Washington, D.C.–The Department of Justice unsealed two indictments Thursday charging four people, all Russian nationals who worked for the Russian government, with attempting, supporting, and conducting computer intrusions that together, in two separate conspiracies, targeted the global energy sector between 2012 and 2018.
The hacking campaigns targeted thousands of computers, at hundreds of companies and organizations, in approximately 135 countries, federal prosecutors said.
A June 2021 indictment returned in the District of Columbia, the United States versus Evgeny Viktorovich Gladkikh, concerns the alleged efforts of an employee of a Russian Ministry of Defense research institute and his co-conspirators to damage critical infrastructure outside the United States, thereby causing two separate emergency shutdowns at a foreign targeted facility. The conspiracy subsequently attempted to hack the computers of a U.S. company that managed similar critical infrastructure entities in the United States.
An August 2021 indictment returned in the District of Kansas, the United States versus Pavel Aleksandrovich Akulov, et al., details allegations about a separate, two-phased campaign undertaken by three officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and their co-conspirators to target and compromise the computers of hundreds of entities related to the energy sector worldwide. Access to such systems would have provided the Russian government the ability to, among other things, disrupt and damage such computer systems at a future time of its choosing.
“Russian state-sponsored hackers pose a serious and persistent threat to critical infrastructure both in the United States and around the world,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “Although the criminal charges unsealed today reflect past activity, they make crystal clear the urgent ongoing need for American businesses to harden their defenses and remain vigilant.”
“The FBI, along with our federal and international partners, is laser-focused on countering the significant cyber threat Russia poses to our critical infrastructure,” said FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate. “We will continue to identify and quickly direct response assets to victims of Russian cyber activity; to arm our partners with the information that they need to deploy their own tools against the adversary, and to attribute the misconduct and impose consequences both seen and unseen.”
In addition to unsealing these charges, the U.S. government is taking action to enhance private sector network defense efforts and disrupt similar malicious activity.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has already released numerous Technical Alerts, ICS Alerts, and Malware Analysis Reports regarding Russia’s malign cyber activities, including the campaigns, officials said.
In the United States versus Evgeny Viktorovich Gladkikh – the defendant installed backdoors and launched malware designed to compromise the safety of energy facilities
In June 2021, a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia returned an indictment charging Evgeny Viktorovich Gladkikh, 36, a computer programmer employed by an institute affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense, for his role in a campaign to hack industrial control systems (ICS) and operational technology (OT) of global energy facilities using techniques designed to enable future physical damage with potentially catastrophic effects.
According to the indictment, between May and September 2017, the defendant and co-conspirators hacked the systems of a foreign refinery and installed malware, which cyber security researchers have referred to as “Triton” or “Trisis,” on a safety system produced by Schneider Electric, a multinational corporation. The conspirators designed the Triton malware to prevent the refinery’s safety systems from functioning (i.e., by causing the ICS to operate in an unsafe manner while appearing to be operating normally), granting the defendant and his co-conspirators the ability to cause damage to the refinery, injury to anyone nearby, and economic harm. However, when the defendant deployed the Triton malware, it caused a fault that led the refinery’s Schneider Electric safety systems to initiate two automatic emergency shutdowns of the refinery’s operations. Between February and July 2018, the conspirators researched similar refineries in the United States, which were owned by a U.S. company, and unsuccessfully attempted to hack the U.S. company’s computer systems.
The three-count indictment alleges that Gladkikh was an employee of the State Research Center of the Russian Federation FGUP Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics’ Applied Developments Center, (ADC). On its website, which was modified after the Triton attack became public, TsNIIKhM described itself as the Russian Ministry of Defense’s leading research organization. The ADC, in turn, publicly asserted that it engaged in research concerning information technology-related threats to critical infrastructure (i.e., that its research was defensive in nature).
