A hacking group called Energetic Bear, also known as Dragonfly, has launched a cyber-espionage campaign against western energy firms and the control systems that power the electric grid and other key industrial businesses.
The hacking activity, likely being carried out from Eastern Europe, is believed to offer attackers the potential to mount sabotage operations against their victims, a report security firm Symantec noted.
According to the report, hackers have managed to compromise several strategically vital organisations for intelligence purposes while, if they had deployed the sabotage capabilities open to them, it could have harmed or disrupted energy supplies in affected nations.
Hackers mainly targeted energy grid operators, major electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators, and energy industry industrial equipment providers in the US, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Poland.
Symantec said in its report that the Dragonfly group is well resourced, with a range of malware tools at its disposal and is capable of launching attacks through a number of different vectors.
"Its most ambitious attack campaign saw it compromise a number of industrial control system (ICS) equipment providers, infecting their software with a remote access-type Trojan," the security firm noted.
"This caused companies to install the malware when downloading software updates for computers running ICS equipment.
"These infections not only gave the attackers a beachhead in the targeted organizations' networks, but also gave them the means to mount sabotage operations against infected ICS computers."
The latest campaign comes hot on the heels of Stuxnet, which was the first known major malware campaign targeted at ICS systems.
Symantec believes that while Stuxnet was mainly targeted at the Iranian nuclear programme, with sabotage as its primary goal, Dragonfly emerges with a wider focus with espionage and persistent access as its present objective, with sabotage as an optional potential if necessary.
In addition to taking down ICS software, hackers also used spam email campaigns and watering hole attacks to attack targeted organisations using two main malware tools including Backdoor.Oldrea and Trojan.Karagany.