[BreachExchange] In County Crippled by Hurricane, Water Utility Targeted in Ransomware Attack
destry at riskbasedsecurity.com
Tue Oct 16 15:29:08 EDT 2018
The Emotet Trojan is behind a crippling ransomware attack that hit the
Onslow Water and Sewer Authority.
A “critical water utility” has been targeted in a recent ransomware
attack, significantly impeding its ability to provide service in the
week after Hurricane Florence hit the East Coast of the U.S.
The Onslow Water and Sewer Authority (ONWASA) said in a Monday release
that a “sophisticated ransomware attack… has left the utility with
limited computer capabilities.” While customer data was not
compromised as part of the attack, the lack of computing ability will
impact the timeliness of service from ONWASA “for several weeks to
“We are in the middle of another disaster following Hurricane Florence
and tropical storm Michael,” CEO Jeff Hudson said in a video posted on
Facebook, speaking to employees on the matter. “With a very
sophisticated attack they penetrated our defenses, just as they
penetrated the city of Atlanta and Mecklenburg county.”
ONWASA has received one email from the cybercriminals, who it said may
be based in a foreign country: “The email is consistent with
ransomware attacks of other governments and corporations. Ransom
monies would be used to fund criminal and perhaps terrorist activities
in other countries.”
The amount of ransom demanded was not specified by ONWASA. A team of
local, state and federal agencies are cooperating to restore the
utility, the company said.
On Oct. 4, ONWASA first saw indications of the virus known as Emotet,
a well-known polymorphic malware that has been popping up in the news
for years, on its network.
Emotet stands out in its ability to self-propagate, meaning that once
it’s on a computer, the malware downloads and executes a spreader
module. That module has a password list that it uses to brute-force
access to other machines on the same network. Emotet can also spread
to additional computers using a spam module that it installs on
infected victim machines.
Network-spreading particularly poses as a headache for organizations,
because it means that victims can become infected without even needing
to click on a malicious link or attachment.
While the utility said it has “multiple layers of computer protection
in place” – including firewalls and AV software – they were unable to
stop the penetration. And, while the virus was at first thought to be
under control, it persisted.
Then, at what may have been a timed event, the malware launched a
sophisticated virus known as RYUK at 3 a.m. on Oct. 13.
Emotet has been around for years – most recently, in early July,
officials in Portsmouth, N.H. said that the malware cost them $156,000
to remove after spreading to the city’s entire computer network via
Tricky Emotet first emerged targeting banking credentials; but lately,
researchers have spotted the trojan changing its tactics and its
targets, catching the eye of both researchers and law enforcement this
“Despite its age, Emotet is far from just barely alive,” researchers
with Check Point Research said in a report. “It spreads itself
abundantly through spam emails, network shares and the Rig exploit
kit. While some features have stayed constant, during the four years
of Emotet’s lifecycle, modules have come and gone.”
A technical alert from the Department of Homeland Security in July
said that Emotet infections on average cost state and local
governments up to $1 million per incident to remediate.
While there was no indication of who the threat actors might be behind
this particular incident, earlier this year, Symantec researchers
linked Emotet to threat group Mealybug, a cybercrime actor that has
been active since at least 2014.
Mealybug seems to have both expanded the trojan’s capabilities and its
targets to become what Symantec researchers call an “end-to-end
service for delivery of threats.”
“Mealybug’s shift from distributing its own banking trojan to a
relatively small number of targets, to acting primarily as a global
distributor of other groups’ threats, is interesting, and backs up an
observation we made… that threat actors are evolving and refining
their techniques and business model to maximize profits,” Symantec
researchers said in a blog post.
The Fallout: Issues With Hurricane Relief
ONWASA said it would not pay the ransom, instead rebuilding its
databases and computer systems from the ground up: “ONWASA will not
negotiate with criminals nor bow to their demands. The FBI agrees that
ransoms should not be paid.”
The company provides water and sewer service to all of Onslow county
(except Jacksonville residents). That county is one of many in the
southeast region of the U.S. to be grappling with fallout from
Hurricane Florence, a storm that made landfall near Wrightsville
Beach, N.C. in September. Despite ranked Category 1 when it landed,
the slow-moving nature of the storm translated into epic flooding.
When the storm first hit, entire streets and cars were washed away by
floodwaters, while county buildings sustained major damage from water.
Weeks after, North Carolina is still struggling to rebuild. Onslow
county’s schools are still closed this week due to major damage from
In the midst of these issues, after the ransomware attack the utility
must operate manually while it rebuilds its system.
That means that service orders, account-creation, connections,
disconnections, development review, backflow programs, engineering and
human resources will all be operating manually until the computer
systems are restored, ONWASA said.
Meanwhile, while the phone service remains active, email service has
been interrupted for most of the utility.
“Whether they were targeted by a sophisticated adversary or just
caught in a blast of malware looking to exploit people recovering from
a devastating weather event, sadly, this is not that surprising,”
Katherine Gronberg, vice president of Government Affairs at ForeScout,
told Threatpost. “Smaller utilities have limited resources and
cybersecurity capabilities, and the federal government has already
acknowledged the need to do more to assist them. This incident calls
to mind other efforts currently afoot in Congress and will likely
entail some difficult decisions at all levels, from policymakers to
power producers to consumers.”
Despite the painstaking effort behind rebuilding its computer systems,
CEO Hudson said in the Facebook video that there is no expectation
that paying the ransom would forestall repeated future attacks.
“Do your worst; we’ll come back from this… that’s what we’re going to
tell the cybercriminals and the world,” he said.
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