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Hafnium cyber-attack neutralized by AI in December 2020

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15
Apr 2021
15
Apr 2021
Darktrace AI appears to have detected a Hafnium attack against vulnerable Exchange servers in December 2020, three months before the zero-day was identified. This blog provides an in-depth analysis of the attack, which suggests that Hafnium’s campaign began far earlier than previously thought.

In early December 2020, Darktrace AI autonomously detected and investigated a sophisticated cyber-attack that targeted a customer’s Exchange server. On March 2, 2021, Microsoft disclosed an ongoing campaign by the Hafnium threat actor group leveraging Exchange server zero-days.

Based on similarities in techniques, tools and procedures (TTPs) observed, Darktrace has now assessed with high confidence that the attack in December was the work of the Hafnium group. Although it is not possible to determine whether this attack leveraged the same Exchange zero-days as reported by Microsoft, the finding suggests that Hafnium’s campaign was active several months earlier than assumed.

As a result, organizations may want to go back as far as early December 2020 to check security logs and tools for signs of initial intrusion into their Internet-facing Exchange servers.

As Darktrace does not rely on rules or signatures, it doesn’t require a constant cloud connection. Most customers therefore operate our technology themselves, and we don’t centrally monitor their detections.

At the time of detection in December, this was one of many uncategorized, sophisticated intrusions that affected only a single customer, and was not indicative of a broader campaign.

This means that while we protect our customers from individual intrusions, we are not in a position to do global campaign tracking like other companies which focus primarily on threat intelligence and threat actor tracking.

In this blog, we will analyze the attack to aid organizations in their ongoing investigations, and to raise awareness that the Hafnium campaign may have been active for longer than previously disclosed.

Overview of the Exchange attack

The intrusion was detected at an organization in the critical national infrastructure sector in South Asia. One hypothesis is that the Hafnium group was testing out and refining its TTPs, potentially including the Exchange server exploit, before running a broad-scale campaign against Western organizations in early 2021.

The threat actor used many of the same techniques that were observed in the later Hafnium attacks, including the deployment of the low-activity China Chopper web shell, quickly followed by post-exploitation activity – attempting to move laterally and spread to critical devices in the network.

The following analysis demonstrates how Darktrace’s Enterprise Immune System detected the malicious activity, how Cyber AI Analyst automatically investigated on the incident and surfaced the alert as a top priority, and how Darktrace RESPOND (formerly known as 'Antigena') would have responded autonomously to shut down the attack, had it been in active mode.

All the activity took place in early December 2020, almost three months before Microsoft released information about the Hafnium campaign.

Figure 1: Timeline of the attack from early December 2020

Initial compromise

Unfortunately, the victim organization did not keep any logs or forensic artefacts from their Exchange server in December 2020, which would have allowed Darktrace to ascertain the exploit of the zero-day. However, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that these Exchange server vulnerabilities were abused.

Darktrace observed no signs of compromise or change in behavior from the Internet-facing Exchange server – no prior internal admin connections, no broad-scale brute-force attempts, no account takeovers, no malware copied to the server via internal channels – until all of a sudden, it began to scan the internal network.

While this is not conclusive evidence that no other avenue of initial intrusion was present, the change in behavior on an administrative level points to a complete takeover of the Exchange server, rather than the compromise of a single Outlook Web Application account.

To conduct a network scan from an Exchange server, a highly privileged, operating SYSTEM-level account is required. The patch level of the Exchange server at the time of compromise appears to have been up-to-date, at least not offering a threat actor the ability to target a known vulnerability to instantly get SYSTEM-level privileges.

For this reason, Darktrace has inferred that the Exchange server zero-days that became public in early March 2021 were possibly being used in this attack observed in early December 2020.

Internal reconnaissance

As soon as the attackers gained access via the web shell, they used the Exchange server to scan all IPs in a single subnet on ports 80, 135, 445, 8080.

This particular Exchange server had never made such a large number of new failed internal connections to that specific subnet on those key ports. As a result, Darktrace instantly alerted on the anomalous behavior, which was indicative of a network scan.

Autonomous Response

Darktrace RESPOND was in passive mode in the environment, so was not able to take action. In active mode, it would have responded by enforcing the previously learned, normal ‘pattern of life’ of the Exchange server – allowing the server to continue normal business operations (sending and receiving emails) but preventing the network scan and any subsequent activity. These actions would have been carried out via various integrations with the customer’s existing security stack, including Firewalls and Network Access Controls.

