In 2018, the Bank of Chile found that the malicious KillDisk virus had infiltrated 9,000 of its computers and 500 of its servers and was poised to wreak havoc on their internal systems. Understandably, they immediately went into crisis mode, working as quickly as possible to disconnect those workstations. During the ensuing flurry of activity, the hackers were able to perform their real attack completely unnoticed: $10 million worth of fraudulent SWIFT transactions that the bank was too busy to notice.
When SWIFT messages are utilized in bank heists like the 2016 Bangladesh Bank attack, reports often refer to SWIFT having been “hacked.” In reality, it’s the banks themselves that have had their cybersecurity flaws exposed, and the SWIFT network was only used as a tool for the fraudsters to gain the trust of the financial institutions that are performing the transfers. This might seem like a small nit to pick, but in some ways it’s an important distinction to draw. Why? Because it centers “trust” as one of the most important elements of both successful fraud and successful fraud prevention.
Every year, the bar for SWIFT CSP compliance gets pitched a little bit higher. For 2020, a number of advisory controls were upgraded to mandatory, including a control related to shrinking the threat surface in banking organizations through application hardening. This is a wise tactic: as attackers carrying out fraudulent transactions get more sophisticated, financial institutions need to do the same when it comes to information security. At the same time, it’s not clear that increased mandatory advisories will be enough to stem the year-over-year increase in SWIFT CSP fraud.