Many governments have designated their public transportation systems as part of their national critical infrastructure—vital to a country’s economy and closely identified with its prestige. As such, these systems can face a range of threats from both financially and politically motivated cyberthreat actors, including: disruptive and destructive attacks, particularly ransomware attacks; cyber-physical threats that could endanger people or property; supply chain risks; fraud; vulnerabilities associated with the integration of operational technologies (OT) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies; and cyber-enabled information operations that could discredit an organization or cause panic. Unfortunately, a blurring of boundaries between criminal activity, espionage and hacktivism can make it difficult to identify threat actors.
With this blog, we intend to help intelligence analysts and information security specialists in the transit field better inform their own analyses on developing threat situations, drawing on iDefense insight to aid investigations, risk assessments, attribution and mitigation efforts; as well as help management and executive leadership assess their security posture and the risks associated with these threats to make operational and policy decisions.
Cyberthreats can affect all stages of transit system value chain
As outlined below, threats to the transit sector value chain are many.
Threats to transit systems as critical infrastructure
Many transit systems are critical infrastructure providers and, as such, could become targets for both politically and financially motivated cyberthreat activity. In fact, geopolitically motivated threat actors have targeted transportation systems in the past as part of broader attempts to discredit or hobble a country or region. For example, SANDFISH (reportedly a Russian military hacker group) allegedly carried out attacks against Ukrainian transportation entities. In both the December 2016 Crashoverride/Industroyer  attack and the June 2017 Petya.A/NotPetya pseudo-ransomware attack, SANDFISH disrupted Ukraine’s railroad company and its Ministry of Infrastructure. Similarly, the October 2017 BadRabbit attack, which was also attributed to SANDFISH, disrupted Kyiv's metro rail system, the Odessa International Airport, and the Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine.
Since 2018, ransomware operators have increasingly targeted local governments, services and infrastructure. Incidents from late 2019 and early 2020 affected companies in transportation and related sectors:
- Logistics and shipping companies: the Toll Group (by NetWalker and Nefilim ransomware families);  Pitney Bowes (Ryuk); Henning Harders (Maze).
- Rail vehicle construction: Stadler, likely ransomware or other destructive malware.
- Maritime cargo: unnamed U.S. maritime facility (Ryuk), affecting industrial control systems (ICS) that monitor and control cargo transfers.
- Transportation departments: Colorado Department of Transportation (SamSam ransomware, reportedly, Iran-based actors); Texas Department of Transportation (unknown).
Criminals have likely targeted critical infrastructure providers because their operators understand their services to be essential, thus making them likely to pay ransoms. Similarly, several U.S. municipalities, hospitals and other organizations providing essential public services have chosen to pay the ransom.
Some ransomware threat actors have added a new level of extortion, stealing sensitive information from their victims and threatening to publicize or sell the data if ransoms are not paid. At least one such attack affected the transportation sector: An account associated with the BitPaymer ransomware claimed to have breached a Midwestern freight company and warned that it exfiltrated company data, implying that it might sell or leak the data if the company failed to pay the ransom. Whether they paid has not been publicly reported. RailWorks, a North American rail infrastructure provider, reported in January 2020 that ransomware actors may have gained access to personal employee information. For more on this trend, read the Accenture Cyber Defense blog “Extortion Entrepreneurs: How cybercriminals are bullying businesses.”
Theft of valuable intellectual property or personal data
Criminals deploy tools and tactics such as commodity information stealers, bank Trojans and business e-mail compromises (BEC) to attempt to steal funds or exfiltrate personally identifiable information (PII), credit card data or other information they can monetize.
iDefense’s survey of underground criminal forums and marketplaces between October 2017 and March 2020 has shown malicious actors selling access to compromised databases and offering services for loading funds into transit system accounts and for booking travel within Canada and the United States at discounted rates. In addition, misconfigured databases of passengers’ travel details, such as data from 146 million Wi-Fi users at UK railway stations, could lie open for threat actors to exploit.
