It takes a planet: Why international cyber security cooperation is more important than ever

The battle against cyber crime takes a unified, global front.In many ways, the internet has made the world smaller. Communication between people on different continents is now instantaneous. Files and information can be rapidly shared between disparate web users, and edited in real time. Events that occur on one side of the globe can be widely read about on the other side within the amount of time it takes to type it out and post it online. It’s almost like a human super power – while we cannot physically travel at the speed of light, our messages, our photos, our videos and our ideas quite literally can. 

But there’s a catch: It’s called cyber crime, and it’s a global crisis

Like all super powers, this one comes with its fair share of responsibilities, not the least of which is to ensure that it’s being used for good, which unfortunately, it is not. Cyber crime has been in existence as long as the internet and malicious humans have coexisted. As the number of ways we can plug in multiply thanks to the proliferation of connected end points, so too does the number of paths hackers can take to steal our personal information, our money, our trade secrets and our national intelligence.

Furthermore, as already illustrated, geography is essentially removed from the equation in the virtual world. Cyber criminals have the capacity to operate within one part of the world in an effort to impact another. We’ve witnessed this time and time again. And while most countries have some sort of federal agency that assists in the identification and neutralization of these threats, many a trail is lost or cut off overseas. There are countless cold cases when it comes to cyber crime. In fact, many of the most infamous breaches of the past 12 months remain shrouded in speculation. 

For instance, Ukraine was very quick to point its finger at the Russian government after several of its electrical utility companies were breached, resulting in power outages that affected roughly 100,000 Ukrainians. Shortly thereafter, CNN reported that U.S. intelligence also believed that state-sponsored hackers from Russia were responsible for the incident. Part of the reason U.S. officials were so concerned with the event was that many of the same weak spots that were exploited in the attack of the Ukrainian electric grid exist in American power plants. Even so, whether or not the Russian government partook in the cyber attack is as of yet inconclusive.

Let’s consider another case in point: the breach of the Office of Personnel (OPM) that occurred in summer 2015. In this instance, the personal information of nearly 22 million current and former government employees, as well as biometric data of about 5 million people, was stolen from right under the OPM’s nose. Soon after, the U.S. government pointed its finger at China. Incidentally, in December 2015, the Chinese government claimed that it had arrested the hackers responsible for the breach, and would be punishing them accordingly. For some, this may have come as a relief, but many government officials weren’t convinced. 

“”We don’t know that if the arrests the Chinese purported to have made are the guilty parties,” one U.S. official said, according to the Washington Post. “There is a history [in China] of people being arrested for things they didn’t do or other ‘crimes against the state.'”

For the sake of argument, let’s say this official’s theory were fact. If it had been a terrorist attack in the physical world, this type of cover up would not be possible. However, hackers are faceless, covert criminals who do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, and this makes it frighteningly easy to pass the blame. 

These examples illustrate two very important motifs about cyber crime:

1 / Firstly, many of the most infamous data breaches are international in scope, and remain shrouded in some dubiousness.

2 / Secondly, a cyber threat that has huge repercussions in one part of the world can be equally as devastating when applied somewhere else. 

It all adds up to the fact that cyber crime is without borders. It’s an international crisis, and one that needs to be dealt with on a global scale. 

International cooperation efforts leave something to be desired

At the moment, there’s no doubt that many countries do what they can to help one another out when it comes to cyber criminal investigations. Often, however, vital information falls through the cracks that could have been used to prevent future problems. Sadly, this is simply a result of poor communication between state governments. 

Consider the recent example of the Bangladesh Central Bank hack. This February, an anonymous group of hackers working from an unknown location successfully stole $81 million by infiltrating the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) – a secure, global messaging system that is used to transfer billions of dollars every single day. According to WIRED, the hackers responsible most likely managed to steal login credentials belonging to Bangladesh Bank employees, granting them unfettered access to SWIFT. They are believed to have then wielded malware that masked their actions from actual workers, so as to buy them time to wire the funds.