Specifically, when the network scanning started, the ‘Antigena Network Scan Block’ was triggered. This means that for several hours, Darktrace RESPOND (Antigena) would have blocked any new outgoing connections from the Exchange server to the scanned subnet on port 80, 135, 445, or 8080, preventing the infected Exchange server from conducting network scanning.

As a result, the attackers would not have been able to conclude anything from their reconnaissance — all their scanning would have returned closed ports. At this point, they would need to stop their attack or resort to other means, likely triggering further detections and further Autonomous Response.

The network scan was the first step touching the internal network. This is therefore a clear case of how Darktrace RESPOND can intercept an attack in seconds, acting at the earliest possible evidence of the intrusion.

Lateral movement

Less than an hour after the internal network scan, the compromised Exchange server was observed writing further web shells to other Exchange servers via internal SMB. Darktrace alerted on this as the initially compromised Exchange server had never accessed the other Exchange servers in this fashion over SMB, let alone writing .aspx files to Program Files remotely.

A single click allowed the security team to pivot from the alert into Darktrace’s Advanced Search, revealing further details about the written files. The full file path for the newly deployed web shells was:

Program Files\Microsoft\Exchange Server\V15\FrontEnd\HttpProxy\owa\auth\Current\themes\errorFS.aspx

The attackers thus used internal SMB to compromise further Exchange servers and deploy more web shells, rather than using the Exchange zero-day exploit again to achieve the same goal. The reason for this is clear: exploits can often be unstable, and an adversary would not want to show their hand unnecessarily if it could be avoided.

While the China Chopper web shell has been deployed with many different names in the past, the file path and file name of the actual .aspx web shell bear very close resemblance to the Hafnium campaign details published by Microsoft and others in March 2021.

As threat actors often reuse naming conventions / TTPs in coherent campaigns, it again indicates that this particular attack was in some way part of the broader campaign observed in early 2021.

Further lateral movement

Minutes later, the attacker conducted further lateral movement by making more SMB drive writes to Domain Controllers. This time the attackers did not upload web shells, but malware, in the form of executables and Windows .bat files.

Darktrace alerted the security team as it was extremely unusual for the Exchange server and its peer group to make SMB drive writes to hidden shares to a Domain Controller, particularly using executables and batch files. The activity was presented to the team in the form of a high-confidence alert such as the anonymized example below.

Figure 2: Example graphic of Darktrace detecting unusual connectivity

The batch file was called ‘a.bat’. At this point, the security team could have created a packet capture for the a.bat file in Darktrace with the click of a button, inspecting the content and details of that script at the time of the intrusion.

Darktrace also listed the credentials involved in the activity, providing context into the compromised accounts. This allows an analyst to pivot rapidly around the data and further understand the scope of the intrusion.

Bird’s-eye perspective

In addition to detecting the malicious activity outlined above, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst autonomously summarized the incident and reported on it, outlining the internal reconnaissance and lateral movement activity in a single, cohesive incident.

The organization has several thousand devices covered by Darktrace’s Enterprise Immune System. Nevertheless, over the period of one week, the Hafnium intrusion was in the top five incidents highlighted in Cyber AI Analyst. Even a small or resource-stretched security team, with only a few minutes available per week to review the highest-severity incidents, could have seen and inspected this threat.

Below is a graphic showing a similar Cyber AI Analyst incident created by Darktrace.

Figure 3: A Cyber AI Analyst report showing unusual SMB activity

How to stop a zero-day

Large scale campaigns which target Internet-facing infrastructure and leverage zero-day exploits will continue to occur regularly, and such attacks will always succeed in evading signature-based detection. However, organizations are not helpless against the next high-profile zero-day or supply chain attack.

Detecting the movements of attackers inside a system and responding to contain in-progress threats is possible before IoCs have been provided. The methods of detection outlined above protected the company against this attack in December, and the same techniques will continue to protect the company against unknown threats in the future.

Learn more about how Darktrace AI has stopped Hafnium cyber-attacks and similar threat actors

Darktrace model detections:

  • Device / New or Uncommon WMI Activity
  • Executable Uploaded to DC
  • Compliance / High Priority Compliance Model Breach
  • Compliance / SMB Drive Write
  • Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena Network Scan Block
  • Device / Network Scan - Low Anomaly Score
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual Internal Connections

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INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
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Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works closely with the R&D team at Darktrace’s Cambridge UK headquarters, leading research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. When living in Germany, he was an active member of the Chaos Computer Club. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.

