Alert (TA18-074A) Russian
Government Cyber Activity Targeting Energy and Other Critical
March 16, 2018.
Technical Alert (TA) is the result of analytic efforts between the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI). This alert provides information on Russian
government actions targeting U.S. Government entities as well as
organizations in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water,
aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors. It also contains indicators
of compromise (IOCs) and technical details on the tactics, techniques,
and procedures (TTPs) used by Russian government cyber actors on
compromised victim networks. DHS and FBI produced this alert to educate
network defenders to enhance their ability to identify and reduce exposure
to malicious activity.
DHS and FBI
characterize this activity as a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian
government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’
networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained
remote access into energy sector networks. After obtaining access, the
Russian government cyber actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved
laterally, and collected information pertaining to Industrial Control
downloadable copy of IOC packages and associated files, see:
or law enforcement immediately to report an intrusion and to request
incident response resources or technical assistance.
least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors—hereafter referred to
as “threat actors”—targeted government entities and multiple U.S.
critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear,
commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing
DHS and FBI, resulted in the identification of distinct indicators and
behaviors related to this activity. Of note, the report Dragonfly:
Western energy sector targeted by sophisticated attack group, released by
Symantec on September 6, 2017, provides additional information about this
ongoing campaign.  (link is external)
campaign comprises two distinct categories of victims: staging and
intended targets. The initial victims are peripheral organizations such
as trusted third-party suppliers with less secure networks, referred to
as “staging targets” throughout this alert. The threat actors used the
staging targets’ networks as pivot points and malware repositories when
targeting their final intended victims. NCCIC and FBI judge the ultimate
objective of the actors is to compromise organizational networks, also
referred to as the “intended target.”
actors in this campaign employed a variety of TTPs, including
emails (from compromised legitimate account),
industrial control system (ICS) infrastructure.
Using Cyber Kill Chain for Analysis
the Lockheed-Martin Cyber Kill Chain model to analyze, discuss, and
dissect malicious cyber activity. Phases of the model include
reconnaissance, weaponization, delivery,
exploitation, installation, command and control, and actions on the
objective. This section will provide a high-level overview of threat
actors’ activities within this framework.
Stage 1: Reconnaissance
actors appear to have deliberately chosen the organizations they
targeted, rather than pursuing them as targets of opportunity. Staging
targets held preexisting relationships with many of the intended targets.
DHS analysis identified the threat actors accessing publicly available
information hosted by organization-monitored networks during the
reconnaissance phase. Based on forensic analysis, DHS assesses the threat
actors sought information on network and organizational design and
control system capabilities within organizations. These tactics are
commonly used to collect the information needed for targeted
spear-phishing attempts. In some cases, information posted to company
websites, especially information that may appear to be innocuous, may
contain operationally sensitive information. As an example, the threat
actors downloaded a small photo from a publicly accessible human
resources page. The image, when expanded, was a high-resolution photo
that displayed control systems equipment models and status information in
also revealed that the threat actors used compromised staging targets to
download the source code for several intended targets’ websites.
Additionally, the threat actors attempted to remotely access
infrastructure such as corporate web-based email and virtual private
network (VPN) connections.
Stage 2: Weaponization
Spear-Phishing Email TTPs
the spear-phishing campaign, the threat actors used email attachments to
leverage legitimate Microsoft Office functions for retrieving a document
from a remote server using the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. (An
example of this request is: file[:]//<remote IP
address>/Normal.dotm). As a part of the standard processes executed by
Microsoft Word, this request authenticates the client with the server,
sending the user’s credential hash to the remote server before retrieving
the requested file. (Note: transfer of credentials can occur even if the
file is not retrieved.) After obtaining a credential hash, the threat
actors can use password-cracking techniques to obtain the plaintext
password. With valid credentials, the threat actors are able to
masquerade as authorized users in environments that use single-factor
Use of Watering Hole Domains
One of the
threat actors’ primary uses for staging targets was to develop watering
holes. Threat actors compromised the infrastructure of trusted
organizations to reach intended targets.  Approximately half of the
known watering holes are trade publications and informational websites
related to process control, ICS, or critical infrastructure. Although
these watering holes may host legitimate content developed by reputable
organizations, the threat actors altered websites to contain and
reference malicious content. The threat actors used legitimate
credentials to access and directly modify the website content. The threat
request a file icon using SMB from an IP address controlled by the threat
actors. This request accomplishes a similar technique observed in the
spear-phishing documents for credential harvesting. In one instance, the
threat actors added a line of code into the file “header.php”,
a legitimate PHP file that carried out the redirected traffic.
