Note: This Activity Alert uses the MITRE Adversarial Tactics, Techniques, and Common Knowledge (ATT&CK™) framework. See the MITRE ATT&CK for Enterprise and ATT&CK for Industrial Control Systems (ICS) frameworks for all referenced threat actor techniques and mitigations.
This Activity Alert summarizes an incident to which CISA recently responded. It is being shared publicly to promote awareness and encourage mitigations by asset owner operators across all critical infrastructure sectors.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) responded to a cyberattack affecting control and communication assets on the operational technology (OT) network of a natural gas compression facility. A cyber threat actor used a Spearphishing Link [T1192] to obtain initial access to the organization’s information technology (IT) network before pivoting to its OT network. The threat actor then deployed commodity ransomware to Encrypt Data for Impact [T1486] on both networks. Specific assets experiencing a Loss of Availability [T826] on the OT network included human machine interfaces (HMIs), data historians, and polling servers. Impacted assets were no longer able to read and aggregate real-time operational data reported from low-level OT devices, resulting in a partial Loss of View [T829] for human operators. The attack did not impact any programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and at no point did the victim lose control of operations. Although the victim’s emergency response plan did not specifically consider cyberattacks, the decision was made to implement a deliberate and controlled shutdown to operations. This lasted approximately two days, resulting in a Loss of Productivity and Revenue [T828], after which normal operations resumed. CISA is providing this Alert to help administrators and network defenders protect their organizations against this and similar ransomware attacks.
Asset owner operators across all sectors are encouraged to consider the following mitigations using a risk-based assessment strategy.
Planning and Operational Mitigations
- Ensure the organization’s emergency response plan considers the full range of potential impacts that cyberattacks pose to operations, including loss or manipulation of view, loss or manipulation of control, and loss of safety. In particular, response playbooks should identify criteria to distinguish between events requiring deliberate operational shutdown versus low-risk events that allow for operations to continue.
- Exercise the ability to fail over to alternate control systems, including manual operation while assuming degraded electronic communications. Capture lessons learned in emergency response playbooks.
- Allow employees to gain decision-making experience via tabletop exercises that incorporate loss of visibility and control scenarios. Capture lessons learned in emergency response playbooks.
- Identify single points of failure (technical and human) for operational visibility. Develop and test emergency response playbooks to ensure there are redundant channels that allow visibility into operations when one channel is compromised.
- Implement redundant communication capabilities between geographically separated facilities responsible for the operation of a single pipeline asset. Coordinate planning activities across all such facilities.
- Recognize the physical risks that cyberattacks pose to safety and integrate cybersecurity into the organization’s safety training program.
- Ensure the organization’s security program and emergency response plan consider third parties with legitimate need for OT network access, including engineers and vendors.
Technical and Architectural Mitigations
- Implement and ensure robust Network Segmentation [M1030] between IT and OT networks to limit the ability of adversaries to pivot to the OT network even if the IT network is compromised. Define a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that eliminates unregulated communication between the IT and OT networks.
- Organize OT assets into logical zones by taking into account criticality, consequence, and operational necessity. Define acceptable communication conduits between the zones and deploy security controls to Filter Network Traffic [M1037] and monitor communications between zones. Prohibit Industrial Control System (ICS) protocols from traversing the IT network.
- Require Multi-Factor Authentication [M1032] to remotely access the OT and IT networks from external sources.
- Implement regular Data Backup [M1053] procedures on both the IT and OT networks. Ensure that backups are regularly tested and isolated from network connections that could enable the spread of ransomware.
- Ensure user and process accounts are limited through Account Use Policies [M1036], User Account Control [M1052], and Privileged Account Management [M1026]. Organize access rights based on the principles of least privilege and separation of duties.
- Enable strong spam filters to prevent phishing emails from reaching end users. Implement a User Training [M1017] program to discourage users from visiting malicious websites or opening malicious attachments. Filter emails containing executable files from reaching end users.
- Filter Network Traffic [M1037] to prohibit ingress and egress communications with known malicious Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Prevent users from accessing malicious websites using Uniform Resource Locator (URL) blacklists and/or whitelists.
- Update Software [M1051], including operating systems, applications, and firmware on IT network assets. Use a risk-based assessment strategy to determine which OT network assets and zones should participate in the patch management program. Consider using a centralized patch management system.
- Set Anti-virus/Anti-malware [M1049] programs to conduct regular scans of IT network assets using up-to-date signatures. Use a risk-based asset inventory strategy to determine how OT network assets are identified and evaluated for the presence of malware.
- Implement Execution Prevention [M1038] by disabling macro scripts from Microsoft Office files transmitted via email. Consider using Office Viewer software to open Microsoft Office files transmitted via email instead of full Microsoft Office suite applications.
- Implement Execution Prevention [M1038] via application whitelisting, which only allows systems to execute programs known and permitted by security policy. Implement software restriction policies (SRPs) or other controls to prevent programs from executing from common ransomware locations, such as temporary folders supporting popular internet browsers or compression/decompression programs, including the AppData/LocalAppData folder.
- Limit Access to Resources over Network [M1035], especially by restricting Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). If after assessing risks RDP is deemed operationally necessary, restrict the originating sources and require Multi-Factor Authentication [M1032].
- CISA Ransomware One-Pager and Technical Document (CISA, 2019)
- CISA Insights: Ransomware Outbreak (CISA, 2019)
- Pipeline Cybersecurity Initiative (CISA, 2018)
- CISA Webinar: Combating Ransomware (CISA, 2018)
- Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (NIST, 2018)
- Data Integrity: Identifying and Protecting Assets Against Ransomware and Other Destructive Events (NIST, 2018)
- Data Integrity: Detecting and Responding to Ransomware and Other Destructive Events (NIST, 2018)
- Pipeline Security Guidelines (TSA, 2018)
- NIST SP 800-11: Data Integrity: Recovering from Ransomware and Other Destructive Events (NIST, 2017)
- Guide to Industrial Control Systems (ICS) Security (NIST, 2015)
- Oil and Natural Gas Subsector Cybersecurity Capability Maturity Model (DOE, 2014)
CISA encourages recipients of this report to contribute any additional information that they may have related to this threat. For any questions related to this report, please contact CISA at
CISA encourages you to report any suspicious activity, including cybersecurity incidents, possible malicious code, software vulnerabilities, and phishing-related scams. Reporting forms can be found at http://www.us-cert.gov/.