Consultant working for government claims energy companies ignored their own security rules in power grid hack, as more attacks are predicted to come
The cyber attacks that took down sections of Ukraine’s power grid last December, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power, were able to happen because of poor security practices within the country’s energy companies, according to a consultant who works for government investigators.
The consultant also warned that further attacks could take place, and that a fourth Ukrainian energy company was attacked with the malware last October.
Oleh Sych told Reuters that companies ignored their own security rules, and hackers were able to spoof energy ministry emails.
“This is the scariest thing – we’re living on a powder keg. We don’t know where else has been compromised. We can protect everything, we can teach administrators never to open emails, but the system is already infected,” he said.
An attack on December 23 left parts of western Ukraine, including regional capital Ivano-Frankivsk, without power for almost six hours. It was the first public case of a cyber attack affecting a country’s energy supply.
Ukraine’s security service SBU said Russia was behind the attack, and the energy ministry in Kiev said last week it has set up a commission to investigate the incident. Russia has yet to comment on the matter, but relations between the two countries have declined since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Sych, who works for a consultancy that is advising the SBU on the attacks, said that power companies had not followed their own security procedures when they connected important computers to the Internet. Instead, Sych said that these critical machines should have been left within an internal network.
Eset, a security firm based in Slovakia, said earlier this month that it believes BlackEnergy, a sophisticated trojan usually delivered via malicious email attachments, was used in both the attack on Ukraine’s power grid and in an earlier incident that targeted Ukrainian news media during local elections in November.
Sych told Reuters: “A possible objective was to bring down some branches (of the Ukrainian energy system) and create a ‘domino effect’ to collapse the entire system of Ukraine or a significant part.”
But Sych said that there is not yet any conclusive evidence that points towards Russia being behind the attacks. He told Reuters that one email was sent from the United States, whilst another originated from German university.
Sych further believes that an insider within the energy industry may be involved.
“We understand that this couldn’t have happened without an insider. To carry out this kind of attack you need to know what kind of operating system and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) are used and what software controls the industrial facility,” he said.
Sych said that to know what kind of software was installed, and to know what type of malware to test on the software, an insider must have carried out “preliminary investigations”.
Hackers then sent emails to workers at the power companies that contained infected Word or Excel files, disguised as correspondence from the ministry of energy in Ukraine.