A Russian research laboratory is behind cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, including on a Saudi petrochemical plant, according to a report published today by US cyber-security firm FireEye.
The cyber-attacks took place in 2017 and deployed a never-before-seen malware strain known as Triton –or Trisis– specifically engineered to interact with Schneider Electric’s Triconex Safety Instrumented System (SIS) controllers
According to technical reports from FireEye, Dragos, and Symantec, Triton was designed to either shut down a production process or allow SIS-controlled machinery to work in an unsafe state.
The group behind the malware, which FireEye has been tracking under the codename of TEMP.Veles, nearly succeeded last year, when it almost caused an explosion at a Saudi petrochemical plant owned by Tasnee, a privately owned Saudi company, according to a New York Times report.
The malware’s origins were a mystery when FireEye first discovered Triton in 2017 and remained a mystery even after the New York Times report in March 2018.
But in a report published today, FireEye says that following further research into incidents where the Triton malware was deployed, it can now assess with “high confidence” that the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (CNIIHM; ЦНИИХМ), a government-owned technical research institution located in Moscow, was involved in these attacks.
FireEye’s report does not link the Triton malware itself to CNIIHM, but the secondary malware strains used by TEMP.Veles and deployed during the incidents where Triton was deployed.
Clues in these secondary malware strains used to aid the deployment of the main Triton payloads contained enough artifacts that allowed researchers to identify their source.
The company lists some –but not all– indicators that led its researchers to reach the conclusion that CNIIHM was behind the development of these Triton-adjacent malware strains deployed during the main Triton attacks.
- A PDB path for one of the files contained a string that appears to be a unique handle or username. That handle/username belongs to a Moscow-based infosec expert and a former professor at CNIIHM.
- Malicious activity tied to TEMP.Veles scans and monitoring operations originated from 18.104.22.168, an IP address registered to CNIIHM.
- Multiple Triton-related files –which were also accidentally uploaded online in December 2017– contained Cyrillic names and artifacts.
- Malware file creation times are consistent with regular working hours specific the Moscow timezone.
“Some possibility remains that one or more CNIIHM employees could have conducted the activity linking TEMP.Veles to CNIIHM without their employer’s approval,” FireEye said today. “However, this scenario is highly unlikely.”
FireEye says that based on CNIIHM’s self-described mission and other public information, the research lab had both the tools and expertise to develop this type of malware, but also reasons to do so because of its ties to various Russian military and critical infrastructure apparatus.
As for why Russia would be interested in sabotaging a Saudi petrochemical power plant, the reasons are unknown.
When the attack on the Tasnee plant came to light, many infosec experts attributed Triton –without any sustaining evidence– to Iran’s cyber-intelligence apparatus.
Anything is possible at this point, from Russia wanting to destabilize the Gulf region to CNIIHM renting its cyber-capabilities to external threat actors.