Global Institutions May Be Susceptible To Hackers, SWIFT Remains Vulnerable

The world of central banking relies on transferring vast amounts of information along controlled and secure messaging lines, around 2 million per day between roughly 7,000 institutions. The system of connections to and from central banks in Asia, Russia, China, Africa, and the Americas is known as SWIFT (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication). SWIFT provides a means for sending messages between the parties that have access to it. Each party is responsible for providing security measures before accessing the SWIFT network.

On March 7, 2016 Reuters reported the central bank for Bangladesh stated it discovered unauthorized withdrawals from its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY).  The amount of the unauthorized transfer has been reported to be USD $951 million.  The World Bank database shows Bangladesh holds just shy of USD $28 billion in foreign exchange reserves on its books, an amount that has tripled since 2011.

Around the middle of April reports appeared which  stated that roughly USD $81 million remained uncovered. It still remains uncovered as of this writing.  What also remains uncovered is the truth of what happened. We have yet to learn if someone hacked into the SWIFT system from outside the Bangladesh central bank headquarters or if the unauthorized transaction was executed as an "inside job". Sources speaking with Zero Hedge control cyber security operations for international companies have said it would appear the complexity of the steps necessary to execute a transaction across the SWIFT system would  require knowledge from someone who regularly interacts with the SWIFT system.

What's more, the SWIFT hack was not even the main objective of the group, they merely stumbled upon an entry point while monitoring the system for message flows.  Security in the cyber world is fragile, as evidenced by the uniqueness of the SWIFT system and the fact that entry to  the system was not the main purpose of the hackers.

Symantec said in a blog post that the SWIFT attack shared code and tools similar to those used to attack SONY's systems in  2014. When systems are compromised, entire rebuilds are necessary to ensure a vacuum-type environment going forward.  As the US Dept. of Homeland Security Chief said at a Council on Foreign Relations Q&A, we're paraphrasing, "we assume every system is compromised and we focus primarily on the offensive". What he likely means is that the best defense is a good offense, take out the other guys' system before he gets into yours.  This view could be damaging to FireEye should this topic find itself on the mainstream stage.

FireEye bills its product as one that can be installed on an existing system and secure that system, meaning that beyond a doubt the FireEye product is  able to clean and sanitize a system that was once open to be compromised, a defensive system. One may be well suited to  ponder: at what point is a system too complex for FireEye's product to just be installed and trusted? Mandiant, the InfoSec  arm of FireEye has been hired to investigate the Bangladesh hack and it will be interesting to see if the company pushes to  clean the current SWIFT system or agrees to go along with a completely new platform.

The SWIFT rebuild will likely require the insights of an outlet such as Hyper Ledger, run by longtime Zero Hedge CDS and commodity trading icorn, Blythe Masters.  Hyper Ledger works with a consortium of organizations and corporations tasked with developing systems to offer protection for messages sent between  the worlds central banks, which will be based on blockchain technology.  A rebuild is still likely 2 years away according to well placed Zero Hedge sources, which opens new concerns about the current integrity of the SWIFT platform and what problems may be lurking within it that we have yet to discover.  

One thing is certain: with "big bank" support behind both blockchain and Masters' startup, it is only a matter of time before SWIFT is phased out, most likely in some major "scandal" that discredits the way US Dollars have been transferred around the globe for decades.

The question that remains unanswered currently is:  Who still has access to the central banking SWIFT system and is capable, right now, of monitoring message flow between institutions?  Something to keep in mind as the EU experiment unravels.