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Cyber Security

US Charges Four Russian Cyber Attackers Targeting Critical Infrastructure



The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged three Russian FSB officers and a programmer working for a Russian military research institute with past attacks against industrial control systems (ICS) operated by critical infrastructure providers. The attacks involve the 2017 Triton malware that was designed to infect safety instrumented system (SIS) controllers made by Schneider Electric’s Triconex division and the 2013 Havex remote access Trojan that included a module to map supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) on networks.

These malware threats were used against energy sector organizations including oil and gas firms, nuclear power plants, and power transmission companies. While these threats were attributed by security researchers in the past to Russian state-sponsored groups, this is the first time when individuals directly linked to Russian government agencies or organizations are named in relation to the attacks.

The US charged Evgeny Viktorovich Gladkikh, a 36-year-old programmer working for the Russian Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (TsNIIKhM), for his role in a campaign meant to hack into oil refineries around the world, including the US At least one of those attacks resulted in the successful deployment of the Triton malware, which was developed at TsNIIKhM, one of Russia’s oldest state research centers that work under the country’s Ministry of Defense and specialises in creating new advanced weapons for use in space warfare and cyber operations, the unsealed indictment says.

The 2017 incident led to the discovery of the Triton malware after a glitch in the malware’s code after being deployed on Triconex SIS controllers at the refinery triggered two safety shutdown events. The indictment notes that Gladkikh was directly involved in the attack, planting backdoors on machines inside the organization’s network, familiarizing himself with organisation’s safety logs, the results of past safety exercises and the planned response, the software versions used on logging servers, and exact model and features of the Triconex SIS devices.

He was also directly responsible for deploying the Triton malware on the organization’s SIS devices that were connected to computer machines that he backdoored. These machines were part of the organization’s distributed control system (DCS) and one of them controlled sensitive physical processes that involved sulfur recovery and burner management. Improper operation of these systems could have led to the release of toxic gasses or explosions.

The prosecutors believe the goal of Gladkikh and his co-conspirators was to use the Triton malware to cause physical damage or catastrophic failures at the refinery by altering the safety operating parameters while making it seem to operators that everything was normal. Instead, the malware configuration inadvertently triggered faults in the SIS devices triggering their safety shutdown protocol, which gave the attack away and ultimately led to the discovery of the Triton malware.

However, the group’s attempts to compromise oil refineries didn’t stop. According to the indictment, Gladkikh found a research paper authored in the 1970s on a site run by the US Department of Defense that included an extensive survey of oil refineries in the US and their physical vulnerabilities, including the impact of possible explosions and fires. This paper allowed him and his co-conspirators to identify two refineries that are currently operated by a US-based company and then attempt to gain access to public servers run by that company through SQL injections and vulnerability scans. These attempts were unsuccessful.

Gladkikh was charged with one count of conspiracy to cause damage to an energy facility and one count of attempt to cause damage to an energy facility, both carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison each, and one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

In another indictment, the DoJ charged Pavel Aleksandrovich Akulov, Mikhail Mikhailovich Gavrilov, and Marat Valeryevich Tyukov, three officers in Military Unit 71330 or “Center 16” of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service, with computer fraud and abuse, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and causing damage to the property of an energy facility. These charges are in relation to the use of the Havex malware between 2012 and 2017 against multiple organizations.

The Havex malware is a remote access Trojan that the security industry attributed in the past to a Russian state-sponsored threat group tracked as Dragonfly, Berzerk Bear, or Energetic Bear. Havex is also noteworthy because between 2012 and 2014 attackers used software supply chain compromises, among other attack vectors, to distribute it.

Particularly, the hackers managed to compromise servers belonging to companies that provided ICS and SCADA software and Trojanize their software updates. Examples include the MESA Imaging driver; a component called eCatcherSetup made by eWON, a company that provided a remote maintenance service for ICS systems; and multiple tools made by MB Connect, a company that provided a VPN service and network router for industrial systems.

The Dragonfly group used many other attack vectors as well, including watering hole techniques that involved compromising websites commonly visited by employees from its targeted sector to serve credential theft malware, spear phishing emails sent from fake addresses created from inside compromised energy organizations, exploiting web-based vulnerabilities in publicly exposed servers, and more.

The Havex malware was not directly designed to compromise ICS controllers, but it contains a module that allows attackers to scan the compromised networks for SCADA applications. These are management applications that usually run on Windows workstations and are designed to monitor and control industrial processes. This shows the attackers had a clear interest in gaining control over such workstations.

Over its years of operation, the Dragonfly group managed to infect over 17,000 unique systems with Havex, including ICS/SCADA controllers used by power and energy companies, the prosecutors say. The group’s spear-phishing attacks targeted more than 3,300 users at over 500 organizations in the US and abroad, including the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Following the unsealing of the indictments, CISA and the Department of Energy published a detailed advisory with additional technical details about the Triton and Dragonfly attacks. The advisory also includes security best practices and recommendations for critical infrastructure operators.

