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Here’s a good recap of the recent
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on banks, for anybody who hasn’t followed the mounting Cyber Security threat.
What should banks large and small learn from the DDoS
attacks that crippled websites and shook consumer faith in the industry?
Here’s what Rodney Joffe,
one of the world’s leading experts, has to say.
Starting in mid-September, one of the largest and most
sophisticated DDoS attacks ever targeted the titans of American banking.
Initially, victims included Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC
Bank, and U.S. Bancorp. In the weeks to come, others would also feel the pain.
Websites crashed, customers were unable to make transactions and IT
professionals and PR gurus went into panic mode. Leon Panetta, then-U.S. Secretary
of Defense, said the attacks foreshadowed a “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” While
evidence still continues to emerge, the following lessons are clear enough. All
spell danger, for banking and the world in general.
attacks have entered a dangerous new phase. A combination of size
and intelligence marked these attacks. While they peaked at between 60 and 150
Gbps (most DDoS attacks are smaller than 1 Gbps), the assaults on banks
involved only 2,000–3,000 computers, not the tens or hundreds of thousands we’ve
seen in botnets before. The difference: most of the compromised systems were
powerful business machines, rather than traditional home computers, with access
to significantly more bandwidth to help flood connections. First, the attackers
hit web resources with large numbers of HTTP (web) traffic and then moved on to
DNS servers, which tend to be more vulnerable. The result was a curious hybrid:
a highly strategic, brute-force attack that left its victims reeling. Clearly,
the attackers were well acquainted with how the Internet works.
2. Who did it and why are less important than the fact it could be done. An Islamic group calling itself the Cyber Fighters of
Izz ad-din Al Qassam claimed credit for the attacks, allegedly retaliating for
an anti-Muslim video. While some suspect the hand of Iran behind these
concerted strikes, no one has provided definitive proof of the culprits’ identities
or motives. It’s possible a nation-state or terrorist cell is guilty. It’s also
possible for the proverbial basement genius to have done it. And that’s the
scariest part. Anyone with sufficient knowledge could have pulled this off.
Whoever it was didn’t need millions of dollars or a global support network. If
you truly know how the Internet is architected, you can succeed in taking down
whole industries, no matter who you are and whatever your reasons may be.
reputations have suffered. So far, nobody has reported stolen data or major
revenue losses, though of course most organizations are in no rush to admit
such breaches. Unquestionably, however, America’s largest banks have lost a
measure of public trust. Online forums lit up as website outages dragged on.
Bank customers wondered aloud about security readiness. Some feared for their
data and ultimately their money. As September rolled into October, there were
concerns about defaulting on mortgage payments and other monthly bills because
customers couldn’t log in to their bank accounts. While some banks did a good
job of keeping customers apprised, no one had reassuring news. The best they
could do was spin.
Traditional DDoS protection proved to be ineffective. Most
companies rely on firewalls and intrusion detection/ protection systems to
repel DDoS attacks. Some even have their own DDoS mitigation appliances, though
many lack the trained staff to wield them effectively. When banks got socked by
malicious HTTP traffic, firewalls may have worked to a point but finally turned
into bottlenecks. And when enormous amounts of bad DNS traffic showed up, it
was game over. Traditional systems simply were not up to the task. Pipes got
flooded, outages occurred and the cavalry was called in – third-party DDoS
protection specialists with cloud-based solutions affording more bandwidth and
a better chance of success.
5. Smaller banks weren’t hit, but are more vulnerable. Think about it. The largest banks have the budgets to
spend on DDoS protection. While their solutions couldn’t stop these recent
attacks, they can stop most – the 90% less than 1Gbps in size. Small banks, on
the other hand, lack the protection to stop even these. A modest-sized attack
can cripple their operations. This makes local and regional banks extremely
vulnerable. Third-party solutions, especially affordable on-demand services,
are a good bet for smaller players who cannot build their own.
6. The attacks demonstrated the need for holistic DDoS protection. It’s not nearly enough to have a customized firewall
or a mitigation appliance, especially one nobody has thought to tune in months.
To repel today’s attacks you also need enormous bandwidth, skilled mitigation
staff and diverse technologies, a mix that stops both HTTP and DNS attacks
along with the application-layer attacks that have become so popular. In other
words, you have to be ready for anything. Building on the bank attacks, the
next wave of DDoS will surely be comprehensive – in strategy, tactical skill
and destructive power.
7. The Internet itself was the attackers’ arsenal. Yes, for years now DDoS attackers have marshaled
botnets to do their bidding. But the bank attackers showed an unprecedented
understanding of the Internet’s potential as a kind of weapons storehouse.
Everything they needed was out there for the taking: high-capacity servers,
bandwidth galore and information on the business networks in their crosshairs.
The attackers showed great patience and impressive intelligence gathering. They
clearly learned from past attacks and successful defenses. Their own success in
taking down the nation’s largest banks will prove to be an “Aha!” moment for
aspiring miscreants. Knowing there is no protocol to stop attacks at their
sources, future attackers likewise will plunder the Internet, cobbling together
the resources and bandwidth to flood pipes, take down websites and leave business
Last thought: The banking industry leads the world in protection and
security practices. If these attacks could happen to banks, they can happen to
anyone. They truly are a when, not an if.