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Russian research laboratory linked to cyber attack on Saudi petrochemical plant

25 October 2018

A series of cyber attacks in 2017, using so-called Triton malware specifically engineered to interact with Schneider Electric's Triconex Safety Instrumented System (SIS) controllers, has been traced to a Russian research laboratory in Moscow, according to cybersecurity group FireEye. One attack almost caused an explosion at a Saudi petrochemical plant.

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According to FireEye, Triton was designed to either shut down a production process or allow SIS-controlled machinery to work in an unsafe state.

The attack on the petrochemical plant, owned by Saudi Arabia’s Tasnee group, appears to have been designed to shut down safety controllers which could have caused an explosion at the plant, according to the New York Times. In the event, the attack failed due to a flaw in the coding of the malware.

The malware's origins were a mystery when FireEye first discovered Triton in 2017 and remained a mystery even after the New York Times article in March 2018.

But in a report published on October 23, 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), a Russian 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 the Russian hacking group dubbed 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 sufficient traceable elements to allow researchers to identify their source.

"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. "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.

The Daily Telegraph said the attack on the Saudi plant in August 2017 was described as a watershed moment in cyber security because it was the first known attempt to take control of an emergency shutdown system designed to save human lives. 

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