NSA snooping extends global money transfers, say documents released by hackers

Spy agency penetrated the SWIFT system to monitor money flows in the Middle East and Latin America

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 4:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 12:44pm

Hackers released documents and files on Friday that cybersecurity experts said indicated the US National Security Agency had accessed the SWIFT interbank messaging system, allowing it to monitor money flows among some Middle Eastern and Latin American banks.

The release included computer code that could be adapted by criminals to break into SWIFT servers and monitor messaging activity, said Shane Shook, a cyber security consultant who has helped banks investigate breaches of their SWIFT systems.

The documents and files were released by a group calling themselves The Shadow Brokers. Some of the records bear NSA seals, but their authenticity could not be confirmed.

The NSA could not immediately be reached for comment.

Shook said criminal hackers could use the information released on Friday to hack into banks and steal money in operations mimicking a heist last year of US$81 million from the Bangladesh central bank.

“The release of these capabilities could enable fraud like we saw at Bangladesh Bank,” Shook said.

The SWIFT messaging system is used by banks to transfer trillions of dollars each day. Belgium-based SWIFT said on Friday that it had no evidence that the main SWIFT network had been accessed.

It was possible that the local messaging systems of some SWIFT client banks had been breached, SWIFT said in a statement, which did not specifically mention the NSA.

“We have no evidence to suggest that there has ever been any unauthorised access to our network or messaging services,” SWIFT said in a statement.

When cyberthieves robbed the Bangladesh Bank last year, they compromised that bank’s local SWIFT network to order money transfers from its account at the New York Federal Reserve.

The documents released by the Shadow Brokers on Friday indicate that the NSA may have accessed the SWIFT network through service bureaus. SWIFT service bureaus are companies that provide an access point to the SWIFT system for the network’s smaller clients, and may send or receive messages regarding money transfers on their behalf.

“If you hack the service bureau, it means that you also have access to all of their clients, all of the banks,“ said Matt Suiche, founder of the United Arab Emirates-based cybersecurity firm Comae Technologies, who studied Shadow Broker releases and believes the group has access to NSA files.

The documents posted by the Shadow Brokers include Excel files listing computers on a service bureau network, user names, passwords and other data, Suiche said.

“That’s information you can only get if you compromise the system,“ he said.

Cris Thomas, a prominent security researcher with the cybersecurity firm Tenable, said the documents and files released by the Shadow Brokers show “the NSA has been able to compromise SWIFT banking systems, presumably as a way to monitor, if not disrupt, financial transactions to terrorists groups”.

Since the early 1990s, interrupting the flow of money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militant Islamic groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries has been a major objective of US and allied intelligence agencies.