Critical Infrastructure Security , Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

US and Allies Issue Cyber Alert on Threats to OT Systems

Cyber Authorities Warn Pro-Russian Hacktivists Targeting Small-Scale OT Systems
US and Allies Issue Cyber Alert on Threats to OT Systems
Pro-Russian hackers are intensifying attacks on operational technology systems in critical infrastructure, warned the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. (Image: Shutterstock)

Pro-Russian hacktivists are intensifying attacks on critical operational technology systems across North America and Europe, targeting sectors such as water, wastewater, dams, energy and agriculture, according to a new joint warning from U.S. and international cyber authorities.

The hacking groups use unsophisticated techniques and look for internet-exposed industrial control systems to cause disruptions and pose physical threats to vulnerable OT environments, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in an alert Wednesday. CISA, in collaboration with the FBI, several U.S. agencies, the Canadian Center for Cyber Security and the U.K. National Cyber Security Center, urged critical infrastructure sectors to implement key mitigations to secure their OT systems.

OT vendors should deploy basic security controls "as a default" in their products to avoid successful breaches, CISA Executive Assistant Director for Cybersecurity Eric Goldstein told reporters during a Wednesday phone call.

"There is no reason why any technology product does not have multifactor authentication at least for external access," Goldstein said.

Those built-in security measures could provide many benefits for organizations across the targeted sectors that suffer from "a lack of significant resources and that struggle to implement in many cases even basic cybersecurity measures," he added.

Global cyber authorities have observed pro-Russian hackers gaining remote access through a combination of publicly exposed internet-facing connections and unpatched software, the report says. Hackers also exploit default and weak passwords for accounts not protected by multifactor authentication.

The joint alert urges organizations to implement multifactor authentication for all access to the OT network, disconnect all programmable logic controllers and HMIs from public-facing internet and immediately change all default and weak passwords. Recommendations also include integrating cybersecurity best practices into the design and development of OT systems as well as creating backups of the engineering configurations and firmware of HMIs to enable faster recoveries.

Google-owned threat intelligence firm Mandiant published a report in April that links attacks on Polish and U.S. water utilities and a French hydroelectric facility with a self-proclaimed Russian hacktivist group that has ties to Sandworm, Russia's preeminent cyber sabotage unit. Officials at a Texas water facility in February acknowledged a "system malfunction." A city manager of Muleshoe, Texas, said officials discovered the hack after a citizen reported an overflowing water tank, reported the Plainview Herald (see: The Global Menace of the Russian Sandworm Hacking Team).

The alert acknowledges that critical infrastructure organizations should take steps to mitigate risks, but says, "It is ultimately the responsibility of the OT device manufacturer to build products that are secure by design and default."

CISA recommends manufacturers eliminate default passwords and include logging of events that affect safety at no additional charge in open, standard logging formats. The alert also calls on vendors to publish software bills of materials and mandate multifactor authentication for privileged users.

About the Author

Chris Riotta

Chris Riotta

Managing Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Riotta is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He earned his master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he served as 2021 class president. His reporting has appeared in NBC News, Nextgov/FCW, Newsweek Magazine, The Independent and more.

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