January 3, 2024
June 4, 2024

Know Your Enemy: Volt Typhoon

Know Your Enemy: Volt Typhoon

CISA Issues New Advisory on Volt Typhoon

In February, CISA issued a second advisory on the PRC-state-backed Volt Typhoon (the first was in May 2023). At H2OSeccon, BlastWave led a panel discussion with our partner Gray Matter Systems, discussing cyberattacks, with a particular focus on the threats to water systems posed by Volt Typhoon. This issue is so pressing that our customers often ask, 'Are they a significant risk to our water system?'

Understanding the Threat: Volt Typhoon's Cyber Tactics

After that session, I thought it might be helpful to periodically follow up on my initial “Know Your Enemy” blog (link here) but to focus on specific threats rather than the classes of threats. Since Volt Typhoon has been in the news for cyber attacks on water systems, they felt like a good place to start.

Pre-positioned Attacks and Lateral Movement Goals

The advisory made one thing very clear: Volt Typhoon has been pre-positioning their stolen access and living off the land (LOTL) on IT networks with the goal of lateral movement to OT assets to disrupt functions. Many of the public hacks that have occurred are believed to be test runs for future coordinated actions. The US agencies are deeply concerned about the potential for Volt Typhoon to become active on the networks they are hiding on to support other geopolitical activities worldwide, a threat that could have severe implications for water system operators and organizations vulnerable to cyber threats. 

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures of Volt Typhoon

Volt Typhoon is known for conducting extensive reconnaissance on the organization and compromising valid accounts by stealing credentials (phishing is a common technique). Once they gain initial access, they conduct in-depth reconnaissance on the target. Through their reconnaissance, they identify the known vulnerabilities on the network (in network elements, OT devices, etc.). They can then optimize their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to ensure they can hide (LOTL) and become active when they pounce through lateral movement. The diagram below (Credit CISA) demonstrates typical Volt Typhoon Activity)

Figure 1: Typical Volt Typhoon Activity

Effective Countermeasures Against Volt Typhoon

Let's look at Volt Typhoon’s common TTP and how to beat them:

Reconnaissance: They can't perform reconnaissance if they can’t see your network. You can effectively deter Volt Typhoon's reconnaissance attempts by implementing robust security techniques like Network Cloaking. Volt Typhoon looks for information on the organization, staff, and network (to target phishing or to identify key accounts to attempt to compromise) and its network (to look for known vulnerabilities). 

Initial Access: Volt Typhoon is known to exploit publicly available vulnerabilities in network appliances from Fortinet, Ivanti, Netgear, Citrix, and Cisco. Besides the obvious (Don’t use these systems for OT Security!), network cloaking and patching these systems is key to preventing these exploits.  Protecting your OT network with a different system than your IT network is also advisable in these scenarios, as using the same security system throughout your network creates a fast lane for vulnerability exploitation.

Credential Access: Volt Typhoon is known to obtain credentials from compromised appliances, either stealing credentials insecurely stored on the appliance or extracting the Active Directory Database file and cracking the hashing used to protect passwords offline. Again, the obvious solution is not to use passwords so no credentials can be stolen.

Let’s pause there for a minute. If these three vectors are blocked, then there is NO HACK. The attackers are blocked and can’t get into your network. So to recap, stopping Volt Typhoon is as easy as:

  1. Cloak your network
  2. Separate IT from OT
  3. Eliminate Passwords

Let’s return to the TTPs and take a final look at their techniques.

Lateral Movement: The predominant technique used for lateral movement is compromising administrator credentials to RDP servers. To quote the CISA advisory on a specific attack on the Water and Wastewater sector:

“In one confirmed compromise of a Water and Wastewater Systems Sector entity, after obtaining initial access, Volt Typhoon actors connected to the network via a VPN with administrator credentials they obtained and opened an RDP session with the same credentials to move laterally. Over a nine-month period, they moved laterally to a file server, a domain controller, an Oracle Management Server (OMS), and a VMware vCenter server. The actors obtained domain credentials from the domain controller and performed discovery, collection, and exfiltration on the file server (see the Discovery and Collection and Exfiltration sections). Volt Typhoon’s movement to the vCenter server was likely strategic for pre-positioning to OT assets. The vCenter server was adjacent to OT assets, and Volt Typhoon actors were observed interacting with the PuTTY application on the server by enumerating existing stored sessions. With this information, Volt Typhoon potentially had access to a range of critical PuTTY profiles, including those for water treatment plants, water wells, an electrical substation, OT systems, and network security devices. This would enable them to access these critical systems [T1563].”

Credential theft and poor network segmentation enabled the lateral movement. In the worst-case scenario, better Microsegmentation would have helped stop the hackers in their tracks.

From this analysis, I hope you can see that bad actors like Volt Typhoon can be frustrated, and their common techniques are simply blocked from working on your network with the right OT Cybersecurity solution. BlastWave’s OT Cybersecurity solutions aim to frustrate and block attackers by protecting your network with a solution optimized for OT.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have any specific topic requests, please contact me at cam@blastwave.com

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