Process plants as weapons of war

Malware over the Internet has replaced the large gunboat that was despatched in previous times – say 200 years ago – to send a message to the heart of a rival nation, indicating that relationships were becoming a little frosty. Then submarines and ICBMs were introduced, as less vulnerable to counter-attack – and providing hidden strength to be activated when necessary. The same applies to malware, in that once it is in place the weapon can be hidden and dormant until required. However, with any new missile system or weapon, the routing, targeting and performance of the latest versions have to be tested, and often this testing can be observed and monitored.

For any nation or group with an evil intent against another, this gives a major opportunity to cause chaos or damage to the infrastructure or manufacturing operations of a target country. This was seen in 2010 with Stuxnet, the Malware targeted at Siemens controllers in Iranian nuclear centrifuge installations. The source of the virus (officially) was never traced, but it was thought to have been from Israel, possibly with support from the USA. So Iran saw the effectiveness of this approach, and then developed the Shamoon virus, which caused major damage to all networked PCs at Aramco in Saudi Arabia in 2012. A further variant of Shamoon was unleashed in 2016/17, targeting ordinary computer systems around the Persian Gulf, as well as in Saudi Arabia.

Following these events, many cyber-security service businesses and departments appeared, in addition to those which were developing anti-virus systems to protect computers from hacking by fraudsters and criminals. Both of these types of company monitor any new attacks and intrusions, and normally report that state sponsored hacking is known to have originated from Israel, Iran, Russia, USA, and North Korea. Indeed some of the most active hacking has been from a Russian group known as Sandworm, particularly disrupting networks and systems in the Ukraine starting in 2014. Malware called ‘Industroyer’ was used in 2016 to cause a power blackout in Kiev, by modifying the ABB configuration files in the electricity supply grid network systems.

The latest attack

Two such cyber-security service businesses are FireEye and Dragos, based in the USA. In December 2017 they reported on a new attack (actually seen several months before) delivering malware into an un-named petrochemical plant control system in the Middle East. Others have reported this malware was most likely to have been developed in Iran and targeted at a Saudi Arabian installation. The FireEye investigation team from their Mandiant subsidiary found that the plant safety system, a Triconex SIS, had caused an unexpected safety shut-down. Triconex is a company within Schneider Electric, following their acquisition of the Invensys Group: their triple-redundant safety systems protect major hazardous installations such as petrochemical plants. They also are the ultimate shut-down safety system for many nuclear power plants around the World, including most of those in China.

FireEye called the malware they found “Triton” – it is also known as Trisis. The implication of their report was that the Triton attack framework gained remote access to an SIS engineering workstation, sought out the Triconex controllers, and tried to inject new commands into their operations. It seems that the workstation (on site) was in programme mode at this time, hence opening a potential window. There was no indication that the malware used any vulnerability in the Triconex system or its program code. In fact the triple redundant safety system reacted properly: the new single instruction did not pass the built-in validity checks, and so Triconex shut down the plant operations safely, as is the requirement of such a safety system.

FireEye interprets that this attack, which shows persistence, the lack of any clear monetary goal, and the technical resources necessary to create such an attack framework, as suggesting the origin is a well-resourced ‘nation-state’ actor. Either this current attack is reconnaissance development testing of part of what would need to be a significantly expanded multi-point approach to penetrate and control Triconex, or at a minimum it is designed to be economically disruptive to the target plant. Other commentators have suggested that Triton could prevent the Triconex SIS from carrying out its safety function, and drive the plant to destruction. Whilst this is unlikely, and not supported by current knowledge, the malware is undoubtedly aimed at the safety system, and Triconex is the omnipresent safety system used in most of the hazardous plants across all countries, whatever the origin of the plant control system.

A unique ubiquitous target?

Industrial control systems – for petrochemical plants, nuclear and other power stations, water treatment plants, power grids – are standardised across the World, so that they can accept inputs from equipment from many manufacturers: this is good, because there are no monopolies. It is also bad, because anyone can learn how to access these systems. While there are maybe ten major DCS suppliers worldwide, the SIS supplier base is much smaller – there are two or three suppliers. Of these, Triconex is by far the largest supplier, making them a very tempting target for anyone intent on world domination!

This article was written for and first published in my column in the February 2018 issue of the South African journal of Instrumentation and Control, a magazine from