Beleaguered global financial messaging services provider SWIFT today outlined a five-part plan to help its banking customers respond to the growing cybersecurity concerns caused by recent multi-million dollar heists at multiple banks in Asia.
The plan includes measures for increased information-sharing between banks, tougher security requirements for bank software that interface locally with SWIFT’s network, new audit and certification standards, and the use of tools to detect fraudulent transactions over SWIFT.
In a statement, SWIFT, which is short for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, continued to insist that its own systems and security have not been directly implicated in the attacks. It cast the proposals instead as measures designed to help the global banking community better secure their locally managed infrastructure against compromise and misuse.
The measures come amid reports that at least 12 banks may have fallen victim to attacks in which threat actors used stolen login credentials to transfer, or attempt to transfer, money from victim banks to their own accounts, over the SWIFT network. News of the thefts, beginning with the stunning $81 million heist at the Bangladesh Bank in February, have shaken confidence in the integrity of the global financial messaging system and the controls that banks use to access and transfer funds over it.
Meanwhile, in a separate but related development, Symantec became the second security vendor after BAE Systems to confirm a connection between the bank thefts and the massive Nov. 2014 attacks on Sony Pictures.
In a blog post this week, Symantec said it has found evidence that links malware used in recent attacks against Bangladesh Bank and two other banks in the Philippines and Vietnam, with a cybercrime group known as Lazarus. The Lazarus group has been linked to a highly destructive Trojan that was used in the Sony attack, Symantec said.
The FBI and the US government have formally accused the North Korean government of complicity in the Sony attacks. The new evidence has raised some media speculation of a potential North Korean link in the bank attacks. But it is always possible that while the tools are the same, the groups behind the Sony attack and the attacks on the banks are entirely different.
SWIFT said its five-point proposal sets a clear operational and security baseline that banks would need to meet when conducting SWIFT transactions. The information-sharing component, for instance, would require banks to provide more information about any security incidents they experience involving SWIFT infrastructure so it can be shared with the broader community.
Similarly, SWIFT said it would require stronger security controls for software that banks use to connect to the SWIFT network, but did not elaborate on what those requirements would be.
SWIFT in turn will also take steps to harden its own products, the statement noted. For example, in addition to two-factor authentication, SWIFT would require additional controls for banks accessing its network, but it did not specify what those controls should be. SWIFT will also increase remote monitoring of customer environments to supplement the measures, which banks have in place to protect access to its networks,
In addition, SWIFT will explore the use of tools that would help detect anomalous transactions on its network as well as tools that would help banks quickly recall fraudulent transfers and to put "stop payments" on them in a timely fashion.
“The Bangladesh fraud is not an isolated incident,” SWIFT CEO Gottfried Leibbrandt had warned in prepared remarks at a financial conference in Brussels recently. “We are aware of at least two, but possibly more, other cases where fraudsters used the same modus operandi, albeit without the spectacular amounts.”
The recent attacks are a “big deal” and pose a problem on two fronts, Leibbrandt said. “First it’s a problem because banks that are compromised like this can be put out of business,” he said. “Second, it’s a problem because the financial system is hugely interconnected and it operates on trust.”
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