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Securing the SWIFT Infrastructure Across the Cyber Kill Chain

Author: Vimal Mani, CISA, CISM, Six Sigma Black Belt
Date Published: 10, July 2018
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Cyberattacks are emerging faster than ever across the world. Banking and financial services have particularly become preferred targets for notorious hacker groups such as Anonymous,1 Carbanak Group,2 Metel and GCMAN,3 who attack the banking and financial services sector on an ongoing basis. After the high-profile Bangladesh Central Bank heist4 in 2016, SWIFT has become a preferred target for many global hacker groups. Even the famous Shadow Brokers group announced that it offers a monthly information delivery service based on data stolen from SWIFT service providers and central banks across the globe.5

Figure 1 depicts the typical SWIFT architecture in a financial organization.

Lack of Understanding of APTs and Cyber Kill Chain of APTs Is the Major Cause

Many may say that poor firewalls and IT infrastructure caused the SWIFT hacking incident that happened at Bangladesh Central Bank. But the fact is, SWIFT attacks can happen in any banking and financial services organization, even those that have state-of-the-art IT infrastructure, security solutions and Security Operations Centers (SOCs) in place. So, what could be the real cause of these targeted attacks on the SWIFT infrastructure?

An analysis of all the latest cyberattacks targeting SWIFT infrastructure revealed the chain of events that happened before the final phase of the attack, in which data exfiltration/illegal SWIFT messaging occurred. These events did not happen in a single day. They were well planned and executed over a period of time. These events were basically driven by well-structured malware called advanced persistent threats (APTs).

In 2011, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defined an APT as follows:

An adversary that possesses sophisticated levels of expertise and significant resources which allow it to create opportunities to achieve its objectives by using multiple attack vectors (e.g., cyber, physical, and deception). These objectives typically include establishing and extending footholds within the information technology infrastructure of the targeted organizations for purposes of exfiltrating information; undermining or impeding critical aspects of a mission, program, or organization; or positioning itself to carry out these objectives in the future. The advanced persistent threat: (i) pursues its objectives repeatedly over an extended period of time; (ii) adapts to defenders’ efforts to resist it; and (iii) is determined to maintain the level of interaction needed to execute its objectives.6

APTs can be described as shown in figure 2.

The Stuxnet malware7 that was used in attacks on the oil and gas sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the recently identified Slingshot malware8 are classic examples of APTs that used highly complex attack techniques.

The chain of activities used by APTs is called the Cyber Kill Chain.

Overview of Cyber Kill Chain

Most of the major cyberattacks observed in recent history were not planned and executed in a single day. They were well thought out, planned and executed in a systematic manner over a period of time. There is a series of activities involved in planning and executing these cyberattacks—the Cyber Kill Chain, a concept invented by Lockheed Martin.9

The key phases of the Cyber Kill Chain are:

  • Reconnaissance
  • Development of a cyberweapon
  • Delivery of the cyberweapon
  • Exploitation and installation
  • Establishment of a command-and-control (C&C) center
  • Achievement of the objectives

This is the phase in which the hackers gather various kinds of information about the target and the target’s SWIFT infrastructure. Initial information gathering can be conducted by studying targets through public websites, social engineering with employees on social media and using other publicly available information from various forums. It may also include techniques such as scanning ports connecting the SWIFT infrastructure for vulnerabilities, and services and applications that are vulnerable and can be exploited. This phase can take place over the course of a few weeks, a few months or even more than a year, depending on the size of the target and its information protection measures.

Development of a Cyberweapon
In this phase, hackers analyze the information gathered in the previous phase to plan the weapon to be used in the cyberattack. This weapon is developed based on analysis of the information gathered about the target and its SWIFT infrastructure. For example, a hacker may embed a deliverable payload into a PDF or a Word document, or send a malicious URL that could redirect users to a malware-laden site. Attackers may target individuals within the organization through a variety of social-engineering attacks such as phishing and vishing.

Delivery of the Cyberweapon
The attack weapon developed is generally delivered to the target through malvertising—phishing emails having a malicious URL or attachment(s). Attack weapons may be secretly kept in a malware-laden website, enabling drive-by download attacks. The delivery of these weapons can also occur through a vulnerable application (particularly web applications), databases through cross-site scripting and Structured Query Language (SQL) injection attacks. These cyberweapons could even be easily planted on a Universal Serial Bus (USB) stick or other removable media. Endpoint devices remain the major targets for delivery of these attack weapons.