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Inside the SOC

PurpleFox in a Henhouse: How Darktrace Hunted Down a Persistent and Dynamic Rootkit

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27
Nov 2023

Versatile Malware: PurpleFox

As organizations and security teams across the world move to bolster their digital defenses against cyber threats, threats actors, in turn, are forced to adopt more sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to circumvent them. Rather than being static and predictable, malware strains are becoming increasingly versatile and therefore elusive to traditional security tools.

One such example is PurpleFox. First observed in 2018, PurpleFox is a combined fileless rootkit and backdoor trojan known to target Windows machines. PurpleFox is known for consistently adapting its functionalities over time, utilizing different infection vectors including known vulnerabilities (CVEs), fake Telegram installers, and phishing. It is also leveraged by other campaigns to deliver ransomware tools, spyware, and cryptocurrency mining malware. It is also widely known for using Microsoft Software Installer (MSI) files masquerading as other file types.

The Evolution of PurpleFox

The Original Strain

First reported in March 2018, PurpleFox was identified to be a trojan that drops itself onto Windows machines using an MSI installation package that alters registry values to replace a legitimate Windows system file [1]. The initial stage of infection relied on the third-party toolkit RIG Exploit Kit (EK). RIG EK is hosted on compromised or malicious websites and is dropped onto the unsuspecting system when they visit browse that site. The built-in Windows installer (MSIEXEC) is leveraged to run the installation package retrieved from the website. This, in turn, drops two files into the Windows directory – namely a malicious dynamic-link library (DLL) that acts as a loader, and the payload of the malware. After infection, PurpleFox is often used to retrieve and deploy other types of malware.  

Subsequent Variants

Since its initial discovery, PurpleFox has also been observed leveraging PowerShell to enable fileless infection and additional privilege escalation vulnerabilities to increase the likelihood of successful infection [2]. The PowerShell script had also been reported to be masquerading as a .jpg image file. PowerSploit modules are utilized to gain elevated privileges if the current user lacks administrator privileges. Once obtained, the script proceeds to retrieve and execute a malicious MSI package, also masquerading as an image file. As of 2020, PurpleFox no longer relied on the RIG EK for its delivery phase, instead spreading via the exploitation of the SMB protocol [3]. The malware would leverage the compromised systems as hosts for the PurpleFox payloads to facilitate its spread to other systems. This mode of infection can occur without any user action, akin to a worm.

The current iteration of PurpleFox reportedly uses brute-forcing of vulnerable services, such as SMB, to facilitate its spread over the network and escalate privileges. By scanning internet-facing Windows computers, PurpleFox exploits weak passwords for Windows user accounts through SMB, including administrative credentials to facilitate further privilege escalation.

Darktrace detection of PurpleFox

In July 2023, Darktrace observed an example of a PurpleFox infection on the network of a customer in the healthcare sector. This observation was a slightly different method of downloading the PurpleFox payload. An affected device was observed initiating a series of service control requests using DCE-RPC, instructing the device to make connections to a host of servers to download a malicious .PNG file, later confirmed to be the PurpleFox rootkit. The device was then observed carrying out worm-like activity to other external internet-facing servers, as well as scanning related subnets.

Darktrace DETECT™ was able to successfully identify and track this compromise across the cyber kill chain and ensure the customer was able to take swift remedial action to prevent the attack from escalating further.

While the customer in question did have Darktrace RESPOND™, it was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually applied by the customer’s security team. If RESPOND had been enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack, it would have been able to take swift action against the compromise to contain it at the earliest instance.

Attack Overview

Figure 1: Timeline of PurpleFox malware kill chain.

Initial Scanning over SMB

On July 14, 2023, Darktrace detected the affected device scanning other internal devices on the customer’s network via port 445. The numerous connections were consistent with the aforementioned worm-like activity that has been reported from PurpleFox behavior as it appears to be targeting SMB services looking for open or vulnerable channels to exploit.

This initial scanning activity was detected by Darktrace DETECT, specifically through the model breach ‘Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity’. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ then launched an autonomous investigation into these internal connections and tied them into one larger-scale network reconnaissance incident, rather than a series of isolated connections.

