Context for the Claim of a Cyber Attack on the Israeli Electric Grid

Dr. Yuval Steinitz, the Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water resources, announced today at the CyberTech Conference in Tel Aviv that a “severe cyber attack” was ongoing on the Israel National Electric Authority. His statements were delivered as a closing session at the conference and noted that a number of computers at the Israeli electricity authorities had been taken offline to counter the incidentthe previous day.

There are few details that have been offered and thus it is far too early for any detailed analysis. However, this blog post attempts to add some clarity to the situation with context in how this type of behavior has been observed in the past.

First, Dr. Steinitz mentioned that computers had been taken offline. This discussion around the choice by the defenders to take systems offline indicates a normal procedure in terms of incident response and malware containment. The intention of the incident responders cannot be known at this time but this activity is consistent with standard procedures for cleaning malware off of infected systems and attempting to contain an infection so that it cannot spread to other systems. Taking systems offline is not preferable but the fact that systems were removed from the network does not necessarily make the incident more severe. On the contrary, this indicates that incident responders were able to respond early enough with planned procedures to counter the incidentprior to an impact.

Second, there have so far been no outages reported or any such impact of the “attack” quantified. It appears, only from what has been reported so far, that the use of the term “cyber attack” here is very liberal. Malware infections in industrial control system (ICS) networks are not uncommon. Many of these environments use traditional information technology systems such as Windows operating systems to host applications such as human machine interfaces (HMI) and data historians. These types of systems are as vulnerable, if not more so, than traditional information technology systems and malware infections are not novel. With regards to historical case studies it is far more common for incidental malware to lead to system failures than targeted attacks. For example, the Slammer malware reportedlycaused slow downs in the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant’s networks and crashed a utility’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) networkin 2003. However, in terms of targeted/intentional intrusions leading to outages we only have three validated public case studies: Stuxnet, the German Steelworks facility, and the Ukrainian power grid. It is these targeted intrusions where an outage occurred that could be considered an attack. Often times people unintentionally abuse the phrase “cyber attack” when it is more appropriate to classify the activity as adversary intrusions, compromises, or espionage activity. To understand what constitutes an actual attack it is helpful to read theICS Cyber Kill Chain.

Third, there has been an increased focus on cyber security in Israel both as it relates to the cyber security of national infrastructure and in the technology companies that are making Israel an enticing locationforventure capital funding. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a presentation to the World Economic Forum where the center of his discussion was cyber security. This was followed by a Februaryannouncement that the Cabinet in Israel approved a plan for a comprehensivenational cyber defense authority. With the increased focus on cyber security it is entirely possible that Israel had taken a proactive approach to looking through their infrastructure networks to identify threats. In the course of this action it may have found malware that may be targeted or incidental in nature. In either case, from what is being reported right now it appears unlikely that this is an actual attack and more likely it is the discovery of malware. However, it is important to watch for any developmentsin what is being reported.

Israel has threats that it must consider on a day-to-day basis. Critical infrastructure is constantly the focus of threats as well although there are a lack of validated case-studies to uncover the type of activity much of the community feels is going on in large quantities. However, reports of cyber attacks must be met with caution and demands for proof due to the technical and cultural challenges that face the ICS security community. Simply put, there is a lack of expertise in the quantity required alongside the type of data needed to validate and assess all of the true attacks on infrastructure while appropriately classifying lesser events. Given the current barriers present in the ICS community the claims of attacks should be watched diligently, taken seriously, but approached with caution and investigated fully.

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First posted on the SANS ICS blog.


Robert M. Lee is a fellow in the Cybersecurity Initiative. He is Founder and CEO of the cybersecurity company Dragos, Inc., a SANS Institute course author and researcher, and a PhD candidate at Kings College London.