Cyber Security

Databases Are the Black Boxes for Most Organisations



Nik Koutsoukos, the Vice President of SolarWinds, says databases represent the most difficult ecosystems to observe, tune, manage, and scale

Tell us about the SolarWinds database observability platform.
Nearly everything a modern business does from a digital perspective requires data. Thus, databases are among the enterprise’s most valuable IT assets. This makes it critical for organisations to ensure their databases are optimised for performance and cost.

That said, databases represent the most difficult ecosystems to observe, tune, manage, and scale. Not only are there different types of databases that serve different purposes, but they are also populated by different types of data, adding to their complexity. The implications of not having visibility into your databases can be anywhere from a costly annoyance to a significant issue that causes business service disruption. For example, most application performance issues, between 70% and 88%, are rooted in the database.

For this reason, databases have largely been seen as a black box for most organisations. You know what goes into it. And you know what comes out and how long that took. However, the complexities that occur within the black box of the database are harder to discern.

This is where the SolarWinds Database Observability comes in. This offering is built for the needs of the modern enterprise environment and helps ensure optimal performance by providing full, unified visibility and query-level workload monitoring across centralised, distributed, cloud-based, and on-premises databases. Organisations armed with SolarWinds Database Observability enhance their ability to understand database implications as new code is deployed, utilise real-time troubleshooting of database performance issues, and isolate unusual behaviour and potential issues within the database.

How does database observability help IT teams track and manage infrastructure, applications, and possible threats?
Database observability collects data about the performance, stability, and overall health of an organisation’s monitored databases to address and prevent issues, and provides deep database performance monitoring to drive speed, efficiency, and savings. With SolarWinds Observability — which supports MongoDB, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQL Server database instances — database performance, responsiveness, and error rate are conveniently displayed in dashboards.

Moreover, alerts can be configured to notify admins by email or other methods when user-defined thresholds are crossed. This allows them to identify and remedy issues before they can develop. By gaining insight into the activities taking place inside their database instances, teams can understand user experience as well as ensure systems can scale to meet demand.

What sort of enhancements has your observability platform received recently?
Just this November, we announced major enhancements in the Database Observability capability within our cloud-based SolarWinds Observability platform. SolarWinds Database Observability provides full visibility into open-source, cloud-enabled, and NoSQL databases to identify and address costly and critical threats to their systems and business. It is now possible to navigate across all of the samples collected globally, giving IT teams an empirical distribution of random samples, which resembles the main workload.

What factors according to you will drive the adoption of observability tools in the MEA region?
The Middle East, Türkiye, and Africa (META) are riding a wave of rampant digital transformation as organisations seek to remain competitive. According to IDC, digital transformation spending in the Middle East will accelerate at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16% over the five-year period, topping US$74 billion in 2026 and accounting for 43.2% of all ICT investments made that year. As organisations continue to shift workloads to multi- and hybrid-cloud environments, the complexity of their IT environments still continues to increase. This raises the potential for visibility and monitoring gaps which ultimately translate to underwhelming or outright frustrating experiences for end users.

Tell us about the top three trends you foresee for 2024.
There are clear signs of the continued adoption of cloud technologies to allow enterprises to become more agile, giving engineering teams the ability to focus on their core competencies and expand and contract on demand.

The adoption of Kubernetes is also increasing as the refocusing introduced by the cloud enables the move to microservices-based architectures which require sophisticated orchestration management.

Finally, we are starting to see an uptick in Vector databases, as applications demand better handling of relationships between data points.

What is going to be your top priority in terms of strategies for 2024?
We will continue to deliver on our vision of making observability easy. OpenTelemetry is driving observability, but data collection is nothing if it can’t provide insights. So, we aim to ensure the data is both collected and curated such that users find it easy to consume and extract valuable insight.

Regionally, through 2024, we will continue to focus on our key markets of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the ongoing enhancement of our product portfolio, and the strengthening of our channel ecosystem to create more markets for our business and for our partners.

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Cyber Security

ManageEngine Intros Enhanced SIEM with Dual-Layered System for Better Precision in Threat Detection



ManageEngine, the enterprise IT management division of Zoho Corporation, today unveiled the industry’s first dual-layered threat detection system in its security information and event management (SIEM) solution, Log360. The new feature, available in Log360’s threat detection, investigation and response (TDIR) component, Vigil IQ, empowers security operations centre (SOC) teams in organizations with improved accuracy and enhanced precision in threat detection.

A quality SOC ensures people, processes, and cutting-edge technology function well. However, enterprise security is made difficult by staffing shortages and solution orchestration complexities. Following recent upgrades to the security analytics module of Log360 designed to facilitate SOC optimization through key performance metric monitoring, the company has focused on addressing pressing challenges in security operations.