Stage 3: Delivery
compromising staging target networks, the threat actors used
spear-phishing emails that differed from previously reported TTPs. The
spear-phishing emails used a generic contract agreement theme (with the
subject line “AGREEMENT & Confidential”) and contained a generic PDF
document titled ``document.pdf. (Note the inclusion of two single back
ticks at the beginning of the attachment name.) The PDF was not malicious
and did not contain any active code. The document contained a shortened
URL that, when clicked, led users to a website that prompted the user for
email address and password. (Note: no code within the PDF initiated a
reporting, DHS and FBI noted that all of these spear-phishing emails
referred to control systems or process control systems. The threat actors
continued using these themes specifically against intended target
organizations. Email messages included references to common industrial
control equipment and protocols. The emails used malicious Microsoft Word
attachments that appeared to be legitimate résumés or curricula vitae
(CVs) for industrial control systems personnel, and invitations and
policy documents to entice the user to open the attachment.
Stage 4: Exploitation
actors used distinct and unusual TTPs in the phishing campaign directed
at staging targets. Emails contained successive redirects to
http://bit[.]ly/2m0x8IH link, which redirected to
http://tinyurl[.]com/h3sdqck link, which redirected to the ultimate
destination of http://imageliners[.]com/nitel. The imageliner[.]com
website contained input fields for an email address and password mimicking
a login page for a website.
exploiting the intended targets, the threat actors used malicious .docx files to capture user credentials. The documents
retrieved a file through a “file://” connection over SMB using
Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) ports 445 or 139. This connection is
made to a command and control (C2) server—either a server owned by the threat
actors or that of a victim. When a user attempted to authenticate to the
domain, the C2 server was provided with the hash of the password. Local
users received a graphical user interface (GUI) prompt to enter a
username and password, and the C2 received this information over TCP
ports 445 or 139. (Note: a file transfer is not necessary for a loss of
credential information.) Symantec’s report associates this behavior to
the Dragonfly threat actors in this campaign.  (link is external)
Stage 5: Installation
actors leveraged compromised credentials to access victims’ networks
where multi-factor authentication was not used.  To maintain
persistence, the threat actors created local administrator accounts
within staging targets and placed malicious files within intended
Establishing Local Accounts
actors used scripts to create local administrator accounts disguised as
legitimate backup accounts. The initial script “symantec_help.jsp”
contained a one-line reference to a malicious script designed to create
the local administrator account and manipulate the firewall for remote
access. The script was located in “C:\Program Files
(x86)\Symantec\Symantec Endpoint Protection Manager\tomcat\webapps\ROOT\”.
addition, the threat actors created a scheduled task named reset, which
was designed to automatically log out of their newly created account every
achieving access to staging targets, the threat actors installed tools to
carry out operations against intended victims. On one occasion, threat
actors installed the free version of FortiClient,
which they presumably used as a VPN client to connect to intended target
Password Cracking Tools
with the perceived goal of credential harvesting, the threat actors
dropped and executed open source and free tools such as Hydra, SecretsDump, and CrackMapExec.
The naming convention and download locations suggest that these files
were downloaded directly from publically available locations such as GitHub.
