Unearthed: CosmicEnergy, malware for causing Kremlin-style power disruptions

Unearthed: CosmicEnergy, malware for causing Kremlin-style power disruptions
Biz & IT
May 2023

Researchers have uncovered malware designed to disrupt electric power transmission and may have been used by the Russian government in training exercises for creating or responding to cyberattacks on electric grids.

Further Reading

The attacks illustrated the vulnerability of electric power infrastructure and Russia's growing skill at exploiting it. The attack in 2015 used repurposed malware known as BlackEnergy. While the resulting BlackEnergy3 allowed Sandworm to successfully break into the corporate networks of Ukrainian power companies and further encroach on their supervisory control and data acquisition systems, the malware had no means to interface with operational technology gear directly.

The 2016 attack was more sophisticated. It used Industroyer, a piece of malware written from scratch designed to hack electric grid systems. Industroyer was notable for its mastery of the arcane industrial processes used by Ukraine's grid operators. Industroyer natively communicated with those systems to instruct them to de-energize and then re-energize substation lines. As WIRED reporter Andy Greenberg reported:

Further Reading

Industroyer2 contained updates to Industroyer. While ultimately failing, its use in a third attempted attack signaled that the Kremlin's ambitions for hacking Ukrainian electric power infrastructure remained a top priority.

Given the history, the detection of new malware designed to cause widespread power disruptions is of concern and interest to people charged with defending the grids. The concern is ratcheted up further when the malware has potential ties to the Kremlin.

Researchers from Mandiant, the security firm that found CosmicEnergy, wrote:

COSMICENERGY is the latest example of specialized OT malware capable of causing cyber physical impacts, which are rarely discovered or disclosed. What makes COSMICENERGY unique is that based on our analysis, a contractor may have developed it as a red teaming tool for simulated power disruption exercises hosted by Rostelecom-Solar, a Russian cyber security company. Analysis into the malware and its functionality reveals that its capabilities are comparable to those employed in previous incidents and malware, such as INDUSTROYER and INDUSTROYER.V2, which were both malware variants deployed in the past to impact electricity transmission and distribution via IEC-104.

The discovery of COSMICENERGY illustrates that the barriers to entry for developing offensive OT capabilities are lowering as actors leverage knowledge from prior attacks to develop new malware. Given that threat actors use red team tools and public exploitation frameworks for targeted threat activity in the wild, we believe COSMICENERGY poses a plausible threat to affected electric grid assets. OT asset owners leveraging IEC-104 compliant devices should take action to preempt potential in the wild deployment of COSMICENERGY.

Right now, the link is circumstantial and mainly limited to a comment found in the code suggesting it works with software designed for training exercises sponsored by the Kremlin. Consistent with the theory that CosmicEnergy is used in so-called Red Team exercises that simulate hostile hacks, the malware lacks the ability to burrow into a network to obtain environment information that would be necessary to execute an attack. The malware includes hardcoded information object addresses typically associated with power line switches or circuit breakers, but those mappings would have to be customized for a specific attack since they differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.

"For this reason, the particular actions intended by the actor are unclear without further knowledge about the targeted assets," Mandiant researchers wrote.