Understanding the Hidden Threats in Financial Institution Data 

A close-up of a financial document with charts

Updated May 16, 2024

The global financial sector stands as a crucial pillar, driving the world economy, but it increasingly relies on digitization and large-scale data ingestion. The heart of its operations is the ceaseless influx of processed, analyzed, and stored data. Often sourced externally, data is vital in facilitating accurate financial decision-making, allowing for the efficient functioning of the financial services industry. 

Yet, an invisible menace lurks in the digital shadows: hidden malware threats. Malware, often housed in seemingly innocent files like documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, and images, pose significant risk to the security of the financial sector’s most critical asset. According to the DBIR 2023 report, financial motivations are the primary driver (95%) for cyber attackers. Lured by the potential monetary gains from breaching even one of these treasure troves of valuable information, cybercriminals deploy increasingly sophisticated attacks. 

This article delves into the hidden threats lurking within the various files essential to keeping this sector humming, including documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, and images. We will explore strategies for prevention and discuss the types of advanced technological solutions needed to combat these threats and ensure the sector’s cyber resilience.

Hidden Threats Abound in Finance

The financial sector relies heavily on ingesting vast amounts of data from external sources, making it vulnerable to hidden threats that can launch upon opening these files, including ransomware, rootkits, backdoors, and other malicious software (aka malware). Attackers gain elevated access and can infiltrate the financial system through these seemingly innocuous files, wreaking havoc on sensitive data, disrupting operations, and causing substantial monetary losses. 

Loan Documentation

Loan documentation is a critical component of the loan processing system, but it poses hidden threat risks due to its diverse formats and potential for containing malicious elements. When applicants submit loan documentation in various formats, such as scanned documents, PDFs, or digital images, these files may harbor hidden threats. The risk is exceptionally high when the sources of these documents are uncontrolled, such as from the personal computers of members of the public, as businesses have no control over the security of customer endpoints and their data. 

However, documentation is essential for effectively processing loans despite the associated risks. These documents must be uploaded, carefully reviewed, and securely stored to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and maintain their fidelity as valuable records. 

Shared Data

Shared data, including spreadsheets, play a vital role in various business operations, but it is not immune to hidden threats. These files often exchanged between branches, auditors, and for internal use, can contain malicious macros and other concealed threats. Losing functionality, particularly macros, can render these shared files useless, hindering essential business processes. 

While existing tools attempt to identify safe macros, even in the best-case scenarios, some safe macros may be disabled or blocked by these solutions. Accurately evaluating the full scope of macro functionality remains challenging without incorporating machine learning (ML) or artificial intelligence (AI) to assess a macro’s risk. 

It is worth noting that attackers have found ways to circumvent macro disabling from external sources. Moreover, hidden threats in shared data extend beyond macros; spreadsheets can still harbor standard embedded threats, further exacerbating the risks associated with these files. Much like other files, all it takes is opening them to start the attack cycle, launching the malicious payload embedded in them.

Web Browsing

While the web is a valuable resource for employees to gather information and perform their job duties, it also poses hidden threats that can compromise cybersecurity. One such threat is the watering hole attack, where attackers exploit the security vulnerabilities of less secure websites that will likely attract their intended targets. These websites can range from IT news sites and financial business news portals to reference sites focusing on finance regulations. The attackers embed malware within files and documents hosted on these compromised websites…or just locatable on Google images. Unsuspecting users unknowingly download and execute these files, triggering the malicious payload and initiating the attack. The objectives of such attacks can vary, from gaining unauthorized access to sensitive information to launching further targeted attacks.

Stopping Hidden Threats Before They Enter

In the battle against hidden threats, the most effective approach is to prevent them from entering the system in the first place, even before they reach the users. The traditional perimeters guarded by firewalls have evolved with the shift toward cloud-based solutions. Instead, the focus is now on setting up barriers between the threats and the users. This includes implementing measures such as file sanitization as data traverses boundaries. Uploaded files to cloud storage or servers must be scanned and cleansed of potential threats before storage. Similarly, emails must undergo rigorous checks and sanitization before they reach users’ inboxes. Collaboration tools, which natively lack mechanisms to identify and remove threats as they traverse the platform, need solutions to ensure the swift elimination of malicious elements to avoid rapid propagation through the environment. 

Stopping Hidden Threats Cold

To effectively combat hidden malware threats, a comprehensive solution combining detection, prevention, and analysis is essential to thwart these threats before they have a chance to take hold. Traditional antivirus (AV) software plays a crucial role in promptly detecting and eliminating known hidden threats. However, it often comes at the expense of deleting the infected file, potentially causing disruptions to business operations. In addition, it’s unable to identify and prevent unknown, zero-day threats.

A more advanced approach is Content Disarm and Reconstruction (CDR), which reconstructs potentially harmful files using known safe components, eliminating the risk of known malware and even zero-day threats. This process, known as Level 3 CDR, ensures high file fidelity, preserving critical functionalities like macros and formatting. Furthermore, the analysis phase combines traditional AV to review the data sanitized by CDR, creating a comprehensive record of what was eliminated. This approach allows for fine-grained performance auditing, providing proof of value and facilitating compliance with security standards. 

Protecting Sensitive Data From Malware

Vast amounts of sensitive data are constantly in motion in the financial sector, and protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is paramount. Malware hidden within everyday documents and files poses a severe threat, compromising the integrity of financial transactions and exposing customers to identity theft and fraud. This is where Data Detection and Response (DDR), specifically designed to handle such challenges, becomes crucial.

DDR technology specializes in detecting and neutralizing risks associated with data in motion. Through advanced anonymization and tokenization, DDR ensures that sensitive information is either rendered anonymous or substituted with non-sensitive placeholders. 

Anonymization techniques strip identifiable markers from data, making it impossible to trace back to the individual. Thus, even if data interception occurs, customer identities are safeguarded. Tokenization replaces sensitive data elements with meaningless tokens outside the organization’s secure environment. These methods prevent data leakage and ensure compliance with stringent regulatory standards like PCI-DSS, which are critical for maintaining operational integrity and customer trust.

Eliminating the Guesswork

In the fast-paced financial sector, employees don’t have the time to manage complex security processes. They require seamless security solutions that work effortlessly in the background. Automated security measures are crucial in providing this level of protection. Organizations can ensure that no essential security measures are overlooked by implementing automated solutions that protect at every step. These solutions should be integrated into pipelines to safeguard points of ingress and prevent threats from ever reaching storage or endpoints accessible to end users. 

Prioritizing prevention over post-attack detection is crucial for effectively halting an attack and reducing the work on remediation. By proactively eliminating threats before they can execute, the potential harm caused, commonly called the blast radius, is substantially minimized.

Protection You Can Rely On

Protect your financial institution from hidden threats targeting sensitive data with Votiro’s advanced DDR technology. Our Zero Trust cybersecurity solution leverages CDR and AV so you can safeguard sensitive documents and files while eliminating hidden malware and exploits. With Votiro, you can defend against document-based attacks, file-based vulnerabilities, and even zero-day threats, while maintaining the integrity of your content via our high-quality reconstruction process that leaves all safe functionality intact.

Don’t leave your organization vulnerable to privacy risks intentionally or unintentionally caused by hidden threats. Take proactive measures and partner with Votiro today to fortify your financial sector against cyber threats and ensure the security of your valuable assets.

Contact us today to learn more about Votiro sets the bar for data security within financial institutions. 

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