By Sowmya Karun
In the Union Budget for 2017-18, Finance Minister Mr. Arun Jaitley announced the setting up of a dedicated Computer Emergency Response Team for the Financial Sector (Cert-Fin). The proposed emergency response team is slated to work in co-ordination with financial sector regulators and other stakeholders.
This announcement comes on the heels of the Government’s demonetisation initiative. Demonetisation led to a substantial rise in the volume of digital payments and the use of instruments such as mobile wallets. The cumulative growth of electronic transactions has been reported to range between 95 per cent and 4,025 per cent from November 8 till December 27, 2016. This transition towards digital payments in the financial sector is slated to continue, with one report predicting that by 2020, the digital payments industry will grow to over $500 billion and contribute 15% to the national GDP.
In a previous post, we had examined the legal and policy regime relating to digital payments in the country. In this post, we examine technological vulnerabilities in the financial sector, as well as measures taken towards strengthening cybersecurity.
Cyber Security Vulnerabilities in the Financial Sector
The exponential growth in digital payments in India and the push towards a cashless economy has renewed focus on the need to strengthen financial cybersecurity. Banks and financial institutions are extremely vulnerable to various forms of cyberattacks and online frauds. India has steadily moved up the ranking for countries with the highest number of financial Trojan infections over the past three years. At least forty percent of Banking, Financial Services and Insurance (‘BSFI’) businesses have been attacked at least once. A six-fold increase in credit and debit card fraud cases has been reported over the past three years. In addition to core banking, additional services like e-banking, ATM and retail banking are also increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime. Mobile frauds are also expected to grow to 60-65% in 2017, which is especially alarming because 40-45 % of financial transactions are being conducted on mobile devices today.
The Indian banking landscape has seen several large-scale cyberattacks over the past year. Since June 2016, the SWIFT systems of four Indian banks have been targeted. In October 2016, in what was the largest data breach in the country ever, 32 lakh debit cards of various banks were subject to a cyber malware attack. Earlier this year, it was reported that hackers had infiltrated the systems of three government-owned banks to generate false trade documents. The increased focus on cybersecurity in banks follows not only domestic incidents but global developments as well. In its bulletin on security measures, for instance, the Reserve Bank of India makes reference to the Carbanak Gang which targeted bank’s internal systems across Russia and Ukraine to conduct a robbery of around $ 1 billion. Closer home, in February 2016, there was an attempted heist of around $951 million from the Bangladesh Bank.
Cyber Security Framework for Banks
In October 2016, the Reserve Bank of India directed banks to implement a security policy containing detailing their strategy to for dealing with cyber threats and including tangible “cyber-hygiene” measures. This was following a renewed emphasis on the early implementation of the RBI’s Cyber Security Framework in banks. The RBI had first notified the Cyber Security Framework (‘Framework’) in Banks in June 2016. The Framework was a successor to broad guidelines on information security and cyber frauds which had been issued in line with the recommendations of the Working Group on Information Security, Electronic Banking, Technology Risk Management and Cyber Frauds in 2011.
The Framework is geared towards minimising data breaches and implementing immediate containment measures in the event of such breaches. It emphasises the urgent need to put in place a robust cyber security and resilience framework and to ensure continuous cybersecurity preparedness among banks. The Framework also mandates the adoption by banks of a distinct cybersecurity policy to combat threats in accordance with “complexity of business and acceptable levels of risk” within a set deadline. Further, the Framework requires the earliest setting up of Security Operations Centres within banks for continuous surveillance; disallowing unauthorised access to networks and databases; protection of customer information; and the evolution of a cyber crisis management plan.
Other Measures by the RBI and the Government
The RBI has also identified the need to evolve a framework for co-ordination and information sharing between financial institutions and public authorities in the event of cyber attacks. To this end, the RBI recently appointed its first information security officer and has formalised a sectoral sharing interface called the Indian Banks- Centre for Analysis of Risks and Threats (IB-CART). Further, the RBI also issued an ultimatum to banks, requiring them to report any breach of security immediately. Banks have been given until March 31, 2017 to put in place appropriate mechanisms.
Previously, there was limited reporting by banks as they were reluctant to report cyberattacks fearing devaluation of brand equity. Even in the event of large-scale cyberattacks, such as the above-mentioned malware infection which affected 32 lakh cards, it took six weeks to detect the fraudulent transactions. To counter this, and to enhance cyber resilience, the Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology (‘IDBRT’) has been attacking vulnerabilities in banks’ security networks. This will enable them to share feedback with banks to improve their resilience. Further, the Chief Information Security Officers of banks have also set up a forum to discuss cyberattacks and to share information, manage and plan for issues related to information security. The Ministry for Electronics and Information Technology has also formally urged banks to co-operate with the CERT-In for carrying out audits and other measures to strengthen their cybersecurity systems.
While these proactive steps being taken by the RBI and the Government are timely and much-needed, the resilience of our banking infrastructure against cyber attacks will depend on co-ordinated action from all stakeholders. The Cyber Security Framework must be strictly implemented in a timely manner, with regular audits to ensure comprehensive compliance. Cybersecurity at banks and financial institutions needs to be prioritised as part of the design architecture and must not remain restricted to reactive fire fighting during crises. Cyber security solutions must be deliberately designed to enable stemming of cyber attacks in real time. Experts also suggest that the most effective ways to move forward with digitisation in order to ensure banks remain completely secure include the embracing of crypto-currencies and blockchain technology. Further, the Information Technology Act, 2000 is also ripe for a complete overhaul to counter the increased security risks in a cashless economy. These measures, of course, must also be accompanied by attempts to ensure widespread consumer education and awareness.
Sowmya Karun is a Project Manager at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi