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Hackers may have stolen data during International Atomic Energy Agency raid

13 Nov 2013
Cooling towers at a nuclear power station

Professionals within the security community have questioned the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) claim that no data was affected during a recent cyber raid on its systems.

The IAEA confirmed to V3 that its systems have been infected with an unknown data-stealing malware earlier on Tuesday. Hackers infected a number of machines in the agency's Vienna International Centre, but it said in a statement that no data was stolen.

However, director of security strategy at FireEye Jason Steer told V3 that the advanced nature of many types of malware targeting the power industry makes it close to impossible to guarantee no data was affected during the breach. "To be honest, how could the secretariat know they have not lost any data – what do they do today to validate this assumption?" he said.

"I was just on a call with a large power company yesterday, who said they had adequate controls until a government agency told them they had been hacked, despite them doing everything they could with their existing security controls. Relying on existing security solutions has not typically been successful at detecting these threats."

F-Secure security advisor Sean Sullivan mirrored Steer's comments, arguing that until more details about the attack are disclosed it will be close to impossible to know what damage the attack caused. But he added that the fact it was successful is cause for concern.

"In the IAEA case, it sounds as if autorun worms aren't a problem, but somebody from outside, or during a visit, hacked the guest machines. A very clever move," he said.

"Or perhaps a guest was using the computer and it was nailed by an infection. But the fact that ‘some' computers were involved sounds to me as if a motivated attacker was behind the backdoors. Stuff like this should be a concern for any agency or organisation handling sensitive materials."

Attacks on critical infrastructure areas have been a growing problem facing governments and the security industry. Russian cyber security expert Eugene Kaspersky revealed earlier this year that a Russian power plant had been "badly" infected with the Stuxnet malware.

Principal threat researcher at SophosLabs Fraser Howard told V3 he expects the number and complexity of attacks targeting the power industry to increase, although simple USB-based attacks, playing on human's willingness to plug stuff into machines, is also proving effective.

"Are targeted attacks a growing threat? Yes. Are energy and utility industries attractive targets? Yes, extremely. Is USB malware still a major pain? Yes," he said.

"USB malware exploits the combination of social engineering – humans plugging devices into different machines and networks without much thought – and overly rich functionality in the OS [to] automatically open and run devices as soon as we insert the media. With this in mind such attacks can only be set to continue and will most certainly increase."

The level of the threat has led several intelligence agencies to call for increased powers to view data. The heads of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 argued that they need advanced data-monitoring powers to defend critical infrastructure areas from cyber threats, during a briefing with the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) earlier in November.

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Alastair Stevenson

Alastair has worked as a reporter covering security and mobile issues at V3 since March 2012. Before entering the field of journalism Alastair had worked in numerous industries as both a freelance copy writer and artist.

View Alastair's Google+ profile

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