Of all the horrifying scenarios that hackers could pull off — from launching nukes to spoofing air traffic control — the one that poses the biggest risk for Wall Street would be a cyber attack on equity markets.
In the summer issue of hacker magazine 2600, pseudonymous writer “Eightkay” shows how such a scenario could pan out:
Now imagine this attack scenario. Agents of an enemy of the United States successfully break into the mainframes of a High Frequency Trading Company, Dark Pool Crossing Network, or Brokerage Company. They infect the system with rogue trading algorithms or change the code on currently deployed algorithms. In a single coordinated attack, they buy and sell millions of shares of a single company or multiple companies, causing trading to halt or decimating the value of a single stock. Multiply that by 100 stocks of the top Fortune 500 companies and we have market collapse. Trading for the day would halt and uncalculated economic damage would be done.
The days of screaming floor traders have long passed as computers now make financial moves in microseconds. The shift has already given way to (non-hacker initiated) computer glitches costing serious money: Knight Capital lost $450 million in 2012, and Goldman Sachs is still trying to get to the bottom of $100 million in botched trades.
Hackers were able to “repeatedly [penetrate] the computer network” of the Nasdaq Stock Market in 2011 — although they luckily weren’t able to make into onto the exchange trading platform.
And a report from Reuters in July of this year found 53 percent of the world’s securities exchanges had experienced at least one cyberattack in the last year. Most were simple denial-of-service or virus attacks — but they are getting better.
“Cybercrime also appears to be increasing in terms of sophistication and complexity, widening the potential for infiltration and large-scale damage,” the report read.
While there are safeguards such as market monitors and circuit breakers, “Eightkay” writes, “this attack could happen quickly, rapidly, and across multiple fronts” laying waste to investor confidence and damaging the economy.
It’s also worth noting that “Eightkay” doesn’t advocate such an attack or show how it can be pulled of in his column. He’s simply sounding the alarm bell.