“In a recent ManageEngine study, a majority of respondents revealed that their SOCs are understaffed. These resource-constrained SOCs grapple with significant obstacles, such as process silos and manual investigation of alerts, which are often non-threats, low-priority issues or false positives. These lead to extended detection and response times for actual threats. To overcome these challenges, we recognize the imperative adoption of AI & ML for contextual event enrichment and rewiring threat detection logic,” said Manikandan Thangaraj, vice president at ManageEngine.

“We pioneered a dual-layered, ML approach to heighten the precision and consistency of threat detection. First, Vigil IQ ensures genuine threats are discerned from false positives. Second, the system facilitates targeted threat identification and response. This advanced system significantly improves the accuracy of identifying threats, streamlining the detection process and allowing SOC analysts to focus their valuable time on investigating real threats.”

Key Features of the Dual-Layered Threat Detection System of Vigil IQ in Log360:
Smart Alerts: Vigil IQ, the TDIR module of Log360, now combines the power of both accuracy and precision in threat detection. With its dynamic learning capability, Vigil IQ adapts to the changing nature of network behaviour to cover more threat instances accurately. It will spot threats that get overlooked due to manual threshold settings, thereby improving the detection system’s reliability.

Proactive Predictive Analytics: Leveraging predictive analytics based on historical data patterns, Vigil IQ predicts potential security threats, facilitating the implementation of proactive measures before incidents occur. This predictive intelligence drastically reduces the mean time to detect (MTTD) threats.

Contextual Intelligence: Vigil IQ enriches alerts with deep contextual information, providing security analysts with comprehensive threat insights. This enrichment of alerts with non-event context accelerates the mean time to respond (MTTR) by delivering pertinent, precise information.

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Cyber Security

Cybersecurity on a Budget: Affordable Cybersecurity Strategies for Small Businesses



According to a survey by Statista, typically, global enterprises dedicate a minimum of 12% of their IT expenditure to information security measures. While larger companies can afford to spend a lot on building a robust cybersecurity strategy, smaller businesses cannot. So, let’s explore some affordable cybersecurity strategies for small businesses that may cost less but have a greater impact.

Train your employees
An article from Forbes found that, annually, 34% of businesses worldwide encounter incidents involving insider attacks. Whether intentional or unintentional, employees tend to be the reason for most data breaches. Per the same article, phishing emails account for 67% of accidental insider attacks.

Phishing attacks mostly instil a sense of urgency in the victim, making it harder for them to think clearly before making a decision. For example, employees may click an email announcement about a bonus that actually came from a malicious outsider impersonating your company’s CEO.

To avoid such mistakes, it’s imperative to train employees on the types of phishing attacks and the ways to identify them. Even going as far as sending a mock phishing email occasionally to test their instincts and educate them can go a long way.

Assess your vulnerabilities
One of the most important cybersecurity strategies is to assess all your risk points by periodically reviewing all your business processes. Pay more attention to teams that deal with a lot of customer data. For instance, sales and marketing teams may handle customer data on a day-to-day basis, so they are at high risk of leaking or mishandling data. Assess their daily activities, create a record of all the risk points, and find ways to mitigate them.

Encrypt your data
Encrypting your data can be an effective method to protect it in case of data leaks. Let’s say a hacker gets hold of your company’s data, but it’s encrypted. Unless the hacker gets the encryption key from you, they cannot access your company’s data. This adds another layer of protection in addition to the everyday cybersecurity best practices that you should be following in your company. So make it a point to encrypt all your data, especially sensitive and critical data.

Limit access to critical data
Not everyone requires access to all data. Try to limit access to critical and sensitive data to fewer employees by basing access on work duties or requiring approval for access, making it a multi-step process to access it. Additionally, periodically review who has access to what data to ensure there aren’t any misallocations of access.

Secure your Wi-Fi
A secure network will reduce the chances of a hack or unauthorized access to your sensitive data. So switch your Wi-Fi to WPA2 or later, as it offers more security. Your business might already be using it, but it’s best to be sure. Additionally, change the name of your SSID and have a strong pre-shared key to keep your Wi-Fi safe from hackers.

Prevent physical theft
Through April 2023, there were 3,785 robberies in London, and 1,765 were of mobile phones. This highlights how important it is to secure your physical assets, as they might contain critical and sensitive information about your organization.

Here are some ways to protect your physical assets, such as PCs, laptops, scanners, and printers:

  1. Restrict unauthorized access to assets.
  2. Install a physical tracker on all devices to track down lost items.
  3. Enable remote wiping of data to erase information if a device is lost.

Cybersecurity strategies are seldom drafted with affordability in mind. However, it is crucial to consider them from a financial perspective, as small businesses are also increasingly susceptible to cyberattacks. These tips can help you take the first step toward creating a secure IT environment. Learn more about cybersecurity solutions for your business.

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