New clues show how Russia’s grid hackers aimed for physical destruction

Transmission lines.

Enlarge (credit: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

For nearly three years, the December 2016 cyberattack on the Ukrainian power grid has presented a menacing puzzle. Two days before Christmas that year, Russian hackers planted a unique specimen of malware in the network of Ukraine's national grid operator, Ukrenergo. Just before midnight, they used it to open every circuit breaker in a transmission station north of Kyiv. The result was one of the most dramatic attacks in Russia's years-long cyberwar against its western neighbor, an unprecedented, automated blackout across a broad swath of Ukraine's capital.

But an hour later, Ukrenergo's operators were able to simply switch the power back on again. Which raised the question: Why would Russia's hackers build a sophisticated cyberweapon and plant it in the heart of a nation's power grid only to trigger a one-hour blackout?

A new theory offers a potential answer. Researchers at the industrial-control system cybersecurity firm Dragos have reconstructed a timeline of the 2016 blackout attack [PDF] based on a reexamination of the malware’s code and network logs pulled from Ukrenergo’s systems. They say that hackers intended not merely to cause a short-lived disruption of the Ukrainian grid but to inflict lasting damage that could have led to power outages for weeks or even months. That distinction would make the blackout malware one of only three pieces of code ever spotted in the wild aimed at not just disrupting physical equipment but destroying it, as Stuxnet did in Iran in 2009 and 2010 and as the malware Triton was designed to do in a Saudi Arabian oil refinery in 2017.

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600,000 GPS trackers for people and pets are using 123456 as a password

Dog plush toy with tracker attached.

Enlarge (credit: Shenzhen i365 Tech)

An estimated 600,000 GPS trackers for monitoring the location of kids, seniors, and pets contain vulnerabilities that open users up to a host of creepy attacks, researchers from security firm Avast have found.

The $25 to $50 devices are small enough to wear on a necklace or stash in a pocket or car dash compartment. Many also include cameras and microphones. They’re marketed on Amazon and other online stores as inexpensive ways to help keep kids, seniors, and pets safe. Ignoring the ethics of attaching a spying device to the people we love, there’s another reason for skepticism. Vulnerabilities in the T8 Mini GPS Tracker Locator and almost 30 similar model brands from the same manufacturer, Shenzhen i365 Tech, make users vulnerable to eavesdropping, spying, and spoofing attacks that falsify users’ true location.

Researchers at Avast Threat Labs found that ID numbers assigned to each device were based on its International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI. Even worse, during manufacturing, devices were assigned precisely the same default password of 123456. The design allowed the researchers to find more than 600,000 devices actively being used in the wild with that password. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the devices transmitted all data in plaintext using commands that were easy to reverse engineer.

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Google Play app with 100 million downloads executed secret payloads

Google Play app with 100 million downloads executed secret payloads

Enlarge (credit: NurPhoto | Getty Images)

The perils of Google Play are once again on display with the discovery of an app with 100 million downloads that contained a malicious component that downloaded secret payloads onto infected Android devices.

Throughout most of its life, CamScanner was a legitimate app that provided useful functions for scanning and managing documents, researchers from antivirus provider Kaspersky Lab said on Tuesday. To make money, the developers displayed ads and offered in-app purchases.

Then, at some point things changed. The app was updated to add an advertising library that contained a malicious module. This component was what’s known as a “Trojan dropper,” meaning it regularly downloaded encrypted code from a developer-designated server at https://abc.abcdserver[.]com and then decrypted and executed it on infected devices. The module, which Kaspersky Lab researchers named Trojan-Dropper.AndroidOS.Necro.n, could download and execute whatever the developers wanted at any time. The researchers said that they have previously found Trojan-Dropper.AndroidOS.Necro.n lurking inside apps that are preinstalled on some phones sold in China.

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Self-driving car service open sources new tool for securing firmware

Self-driving car service open sources new tool for securing firmware

Enlarge (credit: Collin Mulliner)

Developing and maintaining secure firmware for tablets, cars, and IoT devices is hard. Often, the firmware is initially developed by a third party rather than in-house. And it can be tough as projects move from inception and prototyping to full-force engineering and finally to deployment and production.

Now, an engineer at self-driving car service Cruise is easing the pain with the release of FwAnalyzer, a tool he and his Cruise colleagues developed themselves. Collin Mulliner spent more than a decade scouring firmware found in phones and other devices before becoming Cruise’s principal security engineer. He helped write FWAnalyzer to provide continuous automated firmware analysis that could aid engineers at any phase of the code’s lifecycle.

“It's peace of mind that there's constant analysis,” Mulliner said of the tool, which he’ll be discussing at a panel on Wednesday at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. “At any step in development… it runs checks.”

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