Hacking the IMF is no mission impossible

The International Monetary Fund says it has fallen victim to a serious cyber-attack. Tabloid hacks after Strauss-Kahn's emails, perhaps?

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
The Washington-based IMF said it's investigating a serious cyber-breach; apparently a desktop computer at its HQ was compromised, as part of a systematic attempt by hackers to get access to sensitive information. The IMF hasn't said who it thinks the culprit was, and we may never know - although this hasn't prevented speculation that some malicious foreign government (guess who) was behind the attack. Coming soon after UK officials admitted there had been sustained cyber-attacks on both the Treasury and the MoD, it's another sign that the hackers are getting more sophisticated and daring. But for the IMF, it's just the kind of headache it didn't need, at a time when its ex-boss is in the dock on an attempted rape charge...

According to the New York Times, an internal memo to IMF staff revealed that 'suspicious file transfers' had been detected and eventually traced back to a particular computer, which had apparently been 'compromised and used to access some Fund systems'. It's now investigating the breach, presumably to work out exactly what the damage was (the IMF has confirmed the investigation, although it hasn't given any more details). But it was serious enough for the World Bank to cut its connection to the IMF, albeit out of 'an abundance of caution', in its own words.

So who's to blame? Presumably the best cyber-experts in the US will be trying to work that out in the coming months, but attacks like these are notoriously tough to trace. According to various security experts quoted in the press, this was a targeted hack over several months, with code written specifically for the purpose - and aimed at giving the hackers a presence within the IMF systems, where they could get at all the fund's economic data. One unnamed expert even told Bloomberg the hackers were connected to a foreign government - but we've no idea how they'd possibly know this.

We're not sure how much Dominique Strauss-Kahn's prospective replacement Christine Lagarde (or Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, the latest to throw his hat into the ring for DSK's old job) knows about combating cyber-terrorism; our guess is 'not very much'. But it's one of the main threats to organisations like the IMF these days - or indeed for any organisation that holds such sensitive information. Never mind the debate about whether the IMF needs an economist or a politician at the helm; maybe it would be better off hiring someone with experience at the other IMF - the Impossible Missions Force. Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

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