Home Security Malware fails to disrupt world's biggest oil company

Malware fails to disrupt world's biggest oil company

The world's largest oil company suffered a malware intrusion in August, with a safety system coming under attack in what is said to be the first case of malicious code being used to target a system designed to prevent disaster at an industrial facility.

The attack on Saudi Aramco was detailed by security company FireEye which kept the name under wraps.

But the website Foreign Policy said it had obtained a confidential report authored by Area 1 Security, a company set up by NSA veterans, that identified Aramco as the target. The attack took place in August.

The attack was denied by Saudi Aramco, which, in a statement to Foreign Policy, said: "Saudi Aramco corporate and plants networks were not part of any cyber security attack or breach.”

Saudi Aramco is preparing for an IPO which is likely to be the largest of all time. The country's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has undertaken a programme of reform in the country and the funds from the IPO are expected to be used to drive an ambitious modernisation plan.

The Area 1 report said Iran was behind the attack but other experts told Foreign Policy that caution should be exercised in apportioning blame. One ex-intelligence official from the US who has knowledge of the attack said: “This is probably one of the most difficult attribution cases that I’ve ever looked at.”

The malware was dubbed as Triton. The FireEye report said it attacked a safety system known as Triconex which is made by Germany's Schneider Electric. The system is used globally and provides emergency shutdown.

FireEye said Triton tried to alter one safety controller and this led to an unspecified industrial process shutting down. Aramco personnel noticed this and a subsequent investigation led to the discovery of the malware.

The Area 1 report speculated that Triton could have been written jointly by Russia and Iran; an artifact in the software had a Russian name. But while the report said Russian involvement was possible, it also pointed out that such an artifact could be a false flag.

Photo: courtesy Saudi Aramco

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.