More than one thousand companies related to the energy industry in Europe and North America are said to have been targeted by internet hackers, with particular interest in compromising industrial control systems.
According to security researchers at Symantec, who have named the hacking gang "Dragonfly", the majority of the organisations who were attacked were located in the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Poland.
Meanwhile, F-Secure has claimed that the attackers (who are sometimes also known as "Energetic Bear") used a remote access trojan (RAT) named Havex to hunt for vulnerable industrial control systems (ICS) with a view to ultimately accessing critical infrastructure used to manage electrical, water, oil, gas and data supplies.
In some cases the malware was planted into victim organisation not just via traditional targeted email and watering hole attacks, but by planting malware into the update installers on at least three ICS vendors' websites.
It's becoming more and more common for hackers to attempt targeted attacks against particular organisations or industry groups, rather than blanket assaults against anyone connected to the internet.
To help the attacks reach their intended victims, malicious emails may be sent to specific targets, websites that the targets are likely to frequent are infected with malware or exploit kits (a so-called "watering hole" attack), and software that the organisations are likely to install is boobytrapped with a Trojan horse.
Unlike the virus outbreaks of yesteryear, targeted attacks are designed not to draw attention to themselves - so they are typically uninterested in causing damage, but instead plot to steal sensitive information or intellectual property, or establish a silent foothold inside a network from which they can spy and gather data.
The attacks that have targeted energy companies go one step further than this, seemingly attempting to seize control of ICS and SCADA systems that could be connected to critical infrastructure.
The motivation for such an attack is unclear, but there will be doubtless many who will suspect these are attacks sponsored by a foreign state.
There is no doubt that we have entered a new era of cybercrime, where countries are not just fighting the threat - but are also exploiting the internet for their own interests using the same techniques as the criminals.
- F-Secure: Havex Hunts For ICS/SCADA Systems
- ICS-CERT: ICS Focused Malware
- Symantec: Dragonfly: Western Energy Companies Under Sabotage Threat