Forensic analysis indicates that many of these tools were executed during
the timeframe in which the actor was accessing the system. Of note, the
threat actors installed Python 2.7 on a compromised host of one staging
victim, and a Python script was seen at C:\Users\<Redacted Username>\Desktop\OWAExchange\.
of an intended target’s network, the threat actor downloaded tools from a
remote server. The initial versions of the file names contained .txt
extensions and were renamed to the appropriate extension, typically .exe
example, after gaining remote access to the network of an intended
victim, the threat actor carried out the following actions:
The threat actor connected to
91.183.104[.]150 and downloaded multiple files, specifically the file
The files were renamed to new
extensions, with INST.txt being renamed INST.exe.
The files were executed on the host
and then immediately deleted.
The execution of INST.exe triggered a
download of ntdll.exe, and shortly after, ntdll.exe appeared in the
running process list of the compromised system of an intended target.
The registry value “ntdll” was added to the “HKEY_USERS\<USER
Persistence Through .LNK File
actors manipulated LNK files, commonly known as a Microsoft Window’s
shortcut file, to repeatedly gather user credentials. Default Windows
functionality enables icons to be loaded from a local or remote Windows
repository. The threat actors exploited this built-in Windows functionality
by setting the icon path to a remote server controller by the actors.
When the user browses to the directory, Windows attempts to load the icon
and initiate an SMB authentication session. During this process, the
active user’s credentials are passed through the attempted SMB
Stage 6: Command and Control
actors commonly created web shells on the intended targets’ publicly
accessible email and web servers. The threat actors used three different
filenames (“global.aspx, autodiscover.aspx and index.aspx) for two
different webshells. The difference between the
two groups was the “public string Password” field.
Stage 7: Actions on Objectives
DHS and FBI
identified the threat actors leveraging remote access services and
infrastructure such as VPN, RDP, and Outlook Web Access (OWA). The threat
actors used the infrastructure of staging targets to connect to several
gaining access to intended victims, the threat actors conducted
reconnaissance operations within the network. DHS observed the threat
actors focusing on identifying and browsing file servers within the
intended victim’s network.
actors used Windows’ scheduled task and batch scripts to execute
“scr.exe” and collect additional information from hosts on the network.
The tool “scr.exe” is a screenshot utility that the threat actor used to
capture the screen of systems across the network. The MD5 hash of
“scr.exe” matched the MD5 of ScreenUtil, as
reported in the Symantec Dragonfly 2.0 report.
In at least
two instances, the threat actors used batch scripts labeled “pss.bat” and
“psc.bat” to run the PsExec tool. Additionally,
the threat actors would rename the tool PsExec
observed the threat actors create and modify a text document labeled
“ip.txt” which is believed to have contained a list of host information.
The threat actors used “ip.txt” as a source of hosts to perform
additional reconnaissance efforts. In addition, the text documents
“res.txt” and “err.txt” were observed being created as a result of the
batch scripts being executed. In one instance, “res.txt” contained output
from the Windows’ command “query user” across the network.
to the batch scripts, the threat actors also used scheduled tasks to
collect screenshots with “scr.exe”. In two instances, the scheduled tasks
were designed to run the command “C:\Windows\Temp\scr.exe” with the
argument “C:\Windows\Temp\scr.jpg”. In another instance, the scheduled
task was designed to run with the argument “pss.bat” from the local
Targeting of ICS and SCADA Infrastructure
instances, the threat actors accessed workstations and servers on a
corporate network that contained data output from control systems within
energy generation facilities. The threat actors accessed files pertaining
to ICS or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Based
on DHS analysis of existing compromises, these files were named
containing ICS vendor names and ICS reference documents pertaining to the
organization (e.g., “SCADA WIRING DIAGRAM.pdf” or “SCADA PANEL
actors targeted and copied profile and configuration information for
accessing ICS systems on the network. DHS observed the threat actors
copying Virtual Network Connection (VNC) profiles that contained
configuration information on accessing ICS systems. DHS was able to
reconstruct screenshot fragments of a Human Machine Interface (HMI) that
the threat actors accessed.
depicts a reconstructed screenshot of a Human Machine Interface (HMI)
system that was accessed by the threat actor. This image demonstrates the
threat actor's focus and interest in Industrial Control System (ICS)
Cleanup and Cover Tracks
instances, the threat actors created new accounts on the staging targets
to perform cleanup operations. The accounts created were used to clear
the following Windows event logs: System, Security, Terminal Services,
Remote Services, and Audit. The threat actors also removed applications
they installed while they were in the network along with any logs
produced. For example, the Fortinet client installed at one commercial
facility was deleted along with the logs that were produced from its use.
