How Russian cybersecurity threats reached a small-town Ohio manufacturer

When a cybersecurity “Shields Up” warning went out to U.S. companies after Russia invaded Ukraine, a small Ohio parts manufacturer was on guard to protect the company’s networked equipment and connected data.

worker in metal factory using welding tools

Even small-town companies like G&W Products, a metal fabricator in Ohio, were affected by cybersecurity warnings.

Photo by Josh Beech on Unsplash

When Jeff Karan received a “Shields Up” warning email from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency last week, the director of Enterprise Technology at G&W Products in Fairfield, Ohio, was already well-prepared for potential cyberattacks.

But the email showed Karan, part of a two-person team managing data and security for the metal fabrication company, how a war brewing in Ukraine can be felt even inside a small Cincinnati-area business 5,000 miles away.

As a military contractor making parts that end up in defense equipment, G&W is among the types of businesses likely to receive security threat notifications from federal agencies. “If you have a cage code, basically you’re on their radar,” Karan said, referring to the five-digit “commercial and government entity” codes assigned to companies contracted to do federal government work.

The CISA alert on Feb. 22 was prompted by expectations of disruptive cyber activity in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The warning eventually was picked up by media coverage that helped spread the message to businesses and everyday people who didn’t receive direct notices.

G&W’s equipment and devices are internally networked and also connected to the internet. It uses cloud-based enterprise resource planning software to manage and analyze HR, accounting, materials inventory and more. While this has helped the company be more efficient than in the past, when paper or offline tools like Excel spreadsheets led to problems such as excess raw materials piling up on the factory floor, these connected systems are also vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Karan said he felt confident that the safeguards his company has in place to protect and monitor hundreds of electronic devices connected to the company’s network are strong. Systems and data are backed up, and G&W employees are trained to watch out for phony ecommerce order notifications and not to click on suspicious email links or attachments that could launch malware.

Despite the precautions, Karan said, “Our main focus is cybersecurity right now.”

‘They can’t continue manufacturing parts’

Even missteps inside a small manufacturer like G&W could affect multiple connected companies and systems, said Michael Sentonas, CTO of CrowdStrike, a global cybersecurity company that helps businesses conduct threat intelligence and incident response. “They’ve got suppliers, they’re attached to other systems. It spreads from their partners down the line,” he said.

Right now, Sentonas said he and others are not only expecting denial-of-service and ransomware attacks to eventually emerge in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a new type of attack that targets hard drives by running malicious files in an attempt to shut down systems. CrowdStrike noticed a so-called “DriveSlayer” show up on Feb. 23 in a public repository of malware, Sentonas said. That malware mapped back to an IP address in Ukraine and was reported as targeting systems in the country.

A drive-wiping attack could force a partsmaker to stop production, he said. “They can’t continue manufacturing parts,” Sentonas said. “It will take a lot of work to get that service re-enabled if computer networks are taken down.”

Cyberattacks can affect any company in the supply chain, “whether you bottle pickles or make parts that go into an M15,” said Cathy Pitt, chief security officer at Plex Systems, which provides the smart manufacturing platform used by G&W.

Going offline, disrupting inventory analytics

Sometimes companies providing non-essential services, such as manufacturers, might go offline entirely to prevent a possible cyberattack or the further spread of an attack, which could slow down or stop production if manufacturing equipment is reliant on internet connectivity. But that could affect a business for months to come in other ways, said Dave Morfas, director of Product Marketing at Plex Systems. If companies are tracking and forecasting inventory electronically, he said, inventory controls could be disrupted, making it difficult to know the amount of raw materials in stock or to predict what’s needed in the future.

“Now it affects your forecasting,” Morfas said. “It affects your whole bottom line.”

In general, Pitt said government suppliers such as equipment manufacturers or food purveyors are typically notified directly by respective federal agencies if they should take a system offline. “The government actually is pretty good at this aspect of this,” Pitt said.

Although connections between Plex and its partners are encrypted, Pitt said government contractors, particularly defense contractors, shouldn’t have top-secret data stored inside Plex, much less other manufacturing or analytics software platforms. For one thing, cyberattacks or data leaks could put U.S. defense structure at risk. “Blueprints for a fighter jet should not be in Plex,” Pitt said.

When she saw the Shields Up warning, Pitt said she wasn’t surprised. “It was just raising awareness that everything can hit the fan,” she said. Her immediate response was to send an email to all Plex employees telling them to increase their level of awareness. She also asked her own security team to be on the lookout for anomalous or excessive traffic emanating from specific places, something they already do.

“It’s not like suddenly we turn something on,” Pitt said.

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