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What are the top five threats to financial services orgs? Imperva investigates

By Catherine Knowles
Mon 23 Aug 2021

Between January and May 2021, web application attacks on the financial services sector increased 38%, thanks in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is according to new research from Imperva Research Labs, which finds that financial services holds the title of ‘most breached sector’, accounting for 35% of all data breaches.

The pandemic has driven large scale growth in online banking, dramatically increasing the volume of sensitive customer data that’s available to steal, Imperva states.

According to the company's recent research, there are five stand out security threats for the financial services sector.

Sensitive data breaches

The surge in online banking and wider digitalisation within the financial services sector has resulted in most organisations needing to manage dramatically higher volumes and greater complexity of data, Imperva states.

This, along with the prospect of stricter data privacy laws on the horizon, is making sensitive data protection an unprecedented challenge.

The speed of change in this industry imperils security controls being applied to all data stores, which exposes many financial services organisations to increased risk and vulnerability to a data breach. Cybercriminals know this.

Attacks on sensitive data are escalating at high rate. Imperva Research Labs reported that more than 870 million records had been compromised in January 2021 alone. This is more than the total number of compromised records in all of 2017.

DDoS attacks

Layer 7, or application layer, DDoS attacks target the top layer or the application layer of the OSI model which helps facilitate connections over internet protocol.

Imperva states, the goal is to overwhelm server resources by flooding a server with so much traffic in the form of requests to connect until it is no longer capable of responding. The higher the number of requests per second (RPS) the more intense the attack.

Imperva's Digital Banking Report found that “improving the customer experience in banking” should be the first goal for financial service providers.

Those that invest in mitigating attacks that degrade the customer experience have higher rates of recommendation, greater wallet share, and are more likely to up-sell or cross-sell products and services to existing customers, the researchers state.

On the other hand, when customers are denied access to their online banking services the reaction is one of indignation; often resulting in them complaining on social media platforms, switching to a different provider, and damaging the bank’s brand.

Imperva Research Labs finds that the number of requests per second (RPS) in Layer 7 DDoS attacks targeting financial services tripled since April 2021.

RDoS threats

In late 2020, Imperva noted a considerable increase in the number of serious Ransom Denial of Service (RDoS) threats, targeting thousands of large commercial organisations globally including many in financial services.

RDoS campaigns are extortion-based Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) threats motivated by financial gain.

The extortionists often leverage the names of well-known threat actor groups in their extortion emails to demand payment in bitcoin currency to prevent a DDoS attack on the target’s network.

In the first six months of 2021, Imperva Research Labs noticed these threats were rising.

According to Imperva, the attack patterns this year are very similar to those in 2020 where:

  1. The extortionist sends an email, sometimes accompanied by a sample attack (that often takes the company offline for a short period of time).
  2. The target is given a week's notice to get the payment in order.
  3. The extortionist threatens to return with a massive attack at a scheduled time.

Client-side attacks

As highlighted by Imperva, client-side attacks happen when a website user downloads malicious content and enables a bad actor to exploit the website by intercepting user sessions, inserting hostile content, and conducting phishing attacks, for instance.

In financial services, these attacks focus on the skimming of payment information by exploiting third-party scripts used by thousands of websites across many industries.

Financial websites are relying more on third-party scripts to provide better services for their customers, but due to the high volume of digital transactions processing financial assets and other sensitive data, they are a rich target for client-side attacks.

Once credit card details are stolen, the data may be used immediately by cybercriminals to acquire goods or sold to other criminals for later exploitation. In either case, this poses a serious risk. Consumers and their financial services providers don’t find out until it is too late, Imperva states.

Supply chain attacks

Since 1999, the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) system has reported more than 150,000 CVEs (zero-day vulnerabilities) in commonly used software applications and components, according to Imperva.

Of these, more than 11,500 of them are characterised as critical-severity though it is commonly understood that the vast majority of software vulnerabilities remain unreported.

The front-to-back processing for all financial services integrates a complex set of software applications that involve back office, middle office, risk management, business developers, finance, and IT.

Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) are at the core of these applications, enabling them to communicate with one another.

APIs often self-document information, such as their implementation and internal structure, which can be used as intelligence to attack the software supply chain.

Additional factors such as weak authentication, lack of encryption, business logic flaws and insecure endpoints make APIs even more vulnerable to attack.

As financial services organisations partner with other companies to deliver and receive services, the supply chain attack surface grows and elevates the attack risk.

An under-protected supply chain makes an organisation an easy target for cybercriminals who know that vulnerabilities in software applications and APIs are a way for them to infiltrate and compromise a business.

As most of an organisation’s software these days is not proprietary, attackers will find ways to exploit the many different types of software applications a company may be using.

Since the Sunburst attack in late 2020 and others following it, one would naturally expect the priority of supply chain security to increase within organisations, but it hasn't. This has led regulatory bodies to take aim at the issue, Imperva states.

A closer look at the data being stolen and how to protect it

Imperva Research Labs finds that 74% of the data stolen in the past several years is personal data. This is generally defined as information that can be used on its own or with other information to identify, contact or locate a single person, or to identify an individual in context.

The widespread theft of personal data is a strong indication that many organisations are not putting enough protection into place to secure it, Imperva states.

In many instances, personal data theft from financial institutions is made easier because it is regularly shared between systems, people, and suppliers to complete transactions.

As regulations governing data privacy become more stringent, it will be critical for every organisation to have the capacity to discover, identify and classify personal data across their data estate.

Only when an organisation knows where personal data is hosted and what applications and users are accessing it, will it be able to extend the security controls that protect it.

Imperva states the best way to mitigate risk is to ensure the internal team can see the data first, then they can protect it and all paths to it.

This means protecting the organisation’s websites, mobile applications, and APIs from automated attacks without affecting the flow of business-critical traffic. It must also defend against DDoS injections and account takeovers outside the network core.

It also means providing business applications with full-function defence-in-depth with web application firewalls (WAFs), bot management, and runtime and API protection.

Most importantly, Imperva states it means having the capacity to discover and tag sensitive personal data as well as enrich and correlate the data to provide accurate behavioural analysis for threat prevention and mitigation.

This enables teams to automate the extension of security controls to all of data - on-premises and cloud-based, current and archived - to ensure continued compliance reporting, governance, and security for all data sources.

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