A group of cyberattackers has been planting malware in the industrial control system (ICS) software of energy companies in the U.S. and Europe to spy on their operations, according to researchers at security Relevant Products/Services firm Symantec.

Among the targets of the group of attackers, identified by Symantec as Dragonfly, were energy grid operators, major electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators, and energy industry industrial equipment providers. The majority of the victims were located in the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Poland.

Known by other security vendors as Energetic Bear, the Dragonfly Group appears to have been in operation since at least 2011 and maybe even longer. Dragonfly initially targeted defense and aviation companies in the U.S. and Canada before shifting its focus mainly to U.S and European energy firms in early 2013.

State-Sponsored Hackers?

Analysis of the timestamps on the malware used by the attackers indicates that the group mostly worked between Monday and Friday, mainly in a nine-hour period that corresponded to a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. working day in the UTC +4 time zone. Based on that information, it is likely the attackers are based in Eastern Europe and are a state-sponsored operation, Symantec said.

The Dragonfly Group displays a high degree of technical capability, Symantec said in a blog post on Tuesday. The attackers have not yet used their cyberespionage tools to inflict serious damage or disrupt energy supplies in the affected countries. But it is believed to be only a matter of time.

Worst May Be Coming

“The group is able to mount attacks through multiple vectors and compromise numerous third-party Web sites in the process,” Symantec said. “Dragonfly has targeted multiple organizations in the energy sector over a long period of time. Its current main motive appears to be cyberespionage, with potential for sabotage a definite secondary capability.”

The Dragonfly group is well resourced, with a range of malware tools at its disposal and is capable of launching attacks through a number of different points. Its most ambitious attack Relevant Products/Services infected the software of a number of industrial control system equipment providers with a remote access-type Trojan.

This caused those companies to install the malware when they downloaded software updates for computers running ICS equipment, giving the attackers a way into the organizations’ networks, as well as giving them the means to mount sabotage operations against infected ICS computers, Symantec researchers said.

The attacks by Dragonfly follow those of Stuxnet, the first known major malware campaign to target ICS systems. However, Stuxnet only targeted the Iranian nuclear program, with sabotage as its primary goal. Dragonfly, on the other hand, seems to have a much broader focus with espionage and persistent access as its main focus, with sabotage an option for the future.

Two Malware Tools

In addition to compromising ICS software, Dragonfly has also used spam e-mail campaigns and watering-hole attacks to infect targeted organizations. The group has used two main malware tools: Backdoor.Oldrea, a custom piece of malware, either written by or for the attackers, and Trojan.Karagany.

Before it published its findings, Symantec notified affected victims and relevant national authorities, including the Computer Emergency Response Team centers that handle and respond to Internet security incidents.