India’s second nuclear power unit stopped operating on October 19, 2019. It is suspected that the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant was hit by a cyberattack and the authorities were already alerted of the threat months in advance. Even as cybersecurity experts are investigating the case, the authorities were quick to dismiss any occurrence of a spyware infiltrating their systems. The power plant project built in collaboration with Russia has been a target of foreign players since its inception.
Nuclear Power Unit stops operating
The second 1,000 MW nuclear power unit at Kudankulam, owned by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) stopped power generation on Saturday 19th October, said Power System Operation Corporation Ltd (POSOCO). The atomic power plant stopped generation about 12.30 a.m. on Saturday owing to “SG level low”, the company added. The expected date of the unit’s revival is not known. The NPCIL has two 1,000 MW nuclear power plants at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) built with Russian equipment.
While cybersecurity experts are investigating the breach, the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu has denied being the victim of a cyber attack and denied any incident of a spy virus having infected the systems at the plant. The statement asserted that since “Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Project (KKNPP) and other Indian Power Plants Control Systems are stand alone and not connected to outside cyber network and Internet, any cyberattack on the Nuclear Power Plant Control Systems is not possible.” This however, is a false assertion which was exposed when Israeli intelligence targeted Iranian Nuclear facility (which also was not connected to Internet) with Stuxnet.
More than a month before the unit stopped operating, the National Cyber Security Coordinator Office was notified of an intrusion of their systems by cyber threat intelligence analyst, Pukhraj Singh. The alert was generated on investigation by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky into spy tools dubbed DTrack.
“Domain controller-level access [gained] at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. The government was notified way back,” said cyber security professional Pukhraj Singh, who in a series of tweets on Monday and Tuesday contended that he was first alerted by a “third party” that discovered the hack and had in turn alerted the National Cyber Security Coordinator on September 3.
An official in a cyber security division of the government, asking not to be named, said that a tip-off was received from “a friendly country” and a team of experts was rushed to the facility located in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu in early September. “The foreign government’s help allowed for a quick response,” this person added, asking not to be named.
Refusing to give more details about the second incident that Singh referred to, he said the disclosure must be made by the government alone. “I think the government should be the one disclosing. I’ve told [National Cyber Coordination Centre chief] Lt Gen Rajesh Pant so. Responsible disclosure is a normal practice. Everyone gets hacked. It must be relayed with confidence and clarity,” he added.
DTrack Data Collection
DTrack data dump of the power plant also revealed statically encoded login credentials among other things.
DTrack – Spy Tool
Kaspersky Global Research and Analysis Team have discovered a previously unknown spy tool, which had been spotted in Indian financial institutions and research centers. Called Dtrack, this spyware reportedly was created by the Lazarus group and is being used to upload and download files to victims’ systems, record key strokes and conduct other actions typical of a malicious remote administration tool (RAT).
In 2018, Kaspersky researchers discovered ATMDtrack – malware created to infiltrate Indian ATMs and steal customer card data. Following further investigation using the Kaspersky Attribution Engine and other tools, the researchers found more than 180 new malware samples that had code sequence similarities with the ATMDtrack, but at the same time were not aimed at ATMs. Instead, its list of functions defined it as spy tools, now known as Dtrack. Moreover, not only did the two strains share similarities with each other, but also with the 2013 DarkSeoul campaign, which was attributed to Lazarus – an infamous advanced persistence threat actor responsible for multiple cyberespionage and cyber sabotage operations.
Dtrack can be used as a RAT, giving threat actors complete control over infected devices. Criminals can then perform different operations, such as uploading and downloading files and executing key processes.
Entities targeted by threat actors using Dtrack RAT often have weak network security policies and password standards, while also failing to track traffic across the organization. If successfully implemented, the spyware is able to list all available files and running processes, key logging, browser history and host IP addresses, including information about available networks and active connections.
The newly discovered malware is active and based on Kaspersky telemetry, is still used in cyberattacks.
“Lazarus is a rather unusual nation state sponsored group. On one hand, as many other similar groups do, it focuses on conducting cyberespionage or sabotage operations. Yet on the other hand, it has also been found to influence attacks that are clearly aimed at stealing money. The latter is quite unique for such a high profile threat actor because generally, other actors do not have financial motivations in their operations,” said Konstantin Zykov security researcher, Kaspersky Global Research and Analysis Team.
“The vast amount of Dtrack samples we found demonstrate how Lazarus is one of the most active APT groups, constantly developing and evolving threats in a bid to affect large-scale industries. Their successful execution of Dtrack RAT proves that even when a threat seems to disappear, it can be resurrected in a different guise to attack new targets.”
The Foreign Hand
In 2012, the then Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh in a starting disclosure claimed that foreign intelligence agencies were involved in the sabotage of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Project (KNPP), a bedrock of India-Russia alliance. Manmohan Singh was referring to the anti-nuclear protests in Kudankulam, which he claimed were orchestrated by American-backed NGOs.
After repeated denials for over a year from fishermen and farmers who were opposing the protest against the KNPP that they were being funded from overseas, the police in the southern Indian town opened a case against a “suspicious money transfer” from London.
The police said T. Ambika, wife of anti-KNPP activist Kumar alias Thavasi Kumar, received around $55,000 in her account with Canara Bank’s Kudankulam Banch from a particualar Anand based in the United Kingdom. Officials from the bank let the police know about the deposit in the account. The police then started an enquiry about the money being sent from a foreign destination to one associated with the ongoing anti-KNPP struggle.
According to a secret Intelligence Bureau document in possession of GreatGameIndia the protests were spear-headed by Ohio State University funded, SP Udaykumar, and a host of Western-funded NGOs. The larger conspiracy was unraveled when a German national provided Udaykumar a scanned map of all nuclear plant and uranium mining locations in India. The map included contact details of 50 Indian anti-nuclear activists revealing an intricate Network aimed to ‘take-down’ India’s nuclear program through NGO activism.
An enquiry of Udaykumar had revealed a deep and growing connection with US and German entities. In July 2010, Udaykumar received an unsolicited contract from the Kirwan Institute for Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, USA as a Consultant on “Group, Race, Class and Democracy issues through NGOs”. He was paid $21,120 upto June 2011 in a US bank account in his name and was contracted to earn another $17,600 upto April 2012 for fortnightly reports. These reports were significant in the fact that they were very brief lists of three general articles or books purported to have been read in the past fortnight, none relating to anti-nuclear activism, his main interest.
As a result, Udaykumar’s contact in Germany, one Sonntag Rainer Hermann (German national) was deported from Chennai on February 27, 2012. Hermann’s laptop contained a scanned map of India with 16 nuclear plants (existing or proposed) and five uranium mine locations marked prominently. The map also included contact details of 50 Indian anti-nuclear activists hand-written on small slips of paper along with a Blackberry PIN graph. The map was sent via email to five prominent anti-nuclear activists, including Udaykumar.
Sustained analysis revealed that the name slips on the map were hand-written in order to avoid possible detection by text search algorithms said to be installed at e-gateways. The map clearly indicated the involvement of an organized agency and/or a highly professional, well-funded entity, which expends considerable effort in masking its origins.
Based on the above enquiry, network analysis of all anti-nuclear NGO activity in India revealed the existence of
- One ‘Super Network’ (prominently driven by Greenpeace and renowned activists) and
- Five ‘Territorial Networks’ based out of
- Tamil Nadu (Idinthakarai, District Tirunelveli),
- Kerala (Trivandrum),
- Andhra Pradesh (Hyderabad),
- Gujarat (Ahmedabad),
- Meghalaya (Shillong)