Shortly after the heist made international headlines, Tien Phong Bank in Vietnam came forward with information that it had encountered a similar attack orchestrated over SWIFT in the fourth quarter of 2015. The bank noted that it had succeeded in stopping the theft, which would have resulted in the loss of $1.1 million. Needless to say, this information could have been extremely useful for the sake of preventing the Bangladesh Bank breach. 

But the plot thickens. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported on the revelation of yet another SWIFT-related cyber heist that occurred in January of last year in Ecuador, resulting in the theft of $9 million. Astoundingly, the victim of the breach allegedly never informed SWIFT of the incident, which is extremely unfortunate. The execution of the attack was identical to that of the Bangladesh Bank incident. 

In other words, two multi-million dollar heists that used the same, if not identical, tactics, one successful, one not, preluded what would become one of the biggest heists in history. Bear in mind, no less, that the target amount for the Bangladesh Bank heist was not a measly $81 million. It was actually more to the tune of $1 billion. The only reason that the hackers didn’t hit their goal was because a routing bank noticed a typo in one of the company names that the criminals used for the wire transfer. 

So, to sum this up, the international banking system almost lost $900 million because, not one, but two countries, forgot to make a few very important phone calls, and then by some miracle, a few misplaced letters saved $800 million. The alphabet literally did more to prevent this heist than the combined knowledge of two sovereign nations. 

Let that sink in for a minute. 

Hope on the horizon: Global efforts may be gaining some traction

In late 2015, Trend Micro published its security predictions for 2016 in a report called “The Fine Line.” The research predicted several troubling trends, including the widespread proliferation of online extortion and a spike in the amount of mobile malware originating in China. Unfortunately, this prescience has come to pass.

That said, the report also predicted that anti-cyber crime efforts would become more global in scale. So far, this has proven to be true – albeit with very mixed results. In early July, for instance, there was some backlash following the announcement of the Wassenaar Arrangement. According to SC Magazine, the arrangement controls the sale of technology and software that can be used as a cyber attack tool. On the surface, this seems to be a step in the right direction; however, the Coalition for Responsible Cybersecurity faulted the provision for being too broad. Opponents argued that the rule would mean that they must obtain a license before exporting information about how a newly identified cyber threat works, which could increase the amount of time it will take to remediate the threat in other countries. Given that many cyber criminal organizations are already operating outside the law, it’s not entirely clear who this helps. 

However, the news is hardly all bad on the international front lines in the fight against cyber crime. At the sixth annual International Conference on Cyber Security in New York City on July 29, FBI director James Comey spoke about the newly announced Presidential Policy Directive 4. The initiative reaffirms the FBI’s role as leader in the fight against cyber crime, and as a facilitator of relationships between state agencies and industry professionals. Comey referenced the directive in context to growing concerns about nation-state sponsored cyber threats, and other emerging international cyber security trends, such as the use of dark-web communication platforms for the recruitment of terrorists. 

As if on queue, two days after Comey’s address, Trend Micro published a press release announcing that it has cooperated with The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to successfully take down a Nigerian cyber criminal mastermind known only as “Mike.” In a more detailed blog post, Trend Micro stated that Mike and his cyber criminal cronies operated out of Nigeria, Malaysia and South Africa, and that they have cost businesses more than $60 million in a series of cyber schemes, including business email compromise, 419 ploys and romance scams. 

This isn’t the first time Trend Micro has teamed up with INTERPOL to bring down cyber criminals. In fact the two entities have been collaborating since 2013

Nevertheless, there’s still work to be done in the global fight against cyber crime. Ransomware is being developed, bought and sold on the dark web. Business emails schemes are raking in billions of dollars every year. Hotels, restaurants and retailers continue to suffer point-of-sale breaches, despite the transition to EMV chip-reading technology. Nation-state sponsored attacks remain a grave concern. Terrorist organizations are actively recruiting on the internet. The virtual world is teeming with hackers and fraudsters. Cyber crime is a global epidemic, and as such, an international approach to beating it is necessary.

All we can do now is continue to band together in a joint effort, and keep fighting the good fight. 

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