Banking and financial enterprises have taken information security more seriously in recent years than most other industry sectors. But that does not mean banking is safe. The number of vulnerabilities for a bank is roughly equal to how many account holders it has.
"Banks are doing a good job of protecting their systems," said George Tubin, senior security analyst with the security firm Trusteer. "The weak link is the customer, who has that direct tunnel into key apps, and is extremely vulnerable. Most of them don't understand how easy it is for malware to get onto a PC."
Tubin will be preaching the gospel of improved banking and finance security by improved customer security this afternoon (Wednesday) at the 26th Annual Windy City Summit in Chicago, a three-day conference for finance professionals.
He said he will talk about how the cat-and-mouse game between financial institutions and malware attackers has evolved to the point where not only have traditional firewalls and antivirus systems become obsolete, but also enhanced authentication techniques established by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC).
"Criminals figured out how to get around all those protections, and we started seeing tremendous losses again, especially from small businesses," Tubin said, noting that they are not as sophisticated or well-protected as larger institutions, "but have a lot more money in their accounts than individuals."
[See also: Banks warned on mobile security]
Today's attacks tend to try to penetrate banking systems through the curiosity, trust and lack of savvy of customers. "One of the easiest ways is phishing e-mail," Tubin said. "It offers you something, you click on a link and get malware downloaded. Or a site that you go to may be compromised, and your PC gets infected" in a drive-by download.
Once the malware is in place, "it watches to see what you're doing," he said. "It can do a session takeover, where it's in the background, submitting transactions to the institution and blocking you from seeing them. Or it will take your login credentials and wait for you to log out of your session. It shows you a page as if you've logged out, but it's still logged in and conducting transactions."
As other experts have noted, Tubin said the number of malware variants is "in the tens of thousands. One of the most popular is called Ramnit. It uses some Zeus code, and is used by 25% of all malware." Another is Torpig, a type of botnet spread by a variety of Trojan horses.
Tubin said he will, of course, talk about Trusteer solutions that, rather than trying to block malware, are designed to "detect the behavior" of malicious code. "Do we see an app trying to look at the click screen? The idea is to identify it as something not right, and remove it," he said.
But he said he would tell attendees that no single solution is adequate. "Having layered security is critical. We highly recommend different layers of protection, including good authentication, device ID and fingerprinting, transaction verification and link analysis."
"Then let's say you do find fraud -- there are techniques that let you very quickly see what that fraudulent entity might have touched," Tubin said.
He said some banks charge a modest fee to offer customers protection, while others give it away for free. "But it has large value [to both] in an area of very high risk."
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