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst technical details summarizing the initial scanning activity seen with the internal network scan over port 445.

As Darktrace RESPOND was configured in human confirmation mode, it was unable to autonomously block these internal connections. However, it did suggest blocking connections on port 445, which could have been manually applied by the customer’s security team.

Figure 3: The affected device’s Model Breach Event Log showing the initial scanning activity observed by Darktrace DETECT and the corresponding suggested RESPOND action.

Privilege Escalation

The device successfully logged in via NTLM with the credential, ‘administrator’. Darktrace recognized that the endpoint was external to the customer’s environment, indicating that the affected device was now being used to propagate the malware to other networks. Considering the lack of observed brute-force activity up to this point, the credentials for ‘administrator’ had likely been compromised prior to Darktrace’s deployment on the network, or outside of Darktrace’s purview via a phishing attack.

Exploitation

Darktrace then detected a series of service control requests over DCE-RPC using the credential ‘admin’ to make SVCCTL Create Service W Requests. A script was then observed where the controlled device is instructed to launch mshta.exe, a Windows-native binary designed to execute Microsoft HTML Application (HTA) files. This enables the execution of arbitrary script code, VBScript in this case.

Figure 4: PurpleFox remote service control activity captured by a Darktrace DETECT model breach.
Figure 5: The infected device’s Model Breach Event Log showing the anomalous service control activity being picked up by DETECT.

There are a few MSIEXEC flags to note:

  • /i : installs or configures a product
  • /Q : sets the user interface level. In this case, it is set to ‘No UI’, which is used for “quiet” execution, so no user interaction is required

Evidently, this was an attempt to evade detection by endpoint users as it is surreptitiously installed onto the system. This corresponds to the download of the rootkit that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. At this stage, the infected device continues to be leveraged as an attack device and scans SMB services over external endpoints. The device also appeared to attempt brute-forcing over NTLM using the same ‘administrator’ credential to these endpoints. This activity was identified by Darktrace DETECT which, if enabled in autonomous response mode would have instantly blocked similar outbound connections, thus preventing the spread of PurpleFox.

Figure 6: The infected device’s Model Breach Event Log showing the outbound activity corresponding to PurpleFox’s wormlike spread. This was caught by DETECT and the corresponding suggested RESPOND action.

Installation

On August 9, Darktrace observed the device making initial attempts to download a malicious .PNG file. This was a notable change in tactics from previously reported PurpleFox campaigns which had been observed utilizing .MOE files for their payloads [3]. The .MOE payloads are binary files that are more easily detected and blocked by traditional signatured-based security measures as they are not associated with known software. The ubiquity of .PNG files, especially on the web, make identifying and blacklisting the files significantly more difficult.

The first connection was made with the URI ‘/test.png’.  It was noted that the HTTP method here was HEAD, a method similar to GET requests except the server must not return a message-body in the response.

The metainformation contained in the HTTP headers in response to a HEAD request should be identical to the information sent in response to a GET request. This method is often used to test hypertext links for validity and recent modification. This is likely a way of checking if the server hosting the payload is still active. Avoiding connections that could possibly be detected by antivirus solutions can help keep this activity under-the-radar.

Figure 7: Packet Capture from an affected customer device showing the initial HTTP requests to the payload server.
Figure 8: Packet Capture showing the HTTP requests to download the payloads.

The server responds with a status code of 200 before the download begins. The HEAD request could be part of the attacker’s verification that the server is still running, and that the payload is available for download. The ‘/test.png’ HEAD request was sent twice, likely for double confirmation to begin the file transfer.

Figure 9: PCAP from the affected customer device showing the Windows Installer user-agent associated with the .PNG file download.

Subsequent analysis using a Packet Capture (PCAP) tool revealed that this connection used the Windows Installer user agent that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. The device then began to download a payload that was masquerading as a Microsoft Word document. The device was thus able to download the payload twice, from two separate endpoints.

By masquerading as a Microsoft Word file, the threat actor was likely attempting to evade the detection of the endpoint user and traditional security tools by passing off as an innocuous text document. Likewise, using a Windows Installer user agent would enable threat actors to bypass antivirus measures and disguise the malicious installation as legitimate download activity.  

