SWIFT CEO promises security improvements

Humble piece comes in five slices

The head of the SWIFT financial network has put forward a five-part plan to improve security after its systems were the focus of several cyberattacks.

Gottfried Leibbrandt gave a keynote on Tuesday at a financial services conference in Brussels and promised the organization would work harder to ensure that incidents like last month's theft of $81m from Bangladesh's central bank were not possible in future.

Although Leibbrandt reiterated his point that SWIFT's systems had not been compromised, the highly critical reaction to the network's initial not-my-problem response clearly had an impact, and some crumbs of humble pie were visible on the lectern.

In response to the Bangladeshi bank scam, he said: "Two questions pop up for SWIFT, at least they have in the press. One: isn't SWIFT in the middle of all of this? Two: What are you going to do about it?"

Hackers had managed to gain access to Bangladesh Bank's central keys and use them through the SWIFT international money system to divert funds. From SWIFT's perspective the issue lies with the bank: their systems had been compromised.

The organization responded aggressively to suggestions that it was in some way responsible for the theft, putting out an announcement that read in part: "SWIFT rejects the false, inaccurate and misleading allegations made by Bangladesh Bank and Bangladesh Police's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officials to Reuters. The accusations have no basis in fact."

Out of step

But it wasn't long before security experts pointed out that SWIFT's security systems were out of step with the modern world. Its security guidelines are "outdated and incomplete," said one analysis. Its systems were set up to deal with "the types of attacks that were prevalent a decade ago," and the network fails to safeguard against today's more sophisticated hacks – like the one suffered by the Bangladeshi bank.

As just one example, SWIFT offers but does not insist on two-factor authentication, which is pretty much standard on most systems where critical information is approved online.

SWIFT also acknowledged that it wasn't the first time that the method used by the Bangladeshi hackers had been attempted on its network.

The outcry gave SWIFT food for thought, and a few weeks after the attack, the organization promised to take another look at its security. That look comes in five parts, which are currently relatively vague but which the organization has promised to turn into real action.

Leibbrandt outlined those parts as:

  1. Drastically improve information sharing among the global financial community.
  2. Harden security requirements for customer-managed software.
  3. Enhance guidelines and develop security audit frameworks for customers.
  4. Support banks' increased use of payment pattern controls to identify suspicious behavior.
  5. Introduce certification requirements for third-party providers.

Or, in other words, do what the organization should have done as part of its job several years ago.


But before you get too excited about Leibbrandt's sudden understanding of the modern world, his speech revealed a continued misunderstanding of modern financial crime.

"Back before mainframes, ATMs, mobile banking and PCs, it was all about men and guns," he said. "Now it is about men in hoodies hunkering over keyboards."

If he imagines that the kind of people that are breaking into a central bank, grabbing authorization keys, using SWIFT networks against it even to the extent of adjusting printed reports to hide fraudulent transfers, and then moving the money to accounts that can't be got at are "men in hoodies," he continues to massively underestimate the modern cybercriminal.

There was some self-awareness however. "Change is hard," he noted. "Sometimes it takes a crisis. As the saying goes: 'a crisis is a terrible thing to waste'; so let's use this crisis as an industry to come out stronger, better and even more secure." ®

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