Security Experts:

Russian Cyberspies Hacked Routers in Energy Sector Attacks

A cyberespionage group believed to be operating out of Russia hijacked a Cisco router and abused it to obtain credentials that were later leveraged in attacks targeting energy companies in the United Kingdom, endpoint security firm Cylance reported on Friday.

The United States last week announced sanctions against Russian spy agencies and more than a dozen individuals for trying to influence the 2016 presidential election and launching cyberattacks, including the NotPetya attack and campaigns targeting energy firms. Shortly after, US-CERT updated an alert from the DHS and FBI to officially accuse the Russian government of being responsible for critical infrastructure attacks launched by a threat actor tracked as Dragonfly, Crouching Yeti and Energetic Bear.

A warning issued last year by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) revealed that hackers had targeted the country’s energy sector, abusing the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol and attempting to harvest victims’ passwords.

An investigation conducted by Cylance showed that the attacks were likely carried out by the Dragonfly group. The security firm has observed a series of phishing attacks aimed at the energy sector in the UK using two documents claiming to be resumes belonging to one Jacob Morrison.

When opened, the documents fetched a template file and attempted to automatically authenticate to a remote SMB server controlled by the attackers. This template injection technique was detailed last year by Cisco Talos following Dragonfly attacks on critical infrastructure organizations in the United States.

When a malicious document is opened using Microsoft Word, it loads a template file from the attacker’s SMB server. When the targeted device connects to the SMB server, it will attempt to authenticate using the current Windows user’s domain credentials, basically handing them over to the attackers.

In a separate analysis of such attacks, Cylance noted that while the credentials will in most cases be encrypted, even an unsophisticated attacker will be able to recover them in a few hours or days, depending on their resources.

According to Cylance, Dragonfly used this technique to harvest credentials that were later likely used to hack the systems of energy sector organizations in the United Kingdom.

One interesting aspect noticed by Cylance researchers is that the IP address of the SMB server used in the template injection attack was associated with a major state-owned energy conglomerate in Vietnam. Specifically, the IP corresponded to a core Cisco router that had reached end-of-life.

“The use of compromised routing infrastructure for collection or command and control purposes is not new, but its detection is relatively rare,” Cylance researchers explained. “That’s because the compromise of a router very likely implicates the router’s firmware and there simply aren’t as many tools available to the forensic investigator to investigate them. Analysis is further challenged by the lack of system logs.”

“The fact that the threat actor is using this type of infrastructure is a serious and worrisome discovery, since once exploited, vulnerabilities in core infrastructure like routers are not easily closed or remediated,” they added.

Dragonfly is not the only cyberespionage group to abuse routers in its attacks. A threat actor named Slingshot, whose members appear to speak English, has targeted entities in the Middle East and Africa using hacked Mikrotik routers.

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.