Exploitation and Installation
A cyberattack starts with malware entering into the victim organization’s information systems. The malware can be hidden from the scanning of security devices through a variety of methods, including tampering with security processes. An existing vulnerability in the SWIFT infrastructure may be exploited to deliver malware into the SWIFT infrastructure through various kinds of cyberattacks, without much difficulty.

Establishment of a Command-and-Control Center
Attackers set up dedicated command-and-control (C&C) servers to exfiltrate the data from the infected SWIFT infrastructure and to exploit the SWIFT infrastructure to send fraudulent SWIFT messages. These C&C servers use encryption techniques to hide their tracks. Once the malware is successfully installed in the targeted system, the hacker-controlled C&C servers start communicating with the installed malware. This allows hackers to remotely manipulate the compromised SWIFT infrastructure to manage, maintain and evolve the attack.

Achievement of the Objectives
After compromising a system, a hacker’s first job is to find unprotected servers containing sensitive, unprotected data that the hacker will start sending to the C&C servers previously established. As an objective, the hacker could even wipe out any unprotected data found. With this, the hacker has successfully accomplished the set of objectives behind the attack.

Figure 3 illustrates a Cyber Kill Chain of activities involved in a cyberattack.

Multiple potential areas of security risk need to be addressed in each phase of the Cyber Kill Chain, as related to cyberattacks launched on the SWIFT infrastructure of an organization. Figure 4 summarizes the various phases of the Cyber Kill Chain, security risk involved and some risk mitigation measures.

To effectively address the gamut of security risk factors involving the SWIFT infrastructure, the global SWIFT Corp. has issued a robust set of controls called the SWIFT Customer Security Controls Framework,10 which the corporation has mandated for use by the global banking and financial services community through regional central banks that are the regulators for specific regions.


Recent cyberattacks have shaken faith in the traditional security measures implemented at global organizations in and around the SWIFT infrastructure in place. So, it is an unavoidable obligation for chief information security officers (CISOs) and chief information officers (CIOs) to take a much deeper look into the Cyber Kill Chain of attacks targeted on SWIFT in their respective organizations and implement multilayered security controls in a defense-in-depth approach. This will help prevent cyberattacks in subsequent phases of the Cyber Kill Chain even if the previous phase has been successfully executed by the hacker. It is very important to mention that the business should provide all the support required to IT and information security teams in implementing and maintaining an effective security posture around the SWIFT infrastructure in the organization. It should never be seen as the responsibilities of only the IT and security teams. It is clear that securing the SWIFT infrastructure of an organization is the responsibility of the business, enabled by the IT and information security functions.


1 PYMNTS, “Anonymous Is Increasing Hacks of Central Banks,”, 20 March 2017,
2 Osborne, C.; “Carbanak Hackers Pivot Plan of Attack to Target Banks, the Enterprise,” ZDNet, 10 October 2017,
3 Kaspersky Lab, “Financial Cyberthreats in 2017,” SecureList, 28 February 2018,
4 Paul, R.; “Bangladesh to Sue Manila Bank Over $81-Million Heist,” Reuters, 7 February 2018,
5 Seals, T.; “Shadow Brokers Offer Monthly Service of SWIFT Info, Exploits and Nuke Data,” InfoSecurity Magazine, 31 May 2017,
6 Ross, R.; R. Graubart; D. Bodeau; R. McQuaid; Systems Security Engineering, SP 800-160 volume 2, National Institute of Standards and Technology, USA, March 2018,
7 Fruhlinger, J.; “What Is Stuxnet, Who Created It and How Does It Work?” CSO, 22 August 2017,
8 Kaspersky Lab Daily, “Slingshot APT: Riding on a Hardware Trojan Horse,” 9 March 2018,
9 Lockheed Martin, “The Cyber Kill Chain,”
10 SWIFT, SWIFT Customer Security Controls Framework,

Vimal Mani, CISA, CISM, Six Sigma Black Belt
Is the head of the Cyber Security Program of the Bank of Sharjah. He is responsible for the bank’s end-to-end cybersecurity program, coordinating cybersecurity efforts within the banking operations spread across the Middle East. Mani is also responsible for coordinating bankwide cybersecurity strategy and standards, leading periodic security risk assessment efforts, incidents investigation and resolution and coordinating the bank’s security awareness and training programs. He is an active member of the ISACA Chennai (India) Chapter. He can be reached at