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How Wall Street Works With The Feds

Banks and other financial firms learn to share sensitive cybersecurity information with federal agencies.

Reluctance To Share

It took time for banks and other financial institutions to get comfortable sharing sensitive information over the FS-ISAC portal, says William Nelson, CEO of the nonprofit since 2006. "It's been a hard nut to crack," he adds.

In the early going, some members, concerned about tarnishing their corporate image, were reluctant to share information on cyberthreats and related incidents. Submissions dripped into the portal about once every six months. That's changed as understanding of the process and its value have grown, and as more companies have gotten involved. Its ranks have swelled over the past five years from 68 to 4,200 members.

One reason financial firms have become more comfortable sharing information about cyberattacks and vulnerabilities is that submissions to the portal can be made anonymously. Participants also can choose whether to share their submissions with all FS-ISAC members or just select groups. And they can decide whether the information gets passed along to government agencies.

Most submissions to the FS-ISAC portal are done so anonymously, says DeWaal of OCC, which regularly submits information to the organization. In fact, an FS-ISAC submission is now a regular component of the company's incident response plan. OCC submits anonymously sometimes and for attribution at other times, depending on the sensitivity or severity of the threat. "In general, when we submit anonymously, OCC shares with government sources," DeWaal says.

Budding Partnership

Nelson, FS-ISAC's CEO, cites several examples of close cooperation with the government. In 2008, security researcher Dan Kaminsky discovered a flaw in the Internet Domain Name System that could be exploited by attackers to redirect traffic. "We went through Treasury and our government contacts to work with the ISPs to get them to prioritize a fix," Nelson says. "We got a lot of support from US-CERT and DHS."

In late 2009, a rash of cyberattacks by criminal gangs in Eastern Europe targeted commercial bank accounts. The FBI asked for help in raising awareness of the attacks, and FS-ISAC formed a task force and developed a set of recommendations on how to respond, which it distributed through the American Bankers Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and community banks nationwide.

The government provided us with intelligence, and we produced a bulletin to release to everybody, even the media," Nelson says. "It became a milestone for the government to say, 'We can trust FS-ISAC.'"

Nelson recently met with the U.S. Secret Service to share information on attacks against retail point-of-sale systems that were being hijacked and used for credit card fraud. "If you identify a bunch of merchants that have been hit, and you total the losses, you can build a case and go after these guys," he says.

FS-ISAC members also benefit from their interactions with each other. The group's Threat Intelligence Committee meets every two weeks by teleconference, and more often when situations warrant, such as during the WikiLeaks uproar, when activists launched distributed denial-of-service attacks against Visa and MasterCard.

OCC's security operations manager sits on the Threat Intelligence Committee. "We can be frank about what we're seeing and what's happening and not worry about proprietary issues," DeWaal says.

He cites an event last fall when a zero-day worm struck. "When we started seeing activity, we checked in with the Threat Intelligence Committee over a couple of days to share observations and quickly get in front of it," he says. "Between us, we were able to determine the source of the attack and the payload." An antivirus vendor provided forensics on an emergency basis to help with the response. "The AV companies were learning about it at the same time we were," DeWaal says.

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