Gladkikh is charged with one count of conspiracy to cause damage to an energy facility, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, one count of attempt to cause damage to an energy facility, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The FSB hackers, Pavel Aleksandrovich Akulov, 36, Mikhail Mikhailovich Gavrilov, 42, and Marat Valeryevich Tyukov, 39 – undertook years-long effort to target and compromise computer systems of energy sector companies. The men were members of a Center 16 operational unit known among cybersecurity researchers as “Dragonfly,” “Berzerk Bear,” “Energetic Bear,” and “Crouching Yeti.”
On Aug. 26, 2021, a federal grand jury in Kansas City, Kansas, returned an indictment charging three computer hackers, all of whom were residents and nationals of the Russian Federation (Russia) and officers in Military Unit 71330 or “Center 16” of the FSB, with violating U.S. laws related to computer fraud and abuse, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and causing damage to the property of an energy facility.
The indictment alleges that, between 2012 and 2017, Akulov, Gavrilov, Tyukov and their co-conspirators, engaged in computer intrusions, including supply chain attacks, in furtherance of the Russian government’s efforts to maintain surreptitious, unauthorized, and persistent access to the computer networks of companies and organizations in the international energy sector, including oil and gas firms, nuclear power plants, and utility and power transmission companies. Specifically, the conspirators targeted the software and hardware that controls equipment in power generation facilities, known as ICS or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. Access to such systems would have provided the Russian government the ability to, among other things, disrupt and damage such computer systems at a future time of its choosing.
According to the indictment, the energy sector campaign involved two phases. In the first phase, which took place between 2012 and 2014 and is commonly referred to by cyber security researchers as “Dragonfly” or “Havex,” the conspirators engaged in a supply chain attack, compromising the computer networks of ICS/SCADA system manufacturers and software providers and then hiding malware – known publicly as “Havex” – inside legitimate software updates for such systems. After unsuspecting customers downloaded Havex-infected updates, the conspirators would use the malware to, among other things, create backdoors into infected systems and scan victims’ networks for additional ICS/SCADA devices. Through these and other efforts, including spear-phishing and “watering hole” attacks, the conspirators installed malware on more than 17,000 unique devices in the United States and abroad, including ICS/SCADA controllers used by power and energy companies.
In the second phase, which took place between 2014 and 2017 and is commonly referred to as “Dragonfly 2.0,” the conspirators transitioned to more targeted compromises that focused on specific energy sector entities and individuals and engineers who worked with ICS/SCADA systems. As alleged in the indictment, the conspirators’ tactics included spear-phishing attacks targeting more than 3,300 users at more than 500 U.S. and international companies and entities, in addition to U.S. government agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In some cases, the spear-phishing attacks were successful, including in the compromise of the business network (i.e., involving computers not directly connected to ICS/SCADA equipment) of the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation (Wolf Creek) in Burlington, Kansas, which operates a nuclear power plant. Moreover, after establishing an illegal foothold in a particular network, the conspirators typically used that foothold to penetrate further into the network by obtaining access to other computers and networks at the victim entity.
During the Dragonfly 2.0 phase, the conspirators also undertook a watering hole attack by compromising servers that hosted websites commonly visited by ICS/SCADA system and other energy sector engineers through publicly known vulnerabilities in content management software. When the engineers browsed to a compromised website, the conspirators’ hidden scripts deployed malware designed to capture login credentials onto their computers.
The conspiracy’s hacking campaign targeted victims in the United States and in more than 135 other countries.
Akulov, Gavrilov and Tyukov are charged with conspiracy to cause damage to the property of an energy facility and commit computer fraud and abuse, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Akulov and Gavrilov are also charged with substantive counts of wire fraud and computer fraud related to unlawfully obtaining information from computers and causing damage to computers.
The offenses carry maximum sentences ranging from five to 20 years in prison. Akulov and Gavrilov are also charged with three counts of aggravated identity theft, each of which carry a minimum sentence of two years consecutive to any other sentence imposed.
Numerous victims, including Wolf Creek and its owners Evergy and the Kansas Electric Power Cooperative, cooperated and provided assistance in the investigation.