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Researchers Break Into Bank

Cardiff University researchers have discovered how to access online accounts of HSBC banking customers

Back in the old days, you had to actually go to a bank in order to rob it -- or at least break into its heavily-fortified host systems. But a few researchers this week proved that it's possible to commit robbery without ever even testing the host bank's defenses.

Two researchers at Cardiff University's School of Computer Science, working with a third, independent researcher, said they have found a way to foil the online banking system at HSBC, one of Britain's largest banks, and access any customer account using just a PC. The researchers warned HSBC about the vulnerability before publishing their exploit, and the hole has been closed, according to bank officials.

Professor Antonia Jones, Joseph Rabaiotti, and independent researcher Stuart Goring, exploited a glitch that occurs when users make a typo during the login process. From there, a simple keylogger -- installed physically on a client system or introduced through a virus -- could collect all of the information necessary to transfer the user's money or otherwise manipulate the account, they said.

The researchers did not have to break through the bank's central defenses, or even break any laws, to achieve their initial results, according to Jones. Aside from the use of the keylogger, which is illegal in most countries, an attacker could use this approach without running afoul of the law, she said.

"What is truly amazing about this particular problem is that it apparently has not been illegally exploited for at least two years, during which time all of [HSBC's 3.1 million] user accounts were, in principle, open to the access procedure we describe."

Anyone who tried the researchers' method would be likely to break into any account within five attempts and guaranteed to gain access within nine attempts, the researchers said. Other commercial banks use a different, more secure system, and the same exploit would not work on them, they added.

The research disproves the assumption that an attacker would necessarily have to break the law and penetrate a bank's gateway systems in order to gain access to funds, the researchers said. "There are serious issues here," affirmed Jones.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading