Pan-European cybersecurity exercise simulates DDoS attacks on banks

European financial institutions, ISPs and government agencies participated in the cybersecurity exercise

Over 300 IT security professionals from banks, ISPs, telecommunication companies and government agencies participated in a pan-European cyberattack exercise on Thursday.

The exercise tested how the private and public sectors would react and cooperate in the event of a major DDoS (distributed denial of service) campaign against public-facing computer systems that provide financial services for millions of citizens and businesses across Europe.

A total of 25 countries actively participated in the exercise and four others acted as observers. The countries were either members of the European Union or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) -- a trade association between Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

Called Cyber Europe 2012, the cyberattack exercise was the second event of this type in Europe and was significantly larger in scale, scope and complexity than the one that took place in 2010. It was also the first time private companies were invited to participate in such an event.

The cooperation between the private and public sector is essential given the growing sophistication and scale of cyberattacks, European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes said.

The exercise was organized by the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) with support from the European Commission, and simulated over 1,200 separate cyberincidents as part of an escalating DDoS attack campaign.

A self-contained system that simulated the characteristics and performance of actual critical IT infrastructure was used during the exercise, according to ENISA. The participants had to respond and take action at the national level, as well as engage in cross-border cooperation.

The simulation of a DDoS attack against the computer infrastructure of financial institutions seems timely given the recent DDoS attacks against the websites of some of the largest U.S. banks.

During the past two weeks, a series of DDoS attacks have caused intermittent outages on the websites of Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, PNC Financial Services Group, Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, leaving many consumers unable to perform online banking operations.

According to security experts from DDoS mitigation vendor Prolexic, those attacks consumed up to 70Gbps of bandwidth, well beyond what the Internet uplinks commonly used by banks can handle.

"The recent attacks on U.S. banks just go to show the increasing sophistication of hackers, or cyber criminals, and that any site can be brought down -- even some of the most well protected organisations," Paul Lawrence, vice-president of international operations at network security vendor Corero Network Security, said Thursday via email. "This goes to show that DDoS attacks have gone from a minor annoyance carried out by bedroom hackers, to a serious security threat that ENISA feels needs to be addressed."

Speaking at the Conference on Cyberspace in Budapest on Thursday, European Commission Vice-President and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said that trust and confidence should be improved between the private and public sector on matters of cybersecurity.

"To address challenges posed by transnational cyberthreats, we also have to step up our efforts in increasing cyber security capacity globally," Ashton said. "To make sure we can do this, there is a need for new capacity building programs and also for better coordination of existing initiatives."

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