Finally, data generated by other accounts used on the systems accessed
actors cleaned up intended target networks through deleting created
screenshots and specific registry keys. Through forensic analysis, DHS
determined that the threat actors deleted the registry key associated
with terminal server client that tracks connections made to remote
systems. The threat actors also deleted all batch scripts, output text
documents and any tools they brought into the environment such as
Detection and Response
related to this campaign are provided within the accompanying .csv and .stix files of this alert. DHS and FBI recommend that
network administrators review the IP addresses, domain names, file
hashes, network signatures, and YARA rules provided, and add the IPs to
their watchlists to determine whether malicious
activity has been observed within their organization. System owners are
also advised to run the YARA tool on any system suspected to have been targeted
by these threat actors.
Network Signatures and Host-Based Rules
section contains network signatures and host-based rules that can be used
to detect malicious activity associated with threat actor TTPs. Although
these network signatures and host-based rules were created using a
comprehensive vetting process, the possibility of false positives always
actors’ campaign has affected multiple organizations in the energy,
nuclear, water, aviation, construction, and critical manufacturing
DHS and FBI
encourage network users and administrators to use the following detection
and prevention guidelines to help defend against this activity.
Network and Host-based Signatures
DHS and FBI
recommend that network administrators review the IP addresses, domain names,
file hashes, and YARA and Snort signatures provided and add the IPs to
their watch list to determine whether malicious activity is occurring
within their organization. Reviewing network perimeter netflow will help determine whether a network has
experienced suspicious activity. Network defenders and malware analysts
should use the YARA and Snort signatures provided in the associated YARA
and .txt file to identify malicious activity.
Detections and Prevention Measures
Users and administrators may detect
spear phishing, watering hole, web shell, and remote access activity by
comparing all IP addresses and domain names listed in the IOC packages to
the following locations:
detection system/network intrusion protection system logs,
web content logs,
server resolution logs,
Internet browsing history logs,
intrusion detection system /host-based intrusion prevention system (HIPS)
mail filter logs,
AV mail logs,
Enterprise Server logs, and
To detect the presence of web shells
on external-facing servers, compare IP addresses, filenames, and file
hashes listed in the IOC packages with the following locations:
detection system/ intrusion prevention system logs,
spear-phishing by searching workstation file systems and network-based
user directories, for attachment filenames and hashes found in the IOC
persistence in VDI environments by searching file shares containing user
profiles for all .lnk files.
techniques by the actors by identifying deleted logs. This can be done by
reviewing last-seen entries and by searching for event 104 on Windows
persistence by reviewing all administrator accounts on systems to
identify unauthorized accounts, especially those created recently.
malicious use of legitimate credentials by reviewing the access times of
remotely accessible systems for all users. Any unusual login times should
be reviewed by the account owners.
malicious use of legitimate credentials by validating all remote desktop
and VPN sessions of any user’s credentials suspected to be compromised.
spear-phishing by searching OWA logs for all IP addresses listed in the
spear-phishing through a network by validating all new email accounts
created on mail servers, especially those with external user access.
persistence on servers by searching system logs for all filenames listed
in the IOC packages.
movement and privilege escalation by searching PowerShell logs for all
filenames ending in “.ps1” contained in the IOC packages. (Note: requires
PowerShell version 5, and PowerShell logging must be enabled prior to the
persistence by reviewing all installed applications on critical systems
for unauthorized applications, specifically note FortiClient
VPN and Python 2.7.
persistence by searching for the value of “REG_DWORD 100” at registry
location “HKLM\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows NT\Terminal”.
