Russian hackers attacked JPMorgan Chase & Co. and at least four other banks this month in a coordinated assault that resulted in the loss of gigabytes of customer data, according to two people familiar with the investigation.
At least one of the banks has linked the breach to Russian state-sponsored hackers, said one of the people. The FBI is investigating whether the attack could have been in retaliation for U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia, said the second person, who also asked not to be identified, citing the continuing investigation.
The attack led to the theft of account information that could be used to drain funds, according to a U.S. official and another person briefed by law enforcement who said the victims may have included European banks. Hackers also took sensitive information from employee computers.
Most thefts of financial information involve retailers or personal computers of consumers. Stealing data from big banks is rare, because they have elaborate firewalls and security systems.
JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank, said today it took additional steps to safeguard sensitive and confidential information. The company will contact any customers that might have been affected, though it hasn’t seen unusual levels of fraud, Patricia Wexler, a spokeswoman for New York-based JPMorgan, said in an e-mail. She declined to give examples of the firm’s stepped-up security.
The incidents occurred at a low point in relations between the U.S. and Russia. Russian troops continue to mass on the Ukrainian border even after U.S. and European nations have hurt the Russian economy with sanctions. Russia has a history of using criminals and other proxies to hit back at adversaries in cyberspace.
“The way the Russians do it, to the extent we can see into the process, is they encourage certain targets,” said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The Russians typically keep open the options to do something more, and the question now is what would trigger that and what would our response be.”
Investigators have determined that the attacks were routed through computers in Latin America and other regions via servers used by Russian hackers, according to people familiar with the probe.
The hackers used a software flaw known as a zero-day in at least one of the bank’s websites, according to one of the people familiar with the investigation. They then plowed through layers of elaborate security to steal the data, which security specialists said appeared far beyond the capability of ordinary criminal hackers. Zero-day is a flaw known only to the hackers, allowing them to take remote command of a computer.
The sophistication of the attack and technical indicators extracted from the banks’ computers provide some evidence of a government link. Still, the trail is murky enough that cyber criminals from Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe could be behind the assaults. Other federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, are aiding the investigation, said another person familiar with the probe.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is working with the U.S. Secret Service to determine the scope of “recently reported cyber attacks against several American financial institutions,” J. Peter Donald, a spokesman for the FBI in New York, said in a statement.