The Economist on Hacking the Financial System
The Economist has an article on the potential hacking of the global financial system, either for profit or to cause mayhem. It’s reasonably balanced.
So how might such an attack unfold? Step one, several months before mayhem is unleashed, is to get into the system. Financial institutions have endless virtual doors that could be used to trespass, but one of the easiest to force is still the front door. By getting someone who works at an FMI or a partner company to click on a corrupt link through a “phishing” attack (an attempt to get hold of sensitive information by masquerading as someone trustworthy), or stealing their credentials when they use public Wi-Fi, hackers can impersonate them and install malware to watch over employees’ shoulders and see how the institution’s system functions. This happened in the Carbanak case: hackers installed a “RAT” (remote-access tool) to make videos of employees’ computers.
Step two is to study the system and set up booby traps. Once in, the gang quietly observes the quirks and defences of the system in order to plan the perfect attack from within; hackers have been known to sit like this for years. Provided they are not detected, they pick their places to plant spyware or malware that can be activated at the click of a button.
Step three is the launch. One day, preferably when there is already distracting market turmoil, they unleash a series of attacks on, say, multiple clearing houses.
The attackers might start with small changes, tweaking numbers in transactions as they are processed (Bank A gets credited $1,000, for example, but on the other side of the transaction Bank B is debited $0, or $900 or $100,000). As lots of erroneous payments travel the globe, and as it becomes clear that these are not just “glitches”, eventually the entire system would be deemed unreliable. Unsure how much money they have, banks could not settle their books when markets close. Settlement is a legally defined, binding moment. Regulators and central banks would become agitated if they could not see how solvent the nation’s banks were at the end of the financial day.
In many aspects of our society, as attackers become more powerful the potential for catastrophe increases. We need to ensure that the likelihood of catastrophe remains low.