U.S. banks have been buffeted by more than a week of powerful cyberattacks, but the mystery surrounding their perpetrators lingers. One expert said Friday that he was suspicious of claims of responsibility purportedly made by Islamists angry at an anti-Muslim movie made in the United States. He said the widely circulated Internet postings may have been an attempt to deflect attention from the true culprit. “In the intelligence world, we call that a ‘false flag,’ ” said Mike Smith, whose Web security company Akamai has helped analyze some of the attacks.
The postings, published to the Web earlier this month, suggested that an obscure Islamist group had taken revenge on American financial institutions for the “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-budget U.S. film that ridiculed Muhammad, revered by Muslims as the last of God’s prophets.
Since then at least half a dozen banks – including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Charlotte-based Bank of America – have witnessed traffic surges and disruptions.
Bank of America is among those that haven’t commented on whether their website disruptions were the result of a cyberattack. But such surges are a hallmark of denial-of-service attacks, which work by drowning target websites with streams of junk data.
Such attacks generally don’t compromise sensitive data or do any lasting damage. Still, they can be a huge headache for companies that rely on their websites to interact with customers.
Most say the recent spate of attacks has been unusually powerful. PNC bank, which was hit Thursday, has never seen such a strong surge in traffic, spokesman Fred Solomon said in a telephone interview.
So who is behind the campaign? Cybercriminals often use denial-of-service attacks to shake down smaller websites, but major U.S. banks make unlikely targets for a protection racket. Could a state actor be at play? U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., without offering any proof, said he believed the assaults were carried out by Iran in retaliation for tightened economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.
The online attacks appeared to be easing. Solomon, the PNC bank spokesman, said that while traffic remained heavy Friday, the flow was gradually returning to normal.