Business, Economics and Jobs

IMF was hit by a serious cyberattack, described as a "major breach" by computer experts

The IMF acknowledged late Friday that it had been hit recently by what computer experts describe as a large and sophisticated cyberattack, according to the New York Times. The attack, whose dimensions are unknown, occurred sometime in the past several months, but no information was divulged about it until Wednesday, when the fund informed its staff and board of directors. It didn't make a public announcement.

There was “an incident of intrusion into our IT system,” David Hawley, a spokesman for the IMF, said Saturday. “We are investigating, and the fund is fully functional.” He declined to provide details about the intrusion.

The fund's computer system was attacked by hackers believed to be connected to a foreign government, and there was a loss of e-mails and other documents, Bloomberg News reported, citing an unidentified person familiar with the incident.

Senior officials with knowledge of the attack, which occurred before former Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on May 14 on charges of sexual assault, said it was sophisticated and serious. “This was a very major breach,” said one official, according to the New York Times.

The IMF, the intergovernmental group that oversees the global financial system, is a repository of sensitive information about the financial condition of each of its 187 member nations, and some of the data in its computer systems could conceivably be used to influence or trade currencies, bonds and other financial instruments around the world, the Wall Street Journal said.

The attack on the IMF comes at a time when world economic officials are debating possible changes to currency rules, developing new regulations for banks and financial institutions, and crafting guidelines for the management of the world’s top economies, all situations where inside information could be valuable to an investor or an interested government, according to the Washington Post.

The intrusion involved significant reconnaissance leading up to the actual attack, and code written specifically to penetrate the IMF, said Tom Kellerman, a former cybersecurity specialist at the World Bank who has been tracking developments, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"It was a targeted attack," said Kellerman, according to Reuters, that had as its goal the installation of software that would give a nation state a "digital insider presence" on the IMF network.

The attackers appeared to have gained broad access to IMF systems, which would give them a window into IMF plans, particularly related to bailing out the economies of countries on shaky financial footing, Kellerman said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

An intranet that links the IMF with the World Bank, located nearby in downtown Washington, was temporarily disconnected “out of an abundance of caution,” according to a bank official. He said that the link included only “nonpublic, nonsensitive” information.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined an investigation into the cyberattack, a US Defense Department spokeswoman, Lt. Col. April Cunningham of the Air Force, said in an e-mail on Saturday night, according to Reuters. The FBI, the US government's main criminal investigative body, said it couldn't comment on whether it was investigating.

The infiltration at the IMF is the latest in a series of high-profile hacks of companies including Google, Sony, Lockheed Martin and Citigroup, which have all occurred over the past three months, according to Bloomberg News.