US prosecutors probing possible N Korean role in $81-mn Bangladesh bank heist

Federal prosecutors are probing the possible role of North Korea in the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh in what security officials feared could be a new front in cyberwarfare.

The office of the US attorney in Los Angeles had been examining the extent to which the bold heist in February 2016 had been aided by the North Korean government, according to a person briefed on the investigation who was not authorised to speak publicly, The New York Times reported.

To carry out the theft, the attackers, used the global payment messaging system, Swift, to persuade the Federal Reserve Bank of New York transfer funds from the Bangladesh bank to accounts in the Philippines.

Some 11,000 banks and companies use Swift to transfer money from one country to another.

The cyber criminals followed up the Bangladesh heist, with attacks on banks in Vietnam and Ecuador using Swift.

North Korea had not been publicly named in the Bangladesh heist until The New York Times reported last May that security researchers had uncovered evidence that pointed towards it (See: Hackers steal $101 mn of Bangla money from US Fed). 

The researchers uncovered a rare piece of code used in the theft had also been used in the hacking attack on Sony Pictures in December 2014 (See: US sees North Korea hand in Sony hack)

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal  citing people familiar with the matter as saying that prosecutors believed Chinese middlemen helped North Korea carry out the theft from Bangladesh's central bank, which was among the biggest bank robberies in modern times.

The report said the current cases being pursued might not include charges against North Korean officials, but was likely to implicate the country, as the  US accused a foreign government of orchestrating the heist.

According to the report, hackers breached Bangladesh Bank's systems and used the SWIFT messaging network to request nearly $1 billion from its account at the New York Fed.

Though the involved branch of the US central bank rejected most of the requests, it allowed some, resulting in $81 million disappearing into casinos and other entities in the Philippines.

According to a top police investigator in Dhaka who spoke to Reuters in December some Bangladesh Bank officials deliberately exposed its computer systems, enabling the hackers to get in.