Darktrace DETECT identified that these were masqueraded file downloads by correctly identifying the mismatch between the file extension and the true file type. Subsequently, AI Analyst was able to correctly identify the file type and deduced that this download was indicative of the device having been compromised.

In this case, the device attempted to download the payload from several different endpoints, many of which had low antivirus detection rates or open-source intelligence (OSINT) flags, highlighting the need to move beyond traditional signature-base detections.

Figure 10: Cyber AI Analyst technical details summarizing the downloads of the PurpleFox payload.
Figure 11 (a): The Model Breach generated by the masqueraded file transfer associated with the PurpleFox payload.
Figure 11 (b): The Model Breach generated by the masqueraded file transfer associated with the PurpleFox payload.

If Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack it would have acted by blocking connections to these suspicious endpoints, thus preventing the download of malicious files. However, as RESPOND was in human confirmation mode, RESPOND actions required manual application by the customer’s security team which unfortunately did not happen, as such the device was able to download the payloads.

Conclusion

The PurpleFox malware is a particularly dynamic strain known to continually evolve over time, utilizing a blend of old and new approaches to achieve its goals which is likely to muddy expectations on its behavior. By frequently employing new methods of attack, malicious actors are able to bypass traditional security tools that rely on signature-based detections and static lists of indictors of compromise (IoCs), necessitating a more sophisticated approach to threat detection.  

Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI enables it to confront adaptable and elusive threats like PurpleFox. By learning and understanding customer networks, it is able to discern normal network behavior and patterns of life, distinguishing expected activity from potential deviations. This anomaly-based approach to threat detection allows Darktrace to detect cyber threats as soon as they emerge.  

By combining DETECT with the autonomous response capabilities of RESPOND, Darktrace customers are able to effectively safeguard their digital environments and ensure that emerging threats can be identified and shut down at the earliest stage of the kill chain, regardless of the tactics employed by would-be attackers.

Credit to Piramol Krishnan, Cyber Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst & Deputy Team Lead, Singapore

Appendices

Darktrace Model Detections

  • Device / Increased External Connectivity
  • Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints
  • Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)
  • Compliance / External Windows Communications
  • Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control
  • Compromise / Unusual SVCCTL Activity
  • Compromise / Rare Domain Pointing to Internal IP
  • Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

RESPOND Models

  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description

/C558B828.Png - URI - URI for Purple Fox Rootkit [4]

5b1de649f2bc4eb08f1d83f7ea052de5b8fe141f - File Hash - SHA1 hash of C558B828.Png file (Malware payload)

190.4.210[.]242 - IP - Purple Fox C2 Servers

218.4.170[.]236 - IP - IP for download of .PNG file (Malware payload)

180.169.1[.]220 - IP - IP for download of .PNG file (Malware payload)

103.94.108[.]114:10837 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

221.199.171[.]174:16543 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

61.222.155[.]49:14098 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

178.128.103[.]246:17880 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

222.134.99[.]132:12539 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

164.90.152[.]252:18075 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

198.199.80[.]121:11490 - IP - IP from Service Control MSIEXEC script to download PNG file (Malware payload)

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Technique

Reconnaissance - Active Scanning T1595, Active Scanning: Scanning IP Blocks T1595.001, Active Scanning: Vulnerability Scanning T1595.002

Resource Development - Obtain Capabilities: Malware T1588.001

Initial Access, Defense Evasion, Persistence, Privilege Escalation - Valid Accounts: Default Accounts T1078.001

Initial Access - Drive-by Compromise T1189

Defense Evasion - Masquerading T1036

Credential Access - Brute Force T1110

Discovery - Network Service Discovery T1046

Command and Control - Proxy: External Proxy T1090.002

References

  1. https://blog.360totalsecurity.com/en/purple-fox-trojan-burst-out-globally-and-infected-more-than-30000-users/
  2. https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/19/i/purple-fox-fileless-malware-with-rookit-component-delivered-by-rig-exploit-kit-now-abuses-powershell.html
  3. https://www.akamai.com/blog/security/purple-fox-rootkit-now-propagates-as-a-worm
  4. https://www.foregenix.com/blog/an-overview-on-purple-fox
  5. https://www.trendmicro.com/en_sg/research/21/j/purplefox-adds-new-backdoor-that-uses-websockets.html
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About the author
Piramol Krishnan
Cyber Security Analyst

$70 Million in Cyber Security Funding for Electric Cooperatives & Utilities

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22
Nov 2023

What is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal?

