Russia Says Foreign Spy Agencies Plot Cyberattacks on Banks

(Bloomberg) -- Russia accused foreign spy agencies of preparing cyberattacks in dozens of cities to try to undermine its banking system.

Attacks may begin on Monday with the goal “of destabilizing the financial system of the Russian Federation, including the activities of a number of major Russian banks,” the Federal Security Service, the successor body to the Soviet-era KGB, said in a website statement Friday.

The attackers plan to use servers based in The Netherlands that belong to a Ukrainian hosting company, BlazingFast, the security agency known as the FSB said. The plot involves mass distribution of text messages and social-media blogs alleging a crisis in Russia’s financial system including bankruptcies and the removal of licenses from well-known federal and regional banks, it said.

The warning follows accusations that Russia meddled in U.S. presidential elections by hacking into the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Russian central bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina has pointed to new financial technologies as the biggest challenge for the regulator. Banks themselves are equally at threat: A commercial bank in Ecuador said it was held up for $12 million last year, while a bank in Vietnam said criminals tried, and failed, to steal $1.1 million in what experts say may have been a practice run for Bangladesh. In February, thieves made off with $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh.

Missile Drills

The central bank is aware of the threat, Nabiullina told reporters Friday. The regulator is working with the FSB and the Russian banking industry to counter any attacks and “the central bank has all the tools” to assist lenders that may need help, she said.

The FSB didn’t identify the spy agencies it said are involved in preparing the attack on Russian lenders. Its announcement comes amid tensions over Ukrainian missile-defense drills taking place near Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The Russian, Ukrainian, German and French foreign ministers also failed to make progress at talks in Belarus on Tuesday in implementing an accord to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine involving separatists backed by Russia.

BlazingFast has “plenty of clients leasing our servers” and the company hasn’t been contacted by law enforcement, Chief Executive Officer Anton Onopriychuk said by phone in Kiev on Friday.

“We will conduct an internal investigation, but it will take a lot of time, as it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said. “That’s why I can neither confirm nor deny this information at the moment.”

Agents are taking “necessary measures to neutralize threats to the economic and information security” of Russia, the FSB said in its statement, which didn’t explain why it decided to publicize the alleged plot.

The risk of cyberattacks is becoming more significant, the Bank of Russia said in a financial stability report published on Friday. Early this year, it said it discovered attempts to steal 2.87 billion rubles ($45 million) from lenders’ correspondent accounts at the regulator and thwarted the illegal transfer of 1.67 billion rubles

The central bank is starting a cybercrime laboratory to investigate attacks on lenders and develop expertise in dealing with them, Artem Sychev, the regulator’s deputy head of IT protection told a conference on Thursday, Kommersant reported.