entire fleet.
More worrying, though still hypothetical: the US Government Accountability Office issued an official warning in April that “modern aircraft’s interconnectedness can potentially provide unauthorised remote access to aircraft avionics systems” and that an aircraft’s Wi-Fi access could be exploited by hackers.