Cyber Security

Energy industry vulnerable to increased cyber espionage

16th April 2019
Alex Lynn


Malicious actors are targeting critical infrastructure (CNI) sites and energy distribution facilities exponentially. Interconnected systems in the energy industry increase vulnerabilities, and cyber attacks often go undetected for some time. 

As energy companies save costs against the backdrop of lower oil prices, consolidating operations can weaken business resilience and redundancy levels. This gives rise to new, single critical points of failure, with any disruption across the supply chain potentially having increased consequences.

“Espionage and sabotage attacks against CNI organisations have increased over the years and I don’t think we have seen it all yet,” said Sami Ruohonen, Labs Threat Researcher at Finnish Cyber Security Company F-Secure.

Connecting Industrial Control Systems (ICS) to the Internet is increasing, and a considerable number of CNI systems in use today were installed and built before 24/7/365 internet connections were the norm and the advent of Stuxnet. Many Operational Technology (OT) components have built-in remote operation capabilities, but are either partly or entirely lacking in security protocols such as authentication.

Moreover, cyber security was not a realistic threat when these systems were manufactured, and legacy protocols and systems never had the built-in security controls that we take for granted today. Transitioning these systems to the Internet has opened them up to attacks from a myriad of angles.

“Critical Infrastructure due to its nature is an interesting target for a foreign nation-state, even during peacetime,” Ruohonen explained.

F-Secure’s report shows that:

  • A variety of different adversaries, each with their own motivations and tradecraft, constantly strive to compromise organisations that operate critical infrastructure.
  • Attackers have more time than their targets and will take months to plan their attack.
  • People are the weakest link in production, with company employees seemingly being criminals’ go-to target.
  • Attackers continue to succeed mainly due to organisations’ lack of mature cyber security practices.
  • Nation-state sponsored Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups are relentless, and continue to seek network foothold positions on CNIs and espionage opportunities in the interests of exercising political leverage.
  • Nine different attackers/malwares/techniques targeting the energy industry stand out, with spear phishing being the most common initial supply chain attack technique.
  • Keeping a small attack surface in the energy industry, while often pitched as the best way to mitigate the risk of a cyber attack, is simply not possible.

While breaches are a certainty, Ruohonen advises organisations review their cyber security posture to implement latest technologies such as an endpoint detection and response (EDR) solution.

“EDR is a quick way to tremendously increase capabilities to detect and respond to advanced threats and targeted attacks which might bypass traditional endpoint solutions,” Ruohonen explained. “Managed EDR solutions can provide monitoring, alerting, and response to cover the needs 24/7. This means organisations’ IT teams can operate during business hours to review the detections while a specialised cyber security team takes care of the rest.”

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