Hackers who stole $101 million from Bangladeshâ€™s central bank stalked its computer systems for almost two weeks beforehand, according to an interim investigation report seen by Bloomberg.
Prepared for Bangladesh Bank by cyber security firms FireEye Inc. and World Informatix, the assessment offers a tantalising glimpse into how cyber criminals can use banksâ€™ own systems against them. The cyber companies say the thieves deployed malware on servers housed at the central bank to make payments seem genuine.
The report cast the unidentified hackers as a sophisticated group who sought to cover their tracks by deleting computer logs as they went. Before making transfers they sneaked through the network, inserting software that would allow re-entry.
Itâ€™s the sort of thorough operation often mounted by nation-state hackers, according to the report, but FireEyeâ€™s intelligence unit believes the group, which it has been tracking for some time, is criminal. “These threat actors appear to be financially motivated, and well organized,” the report said.
The heist, which saw payments processed through the bankâ€™s accounts at the US Federal Reserve and money moved to the Philippines and Sri Lanka, was part of a bigger attempt to steal nearly $1 billion in total from the central bank. It exposed weaknesses in systems, sparked a dispute between Bangladeshâ€™s central bank and its finance ministry and cost the central bank governor his job less than five months before he planned to retire.
The hackers sent $81 million from Bangladesh Bankâ€™s account in New York to the Philippines, and another $20 million to Sri Lanka. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York blocked transactions worth another $850 million. A bank in Sri Lanka stopped and returned the cash, while the money in the Philippines is still missing, leading to a Senate probe that is riveting the nation.
“Malware was specifically designed for a targeted attack on Bangladesh Bank to operate on SWIFT Alliance Access servers,” the interim report said. Those servers are operated by the bank but run the SWIFT interface, and the report makes it clear the breach stretches into other parts of the bankâ€™s network as well. “The security breach of the SWIFT environment is part of a much larger breach that is currently under investigation.”
SWIFT is a member-owned cooperative that provides international codes to facilitate payments between banks globally. It canâ€™t comment on the investigation, according to Charlie Booth from Brunswick Group, a corporate advisory firm that represents SWIFT.
â€œWe reiterate that the SWIFT network itself was not breached,â€ Booth said in an e-mail. â€œThere is a full investigation underway, on what appears to be a specific and targeted attack on the victimâ€™s local systems.â€ SWIFT said last week its “core messaging services were not impacted by the issue and continued to work as normal.”
Patrick Neighorn, a spokesman for FireEye, declined to comment on the report. An e-mail to Rakesh Asthana, managing director of World Informatix, wasnâ€™t immediately returned. A call to the companyâ€™s office wasnâ€™t answered. Subhankar Saha, spokesman for Bangladesh Bank, said heâ€™s not aware of the report.
The assessment found the first suspicious log-in came on Jan. 24 and lasted less than a minute. On Jan. 29, attackers installed â€œSysMon in SWIFTLIVE” in what was interpreted as reconnaissance activity, and appeared to operate exclusively with â€œlocal administrator accounts.â€