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10/10/2008
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World Bank Besieged By Hackers, Or Not

According to a media report, the World Bank has experienced at least six major intrusions, two from the same IP address in China, since the summer of 2007.

The World Bank's computer network has been repeatedly raided by hackers for over a year, according to a Fox News report.

But a World Bank spokesperson insists the Fox report is inaccurate. "The story is fundamentally wrong," the spokesperson said in an e-mail. "It is riddled with falsehoods and errors and cites misinformation from unattributed sources and e-mails that are taken out of context."

Citing unnamed inside sources, supported by World Bank internal memos, Fox News claims that servers in the World Bank's sensitive treasury unit were compromised by spyware in April and that unauthorized people had complete access to the rest of the bank's network for nearly a month in June and July.

In a July 22 e-mail, Rakesh Asthana, director of corporate information services in the World Bank's Information Solutions Group, warns that "the passwords that have been compromised may have accessed data" and characterizes the situation as an "unprecedented crisis."

An e-mail from July 10 explains that a minimum of 18 servers may have been compromised and that five of them contained sensitive data.

Yet an Aug. 19 memo from the bank's CIO, Guy-Pierre De Poerck, downplays the severity of the situation.

"As reported in the Information Security updates on July 18 and August 6, an external attempt was made to compromise the bank's information network," the memo explains. "Consistent with our procedures, several actions have been taken to counter this threat, and confidential briefings have been provided to appropriate groups within the bank."

The staff memo says that controls on external Web sites have been tightened, that passwords have been reset, and that SecurID tokens have been deployed for Web mail access.

It concludes that "there is no evidence that bank staff personal information is at risk from the recent external attempts."

According to the Fox report, the World Bank has experienced at least six major intrusions, two from the same IP address in China, since the summer of 2007. The FBI has reportedly been looking into the breaches, and Fox's sources characterize the break-ins as serious, as opposed to Web site defacement.

In its statement, the World Bank acknowledges hacking attempts but maintains that nothing noteworthy has happened: "Like other public and private institutions, the World Bank has repeatedly experienced hacking attacks on its computer systems and is constantly updating its security to defeat these. But at no point has a hacking attack accessed sensitive information in the World Bank's Treasury, procurement, anti-corruption or human resources departments. As an institution, we take security seriously."

Ted Julian, VP of strategy and marketing for Application Security, says that based on the information available so far about this incident, it's difficult to say who's to blame or what really happened. But, he said, it's clear that the attackers were after valuable information.

While he doesn't believe it's possible to prevent such incidents entirely, he insists the opportunity to conduct an attack and the risk of an attack can be minimized.

"First and foremost is locking down their data environment," he said in an e-mail. "By that, I mean focusing on the database environment and locking it down so that external attackers can't penetrate, but also internally, which means assessing access controls within the organization. Organizations need to radically rethink their security models, and start looking at hardening their systems from the inside-out, which means securing the core and then extending outward to the perimeter."

He observes that while bank breaches may be met with greater scrutiny during a time of bank failures, "a breach is a breach ... breaches will continue once the economy improves."

InformationWeek has produced an independent security analysis that relates to this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

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