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As Pro-Russia Hactivists Target OT Systems, Here’s What You Need To Know

As Pro-Russia Hactivists Target OT Systems, Here’s What You Need To Know

U.S. and international cybersecurity and law enforcement agencies this week issued a joint fact sheet to highlight and safeguard against the continued malicious cyber activity conducted by pro-Russia hacktivists against operational technology (OT) devices in North America and Europe. Read on to get all the details and learn what actions to take today.

Against the backdrop of the third anniversary of the Colonial Pipeline attack on May 7, a group of cybersecurity and law enforcement agencies from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. published a fact sheet warning that pro-Russia hacktivists are targeting and compromising small-scale operational technology (OT) systems in North American and European sectors, including water and wastewater systems (WWS); dams; energy; and food and agriculture. According to the document, this malicious activity has been observed since 2022 and as recently as April 2024.

It’s the latest warning that bad actors and nation states have new avenues through which they can wreak havoc and tamper with or shut down critical infrastructure by exploiting vulnerabilities in increasingly converging IT and OT systems. 

What you need to know

Various government agencies have warned in recent years that pro-Russia hacktivists are gaining remote access to OT systems by exploiting publicly exposed internet-facing connections and taking advantage of outdated remote access Virtual Network Computing (VNC) software. These hacktivists also exploit users’ human machine interface (HMIs) factory-default passwords, as well as weak passwords without multi-factor authentication.

This latest fact sheet warns that pro-Russia hacktivists were observed in early 2024 using a variety of techniques to gain remote access to HMIs and make changes to the underlying OT. These techniques include:

  • Using the VNC protocol to access HMIs and make changes to the underlying OT. VNC is used for remote access to graphical user interfaces, including HMIs that control OT systems.
  • Leveraging the VNC Remote Frame Buffer protocol to log in to HMIs to control OT systems.
  • Leveraging VNC over Port 5900 to access HMIs by using default credentials and weak passwords on accounts not protected by multi-factor authentication.

After having their HMIs manipulated, victims reported limited physical disruptions from water pumps and blower equipment exceeding their normal operating parameters. In each case, the hacktivists maxed out set points, altered other settings, turned off alarm mechanisms, and changed administrative passwords to lock out the WWS operators. Some victims experienced minor tank overflow events, but most victims reverted to manual controls in the immediate aftermath and quickly restored operations.

What you need to do

The fact sheet recommends taking the following actions: 

  • Immediately change all default passwords of OT devices (including PLCs and HMIs), and use strong, unique passwords
  • Limit exposure of OT systems to the internet
  • Implement multi-factor authentication for all access to the OT network

At Tenable, we would urge critical infrastructure providers to follow a few additional basic guidelines to prevent attacks from landing, such as:

  • Use cryptographic keys in addition to password-protection protocols like password rotation to secure remote access
  • Log and audit OT network activity by contractors and employees to prevent identity and credential-based attacks

The joint fact sheet was published by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Security Agency (NSA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CCCS), and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC-UK).

深入瞭解

To learn how Tenable helps secure water and other critical infrastructure, download our solution brief. Further information and guidance on securing critical infrastructure is available in our whitepaper. Or experience the power of Tenable firsthand with a live demo by visiting https://www.tenable.com/products/tenable-ot

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