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by congress in 2021 aimed to upgrade power and infrastructure to deliver clean, reliable energy across the US to achieve zero-emissions. To date, the largest investment in clean energy, the deal will fund new programs to support the development and deployment of clean energy technology.

Why is it relevant to electric municipalities?

Section 40124 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $250 million over a 5-year period to create the Rural and Municipal Utility Cybersecurity (RMUC) Program to help electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities protect against, detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity threats.1 This act illuminates the value behind a full life-cycle approach to cyber security. Thus, finding a cyber security solution that can provide all aspects of security in one integrated platform would enhance the overall security posture and ease many of the challenges that arise with adopting multiple point solutions.

On November 16, 2023 the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) released the Advanced Cybersecurity Technology (ACT) for electric utilities offering a $70 million funding opportunity that aims to enhance the cybersecurity posture of electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities.

Funding Details

10 projects will be funded with application submissions due November 29, 2023, 5:00 pm ET with $200,000 each in cash prizes in the following areas:

  1. Direct support for eligible utilities to make investments in cybersecurity technologies, tools, training, and improvements in utility processes and procedures;
  2. Funding to strengthen the peer-to-peer and not-for-profit cybersecurity technical assistance ecosystem currently serving eligible electric utilities; and
  3. Increasing access to cybersecurity technical assistance and training for eligible utilities with limited cybersecurity resources. 2

To submit for this award visit: https://www.herox.com/ACT1Prize

How can electric municipalities utilize the funding?

While the adoption of hybrid working patterns increase cloud and SaaS usage, the number of industrial IoT devices also continues to rise. The result is decrease in visibility for security teams and new entry points for attackers. Particularly for energy and utility organizations.

Electric cooperatives seeking to enhance their cyber security posture can aim to invest in cyber security tools that provide the following:

Compliance support: Consider finding an OT security solution that maps out how its solutions and features help your organization comply with relevant compliance mandates such as NIST, ISA, FERC, TSA, HIPAA, CIS Controls, and more.

Anomaly based detection: Siloed security solutions also fail to detect attacks that span
the entire organization. Anomaly-based detection enhances an organization’s cyber security posture by proactively defending against potential attacks and maintaining a comprehensive view of their attack surface.

Integration capabilities: Implementation of several point solutions that complete individual tasks runs the risk of increasing workloads for operators and creates additional challenges with compliance, budgeting, and technical support. Look for cyber security tools that integrate with your existing technologies.

Passive and active asset tracking: Active Identification offers accurate enumeration, real time updates, vulnerability assessment, asset validation while Passive Identification eliminates the risk of operational disruption, minimizes risk, does not generate additional network traffic. It would be ideal to find a security solution that can do both.

Can secure both IT and OT in unison: Given that most OT cyber-attacks actually start in IT networks before pivoting into OT, a mature security posture for critical infrastructure would include a single solution for both IT and OT. Separate solutions for IT and OT present challenges when defending network boundaries and detecting incidents when an attacker pivots from IT to OT. These independent solutions also significantly increase operator workload and materially diminish risk mitigation efforts.

Darktrace/OT for Electric Cooperatives and Utilities

For smaller teams with just one or two dedicated employees, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst and Investigation features allow end users to spend less time in the platform as it compiles critical incidents into comprehensive actionable event reports. AI Analyst brings all the information into a centralized view with incident reporting in natural language summaries and can be generated for compliance reports specific to regulatory requirements.  

For larger teams, Darktrace alerts can be forwarded to 3rd party platforms such as a SIEM, where security team decision making is augmented. Additionally, executive reports and autonomous response reduce the alert fatigue generally associated with legacy tools. Most importantly, Darktrace’s unique understanding of normal allows security teams to detect zero-days and signatureless attacks regardless of the size of the organization and how alerts are consumed.

Key Benefits of Darktrace/OT

Figure 1: Darktrace/OT stops threats moving from IT to OT by providing a unified view across both systems

References

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/06/fact-sheet-the-bipartisan-infrastructure-deal/

2. https://www.energy.gov/ceser/rural-and-municipal-utility-advanced-cybersecurity-grant-and-technical-assistance-rmuc

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About the author
Jeff Cornelius
EVP, Cyber-Physical Security

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