Services\MaxInstanceCount” and the value of
“REG_DWORD 1” at location “HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\policies\system\dontdisplaylastusername”.
installation by searching all proxy logs for downloads from URIs without
General Best Practices Applicable to this
communication of all versions of SMB and related protocols at the network
boundary by blocking TCP ports 139 and 445 with related UDP port 137. See
the NCCIC/US-CERT publication on SMB Security Best Practices for more
Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) protocol on
border gateway devices on the network.
Monitor VPN logs
for abnormal activity (e.g., off-hour logins, unauthorized IP address
logins, and multiple concurrent logins).
Deploy web and
email filters on the network. Configure these devices to scan for known
bad domain names, sources, and addresses; block these before receiving
and downloading messages. This action will help to reduce the attack
surface at the network’s first level of defense. Scan all emails,
attachments, and downloads (both on the host and at the mail gateway)
with a reputable anti-virus solution that includes cloud reputation
critical networks or control systems from business systems and networks
according to industry best practices.
logging and visibility on ingress and egress points.
Ensure the use of
PowerShell version 5, with enhanced logging enabled. Older versions of
PowerShell do not provide adequate logging of the PowerShell commands an
attacker may have executed. Enable PowerShell module logging, script
block logging, and transcription. Send the associated logs to a
centralized log repository for monitoring and analysis. See the FireEye
blog post Greater Visibility through PowerShell Logging for more information.
prevention, detection, and mitigation strategies outlined in the
NCCIC/US-CERT Alert TA15-314A – Compromised Web Servers and Web Shells –
Threat Awareness and Guidance.
training mechanism to inform end users on proper email and web usage,
highlighting current information and analysis, and including common
indicators of phishing. End users should have clear instructions on how
to report unusual or suspicious emails.
application directory whitelisting. System administrators may implement
application or application directory whitelisting through Microsoft
Software Restriction Policy, AppLocker, or similar software. Safe
defaults allow applications to run from PROGRAMFILES, PROGRAMFILES(X86),
SYSTEM32, and any ICS software folders. All other locations should be
disallowed unless an exception is granted.
connections originating from untrusted external addresses unless an
exception exists; routinely review exceptions on a regular basis for
Store system logs
of mission critical systems for at least one year within a security
information event management tool.
applications are configured to log the proper level of detail for an
incident response investigation.
HIPS or other controls to prevent unauthorized code execution.
Reduce the number
of Active Directory domain and enterprise administrator accounts.
Based on the
suspected level of compromise, reset all user, administrator, and service
account credentials across all local and domain systems.
password policy to require complex passwords for all users.
accounts for network administration do not have external connectivity.
network administrators use non-privileged accounts for email and Internet
authentication for all authentication, with special emphasis on any
external-facing interfaces and high-risk environments (e.g., remote
access, privileged access, and access to sensitive data).
process for logging and auditing activities conducted by privileged
and alerting on privilege escalations and role changes.
conduct searches of publically available information to ensure no
sensitive information has been disclosed. Review photographs and
documents for sensitive data that may have inadvertently been included.
personnel to review logs, including records of alerts.
independent security (as opposed to compliance) risk review.
participate in information sharing programs.
maintain network and system documentation to aid in timely incident
response. Documentation should include network diagrams, asset owners,
type of asset, and an incident response plan.
encourages recipients who identify the use of tools or techniques
discussed in this document to report information to DHS or law
enforcement immediately. To request incident response resources or
technical assistance, contact NCCIC at NCCICcustomerservice@hq.dhs.gov
(link sends e-mail) or 888-282-0870 and the FBI through a local field
office or the FBI’s Cyber Division (CyWatch@fbi.gov (link sends e-mail)or
 Symantec. Dragonfly: Western
energy sector targeted by sophisticated attack group. September 6, 2017.
(link is external)
 CERT CC. Vulnerability Note #672268
 CCIRC CF17-010 UPDATE
2018: Initial Version
product is provided subject to this Notification and this Privacy &
whole information at the US-ICS CERT website.
Read more: https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA18-074A