powergridA malicious software dubbed BlackEnergy has intrigued and frightened cybersecurity experts, in part because of its intent and in part because of its origin.

BlackEnergy is designed to target critical energy infrastructure and is believed to have originated with Russian government-sponsored hackers.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Oct. 29 cyberthreat alert was, unfortunately, business as usual for many of the nation’s companies. However, with the potential attack on water, electricity and other features of the nation’s critical infrastructure linked to Russian cyber criminals, security practices within private companies have become the public’s business.

“It’s really a very serious issue and the fact that sometimes it’s very difficult to detect [this type of malware] and sometimes the places that house industrial control systems may or may not follow very consistent, very rigorous, security practices creates a huge problem,” said James Joshi, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor and lead faculty member of the school’s Information Assurance Program.

DHS announced Oct. 29 that several industrial control systems — vendor-issued programs used by private companies to manage internal systems — had been infected by a variant of a Trojan horse malware program called BlackEnergy.

Infected programs such as GE Cimplicity, Siemens WinCC and Advantech/Broadwin WebAccess have been used by companies responsible for portions of the country’s critical infrastructure, including “water, energy, property management and industrial control systems vendors” according to DHS. BlackEnergy shows enough similarities to a malware called Sandworm — which was used during a 2013 Russian cyber-espionage campaign against NATO, the European Union and overseas telecommunication and energy sectors — that DHS believes they could be “part of a broader campaign by the same threat actor.”

So far, there’s no sign anyone has tried to take control of any critical infrastructure systems through BlackEnergy. However, the malware is described as “highly modular” in the DHS alert and could be lurking inside of yet-to-be discovered files and media.

With control of nuclear facilities and the electrical grid at risk, Mr. Joshi said too much is at stake for the nation to treat this like threats of the past.

“I think we should really seriously consider this. We’re talking about critical infrastructure and I think this kind of malware is very difficult to detect, stays around for a long time and someone who is behind these gets control of the system they can do anything to the system that they compromise,” he said.

Local utilities say they are on alert.

Duquesne Light became aware of the BlackEnergy threat more than three weeks ago, according to spokesman Brian Knavish, and has since performed a “targeted analysis” to determine if it has been impacted. The company concluded it wasn’t.

BlackEnergy is a “credible threat,” Mr. Knavish said, but “there are a lot of these and some of them get more attention than others.”

In recent years, the electric utility that serves 584,000 customers Allegheny and Beaver counties has beefed up its cybersecurity staffing and receives information about threats from many varied sources, including Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and others in the energy industry.

“Any threat is taken very seriously,” he said. “There’s always viruses out there.”

FirstEnergy Corp., the Ohio-based parent of West Penn Power, which also operates a number of power plants in the region and a transmission line business that serves this area, said it too has been made aware of BlackEnergy and works with industry organizations to monitor the threat.

The flow of electricity in Pennsylvania and 12 surrounding states is managed by PJM Interconnection, a Valley Forge-based grid operator that oversees the largest grid in the U.S. A spokesman for PJM, Paula DuPont-Kidd, said the organization knows about the threat, “however, like all cybersecurity threats, we continually monitor and arm ourselves with the best strategies to protect the grid and our market.”

North Shore-based utility Peoples Natural Gas said it doesn’t use any of the software identified as the target of BlackEnergy and did not detect the malware in its network after it became aware of the threat.

Peoples, which has 14,000 miles of pipeline in its network, operates its assets through a standalone system that’s not connected to the Internet, according to spokesman Barry Kukovich. That’s by design.

“This eliminates over 99 percent of these malicious threats,” Mr. Kukovich said.

Josephine Posti, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania American Water, said the company, which regularly works with Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the water supply, is aware of the threat and has not been impacted by it.

“There’s no such thing as 100 percent security,” said Scott Aaronson, senior director of national security policy for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C. “What we’re doing is not risk elimination, it’s risk management.”

BlackEnergy is one of many threats and vulnerabilities monitored by the trade organization on a regular basis. Some are identified by government agencies, some by companies, and others by researchers, he said.

The Institute, which is central to the information exchange between the groups, has been aware of BlackEnergy for about a month, Mr. Aaronson said.

There has never been a cyberattack in the U.S. that has affected the distribution of power, he said, but there are cyberattacks all the time that successfully target the industry’s business units.

“There are two kinds of companies: those that have been attacked and those that don’t know it yet,” Mr. Aaronson said.

The industry has three lines of defense against such attacks, he said. One is standards — electric utilities and the nuclear industry are the only two sectors with mandatory cybersecurity standards enforceable through hefty fines from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Another is the coordination between government and industry groups. The third is incident response.

“You cannot protect everything from everything,” Mr. Aaronson said. “We may not succeed” in preventing a cyberattack, he said. The question is “how do you recover quickly? How do you make sure that any damage that is done is not catastrophic, but is simply a nuisance?”

Companies operating or managing critical infrastructure generally follow a set of standard practices recommended by the National Institute of Technology, said Mr. Joshi. However he added that individual companies may not follow standards as rigorously as they should, particularly those dealing with industrial control systems. He also said security standards at large might need an across-the-board overhaul in a digital environment that’s more connected than ever before.

The potential link to a nation-state raises the stakes even higher, he continued.

“I think we should be scared and take this very seriously because it could be a nation-state issue. But the fact is, once the tools are there they could just leave it out and anyone could do [the attack.]” he said.

DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee confirmed that the department contacted several entities affected by the malware but declined to say how many. He also said the agency believes there are several entities that do not yet know they have been hacked.

The Oct. 29 threat alert included information to detect the malware and mitigation strategies, including keeping control system devices off the Internet, protecting systems and devices with firewalls and monitoring administrator level accounts used by third party vendors.

By Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com and Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Originally published here.