June 12, 2011

IMF The Target Of Sophisticated Cyber Attack

Less than a month after the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) managing director was arrested in New York, the agency was hit by what computer experts are calling a large and sophisticated cyber attack.

The IMF, which manages financial emergencies around the world and is a warehouse of highly confidential information for many nations, told its staff and board of directors about the attack on Wednesday, but stopped short of making a public announcement.

IMF spokesman David Hawley told reporters that the organization is fully functional but declined to provide further details on the "IT incident," including the scope or nature of the attack and whether any sensitive data was breached.

Members of the organization were given "the usual reminders" about computer security, Hawley said, and an intranet that links the IMF with the nearby World Bank was temporarily severed.

"This was a very major breach," one official told the New York Times. The official also said that it had occurred over the last several months, even before Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician who ran the fund, was arrested on charges of sexual assault in new York.

The hacking group Anonymous recently called for an attack on IMF computers "in opposition to the corrupt Austerity Plans of the Greek Government leaders and the International Monetary Fund." IMF officials earlier in June said they were taking steps to guard against an attack by the group. Hawley said fund investigators do not believe Anonymous was involved in this incident.

Concerns about the attack were so significant that the World Bank, whose headquarters are across the street from the IMF in downtown Washington, DC, cut the computer link that allows the two institutions to share information.

A spokesman for the World Bank said the measures were taken out of "an abundance of caution" until the severity and nature of the attack is understood. The link enables the two institutions to share nonpublic data and conduct meetings. Users of the system say the link does not permit access to confidential financial data, however.

Experts are not clear about the attack. It is possible hackers were not trying to target the IMF. Sometimes they try to distribute malicious code widely and see which organizations it can infect. But they can also choose targets. Using a technique called "spear phishing," for example, hackers can trick employees of a specific organization into clicking a link that then gives hackers access to its computer systems.

Dave Jevans, chairman of computer security firm IronKey Inc., told the Associated Press that he is concerned by an uptick in "hacktivism," where groups target organizations for political purposes.

Most companies and public institutions are often hesitant to publicly announce the nature or success of attacks on their systems, partly for fear of providing too much information that could be useful for further attacks.

However, Google has recently been aggressive in announcing such attacks, including a recent charge that the origin of one attack came from China, an accusation the Chinese government quickly denied.

The IMF said that it didn't believe that the attack on its systems was related to a sophisticated digital break-in at RSA Security in March, which compromised some information that companies and governments use to control access to sensitive computer systems. Hackers attempted to use the information stolen from RSA to gain access to computers and networks at the Lockheed Martin Corp last month.


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