SWIFT Hack Shows Attackers Penetrating Bank Defenses

By Robert Lemos  |  Posted 2016-05-22 Print this article Print
SWIFT hackers

NEWS ANALYSIS: Using highly specialized malware, online thieves manipulated the international banking system and stole more than $80 million.

In early February, online thieves were close to stealing nearly a billion dollars from the international banking transfer system run by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) Alliance.

They were stopped, not by the latest in defensive technology nor a well-honed security process, but by a typo. An error in the name of a payee—the non-existent "Shalika Foundation" was misspelled as the "Shalika Fandation"—reportedly raised suspicions at an intermediary bank handling the transactions and delayed the transfers while it sought confirmation. The transactions had also started to raise suspicions at the bank from which the funds were being transferred, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Even so, the thieves made off with approximately $81 million, underscoring that the byzantine checks and countermeasures used by the SWIFT Alliance to keep its network from being abused and its less-than-concrete security guidelines are not enough to stymie a motivated attacker. A second attack against a Vietnamese bank, revealed last week, added an exclamation point.

"What we are seeing from the smaller international or more regional type of banks is a situation where they don't know what to do to secure their systems against these threats," Douglas Gourlay, corporate vice president of application-security firm Skyport Systems, told eWEEK. "SWIFT says this is your responsibility, but in their guidance to their members, they have very little that is actionable."

The incident has cast doubt on the ability of regional central banks to defend against online thieves who demonstrated in-depth knowledge of the international transfer system. The malware suspected to have been used by the attackers did not exhibit any significant sophistication, but showed obvious signs of insider knowledge of how the SWIFT Alliance system worked and the infrastructure of the Bangladeshi bank. In addition, many of the software tools used by attackers are not malware per se, but administrative tools used with malicious intent, making detection of the attacks difficult, security experts said.

Researchers at BAE Systems believe they have identified the malware used to attack the banks. Uploaded to a malware repository by a user in Bangladesh, the programs are highly customizable. After attackers compromised the targeted banks' infrastructure and obtained operators credentials, the malware submitted fraudulent messages and rewrote messages sent to printers—or displayed in PDFs—circumventing a primary way that banks audited their money flows.

"The tool was custom-made for this job, and shows a significant level of knowledge of SWIFT Alliance Access software as well as good malware coding skills," BAE Systems' researcher Sergei Shevchenko stated in his report on the analysis.

While authorities have not attributed the hack to any particular group, the researchers from BAE Systems have found coding similarities between the malware and the programs used to compromise and disrupt Sony Pictures. The U.S. government has linked that hack to North Korea although some security researchers have expressed doubts about the veracity of their claims.

The theft has led to a great deal of finger-pointing, while at the same time bringing together the Bangladesh central bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the SWIFT Alliance in a joint investigation.


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