Cyber Threat: Increasingly Sophisticate and Powerful Cybercriminals Target Financial Institutions, Prompting New and Beefed-Up Countermeasures

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Imagine filling a gas tank designed to accept a gallon of gas every 30 seconds, when suddenly, the pump delivers ten gallons a second. There would be a mess and nobody would be going anywhere.

That's kind of what's been happening to banks. Headlines in recent months heralded the cyber attacks of at least nine large financial institutions in the United States, in which online intruders managed to flood banking servers with massive amounts of data, effectively shutting down systems for periods of time.

Such high-profile incidents are adding emphasis to ongoing responses by the banking industry--already one of the most highly secure industries as it reacts to sophisticated cyber criminals who use increasingly powerful intrusion and disruption techniques. While layered security remains the bedrock defense against online attacks, the nature of layers that banks use is evolving including the adaptation of analytics. In addition, threat-awareness communications between financial institutions and government agencies is increasing and expanding. But the challenge never stays the same or lets up.

"A distributed denial-of-service [DDoS] attack causes tremendous harm to a financial institution by interrupting service and by degrading the bank's reputation," says Doug Johnson, vice-president of risk-management policy at ABA. "Folks have become so accustomed to 24/7 availability. Now, if you don't have that level of availability, that's a reputation risk. A data breach, while serious, has a direct impact on a limited number of individuals. A DDoS attack can have a very broad-based impact on a large amount of an institution's customer base."

Businesses, including banks, are at an inherent disadvantage to criminals. "The criminal element doesn't have to deal with things like budget committees, project approvals, business cases, and writing requirements," notes Ben Knieff, director of product marketing at NICE Actimize. "They just do whatever they want.... The flip side of that is, how can we enable financial institutions to have a greater degree of flexibility to respond to the attacks?"

Another concern: "We're always looking to see whether or not a denial-of-service attack is actually something designed to have us take our eye off the ball while [attackers] are trying to accomplish some level of intrusion that would compromise custorner data or would allow them to actually monetize the attack," says Johnson.

Knieff agrees. "The argument is not that the attacks are changing. They are expanding. The financial fraud kinds of malware are by no means going away. Now, added on top of that, financial institutions are dealing with denial-of-service attacks where the motivation ... is to create a disruption to the financial institution's business."

"Advanced evasion" arrives

It is often said in news reports and by commentators that cyber criminals are "increasingly sophisticated," but what does that mean? "It's two things," says Johnson. "It's both enhanced sophistication and also increased power associated with the attacks themselves."

Prolexic Technologies Inc., which specializes in countering DDoS attacks, reports it's increasingly dealing with attacks of more than 20 gigabits per second that come into systems designed to accommodate bandwidth in the megabits-per-second range. That's up about 11% compared with a year ago, the company says. Reports have pegged recent bank attacks at 65 gigabits per second. "Very few enterprises in the world have a network infrastructure with the capacity to withstand bandwidth floods of this size," says Stuart Scholly, president of Prolexic.

The criminals also are getting entrepreneurial, says Rob Havelt, director of penetration testing at Trustwave SpiderLabs. "Instead of attacking banks directly, you see [cyber criminals] controlling large botnets, or developing attack kits they can then sell to less-technical attackers. …