Threat actors have also taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, sending coronavirus-themed phishing emails to shipping companies and hijacking email addresses of trucking companies to send fake employment forms to laid-off workers and harvest their banking information. In addition, financially or politically motivated threat actors could carry out industrial espionage to steal confidential manufacturing or operating information from transportation-related businesses. Threat actors using the NetSupport Manager remote access tool (RAT) have targeted transportation-related companies, among others. Remote access to company systems could potentially allow threat actors either to steal financial or proprietary information or disrupt processes. The xHunt tool used against Middle Eastern shipping entities allows monitoring of infected systems and data exfiltration. FakeSpy, a malicious Android application capable of SMS phishing and credential stealing, featured a spoofed website of a Japanese express delivery service company.
Over the past several years, iDefense has also observed a drastic increase in malicious actors selling access to compromised corporate networks. One such actor, nicknamed “FXMSP,” posted an ad in December 2017, offering access to the “entire” network of the British-Columbia-based TMS Transportation company’s network (see Exhibit 2). iDefense has observed other threat actors selling access to compromised systems of transportation and logistics companies. The explosion in sales of remote access has simplified the process of carrying out targeted attacks, and allows threat actors to steal and alter data at will and potentially, gain access to OT systems.
Integration of OT and IoT technology with IT brings risks
The integration of IT with OT in transit systems—whether in refueling systems, signals, switches, sensors, devices for data monitoring and remote control, or communications-based train controls—adds new threat considerations. Cybersecurity professionals are used to working with IT systems but are not always used to the special needs of OT, some of which follow:
- Limited data capacity and computing power.
- Critical safety operations.
- Necessity for high availability and integrity.
- A long technology lifecycle, which results in unsupported legacy infrastructure.
- Essential equipment and operations that are remotely deployed at the network’s edge.
- Continuous operation needs, which hinder rapid patching and slow responses to newly discovered threats; challenges with patch management in the transport sector are especially acute in light of the recent ransomware epidemic, as a representative of Thales warned in a talk at a 2018 conference.
In the October 2019 book "Cyber Resilience of Railway Signaling Systems," Russian ICS and supervisory control and data system (SCADA) cybersecurity specialist Sergey Gordeychik detailed railway-related OT vulnerabilities. Gordeychik explained that attacks on computer-based control systems (CBCS) generally affect efficiency more than safety, because most threat actors cannot bypass the functional safety mechanisms that slow or stop trains in dangerous situations. However, threat actors with low sophistication levels could carry out distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks or other types of attacks that force a computer-based interlocking (CBI) system to reboot; such attackers could also display incorrect traffic positions on a yardmaster's workstation. Such disruptions could lead to automatic slowdowns or the need for manual control, resulting in train service delays.
In addition, Gordeychik provided examples of how threat actors can take advantage of vulnerabilities in railway automation and telemechanics devices. Some of these can be summarized as follows:
- An attacker who can gain physical access to a local communications cable can intercept information and inject malicious commands, potentially controlling trackside devices and falsifying diagnostics data.
- If a CBI system is integrated with a station's local area network (LAN), attackers could use ethernet vulnerabilities and any compromised device in the station's network to intercept, block or modify local network traffic.
- Vulnerabilities in a passenger Wi-Fi access point could open the door for attackers' access to locomotive communications or trackside devices.
- The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) for railways (GSM-R), a 2G mobile communications network widely used in Europe, has vulnerabilities, as it allows remote control using short message service (SMS) messages and often uses default passwords.
- Even when an organization properly introduces safety practices, lapses in practice can introduce vulnerabilities, such as when a contractor temporarily disables firewall filtering rules to test a new system or when an operator bypasses the limited "kiosk mode" on their workstations to use applications that the kiosk mode does not allow.
In addition to the vulnerabilities described by Gordeychik, some transit operators use Building Automation and Control networks (BACnets) to control services in and around railways stations. These have a number of vulnerabilities, including a buffer overflow vulnerability in a Delta Controls BACnet controller, tracked by CVE-2019-9569, that could allow remote control of the device. Even without an exploit, actors can remotely control BACnet systems connected to the Internet by using widely available tools.
iDefense looked in underground criminal marketplaces and forums for a sample of keywords related to communications-based train control and other OT technologies and did not find any, suggesting that the type of threat actors who communicate about such technologies are doing so in technical contexts, such as the book cited above, or in closed channels. However, as mentioned, cybercriminals and insiders do sell access to the systems of all kinds of organizations, which could include a transit company or any of its partners or vendors.
Supply chain vulnerabilities
A study of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority procurements warned that vendors and third-party contractors, such as contractors who maintain the automated control systems in railroad cars, could open such systems to cyberthreats.
iDefense has also observed threat actors on underground forums selling access to the networks of IT providers with clients in the transportation sector.
Attacks on telecommunications providers could halt operations; in October 2017, DDoS attacks on Internet service providers used by Swedish transportation organizations disrupted train management and ticket booking systems. Similarly, attacks on electricity suppliers could affect transit service, and attacks to manipulate information broadcast by a transit operator’s advertising partners or by a developer making an app with the operator’s scheduling data could prove disruptive.
Hall of mirrors
State-backed threat actors have sometimes hidden behind the masks of hacktivists who carry out defacements, DDoS attacks or other disruptive attacks on supposedly idealistic grounds. For example, Russian military operatives used hacktivist personas to publicize misinformation leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections, and the Iranian government has used hacktivists-for-hire for deniable operations. State actors have also masked themselves as ordinary criminals, most famously in the Petya/NotPetya pseudo-ransomware attacks on Ukraine in 2017.
Some ransomware is incapable of collecting a ransom; this was the case with the LockerGoga ransomware attackers used in the NorskHydro attack of 2019; and, it often appears that malicious actors use ransomware attacks to clean up evidence of some other crime, such as data exfiltration. Cybercriminals sometimes act under the wing of state intelligence services, doing favors for them in return for the ability to carry out their crimes unpunished. A top member of the Russian group HIGHROLLERS (a.k.a. TA505 and EvilCorp), which controls the Dridex malware, Maksim Yakubets, has conducted cyber-enabled operations for Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), according to the U.S. Treasury Department; this relationship raises the possibility that some of the information actors stole using Dridex could end up in FSB hands.
These actors appear to be carrying out a mix of financially and politically motivated operations that could be called “hybrid” operations. It is sometimes difficult to detect and attribute patterns of activity that blur the boundaries in this way.
Major espionage and cybercriminal threat groups
Espionage and state-sponsored cyberthreat groups from North Korea, Russia, and Iran are believed to have affected the transportation sector or its ICS or critical infrastructure, as Exhibit 3 illustrates.
Exhibit 4 shows major cybercriminal groups whose targets have included the transportation sector or its ICS or critical infrastructure.
To help mitigate against the growing threat of ransomware, iDefense suggests:
- Keeping operating systems, software and anti-virus products up to date.
- Disabling unnecessary RDP connections.
- Training staff to protect themselves against phishing attacks
- Maintaining regular backups of system data.
- More steps listed in our 2019 Cyber Threatscape Report.
To help mitigate against other threats against the transit sector, iDefense suggests:
- Reviewing and enforcing policies on backups, patching, access controls, encryption and passwords.
- Educating employees about the risks of disinformation, phishing and spear phishing.
- Monitoring underground marketplaces for stolen company data.
- Confirming remediation of vulnerabilities that the cyberthreat groups in this blog have historically exploited.
- Holding pre-planning meetings with internal stakeholders and existing partners.
- Engaging with industry peers, law enforcement and government liaisons.
- Following government guidance on mitigating ransomware risks and on minimizing the risks associated with Dridex, the commodity malware that often serves as a stepping stone for ransomware attacks.
- Securing cross-domain connectivity and dispersed infrastructure.
- Collaborating with government, suppliers and other critical infrastructure sectors on which the transportation sector relies.
- Planning for the worst-case scenario and considering potential extortion scenarios, putting in place business continuity and disaster recovery plans, ensuring that incident response capabilities are readily available, having a clear media strategy, and running regular exercises with all relevant stakeholders.
- Subscribing to a threat intelligence service. For more information on how the iDefense team works to track and monitor cyber threats and attacks, please visit our cyber threat intelligence services overview
- Obtaining a vulnerability assessment. Accenture Security’s Industrial Control System Fusion Center in Houston, Texas brings together threat intelligence and vulnerability assessment services.
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