The rogue code can disable safety systems designed to prevent catastrophic industrial accidents. It was discovered in the Middle East, but the hackers behind it are now targeting companies in North America and other parts of the world, too.
As an experienced cyber first responder, Julian Gutmanis had been called plenty of times before to help companies deal with the fallout from cyberattacks. But when the Australian security consultant was summoned to a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2017, what he found made his blood run cold.
The hackers had deployed malicious software, or malware, that let them take over the plant’s safety instrumented systems. These physical controllers and their associated software are the last line of defense against life-threatening disasters. They are supposed to kick in if they detect dangerous conditions, returning processes to safe levels or shutting them down altogether by triggering things like shutoff valves and pressure-release mechanisms.
The malware made it possible to take over these systems remotely. Had the intruders disabled or tampered with them, and then used other software to make equipment at the plant malfunction, the consequences could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, a flaw in the code gave the hackers away before they could do any harm. It triggered a response from a safety system in June 2017, which brought the plant to a halt. Then in August, several more systems were tripped, causing another shutdown.
The first outage was mistakenly attributed to a mechanical glitch; after the second, the plant’s owners called in investigators. The sleuths found the malware, which has since been dubbed “Triton” (or sometimes “Trisis”) for the Triconex safety controller model that it targeted, which is made by Schneider Electric, a French company.
In a worst-case scenario, the rogue code could have led to the release of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas or caused explosions, putting lives at risk both at the facility and in the surrounding area.
Gutmanis recalls that dealing with the malware at the petrochemical plant, which had been restarted after the second incident, was a nerve-racking experience. “We knew that we couldn’t rely on the integrity of the safety systems,” he says. “It was about as bad as it could get.”
In attacking the plant, the hackers crossed a terrifying Rubicon. This was the first time the cybersecurity world had seen code deliberately designed to put lives at risk. Safety instrumented systems aren’t just found in petrochemical plants; they’re also the last line of defense in everything from transportation systems to water treatment facilities to nuclear power stations.
Triton’s discovery raises questions about how the hackers were able to get into these critical systems. It also comes at a time when industrial facilities are embedding connectivity in all kinds of equipment—a phenomenon known as the industrial internet of things. This connectivity lets workers remotely monitor equipment and rapidly gather data so they can make operations more efficient, but it also gives hackers more potential targets.
Those behind Triton are now on the hunt for new victims. Dragos, a firm that specializes in industrial cybersecurity, and where Gutmanis now works, says it’s seen evidence over the past year or so that the hacking group that built the malware and inserted it into the Saudi plant is using some of the same digital tradecraft to research targets in places outside the Middle East, including North America. And it’s creating new strains of the code in order to compromise a broader range of safety instrumented systems.
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