Leveraging IT Infrastructure-as-a-Service Enables Agile Responses to Constantly Changing Threats

A Holistic Approach

Dave Mahon Vice President and Chief Security Officer, CenturyLink
Tony Kroell Vice President Product Marketing, CenturyLink

Financial Services firms are under attack.

The data security and IT integrity of financial services firms is under unprecedented attack. A startling increase in the sophistication and number of cyber attacks is forcing virtually every company to rise to a level of security consciousness that would have seemed excessive or even paranoid just a decade or two ago.  

That was then, before the words “phish,” “spam,” “virus,” and “Trojan” acquired new meanings and became part of everyone’s vocabulary. This is now. 

According to a recent study(1) of 130 enterprise and network operations professionals, both cloud service providers and traditional data centers are under attack. During the course of a 12-month period:

  • 94 percent of data center managers reported some type of security attacks.
  • 76 percent had to deal with distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on their customers.
  • 43 percent had partial or total infrastructure outages due to DDoS.
  • 14 percent suffered attacks targeting a cloud service.

Today, with so many potential attackers, it’s hard to draw up a reliable short list so that you can start the process of planning your defensive strategy. It’s even harder to thwart an attack if you don’t know what an attacker might be trying to achieve. 

Is someone launching a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack to shut you down for a few hours and create uncertainty among your customers? Or is that just a smokescreen for stealing credit card information? Or perhaps they’re trying to overwhelm your ISP so they can slip behind the defenses of another ISP customer.

It’s hard to say, especially because it’s no longer enough to just look for a profit motive. The attackers may be trolling for intellectual property. Or they may be seeking to cause damage for their political benefit. Often attacks are not motivated by monetary gain but by nihilism, vandalism, politics or ideology, bragging rights, or a host of other motives. 

Just as the landscape of potential attackers and motives keeps changing, so too does the arsenal of disruptive tools and techniques available to them. Today’s adversaries are much more sophisticated than ever before, with access to more code and expertise than existed just a few years ago. It’s not enough for your organization simply to thwart an attack: you have to continually prepare for the next one even though you can’t predict much about it — except that it’s likely to be smarter and stronger than the one you’ve just survived. You need to build up a dynamic and proactive defensive capability that protects you from attack and increases the speed and agility of your response to any threat.

Raising the Drawbridge is Not an Option

Financial services businesses — like organizations in all industries — have been outgunned by the hackers. Attacks are bigger and more sophisticated, and perimeters are more permeable than ever before. As Booz Allen observed, “The exponential growth of mobile devices drives an exponential growth in security risks. Every new smart phone, tablet or other mobile device, opens another window for a cyber-attack, as each creates another vulnerable access point to networks.”(2)  

It’s tempting to imagine walling off corporate systems, but current business practices won’t allow it. Cloud, social, and mobile technologies, including “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD), are simply too cost-efficient and effective for institutions to ignore. 

And, as a services institution, you have to meet your clients’ demands for easy access. Online banking has become the norm, with some 48 percent of SMBs conducting at least 50 percent of their banking online, up from 29 percent in 2010 and 39 percent in 2011, according to a recent survey.(3) In addition, the percentage of respondents who complete all their transactions online has more than doubled, from nine percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2012. There’s no retreating from the levels of openness and access that customers have come to expect.

Your Firm Has Already Been Infected

These days, every organization must base its security strategy on an acceptance that it is already “infected” with some form of malware, to some degree, with or without knowing it.

Because perimeters must be permeable to allow web server traffic to flow and employees to interface with customers and vendors, complete protection is impossible. Traditional defenses are still useful, from blocking and tackling to defense in depth. But you have to augment them by dealing with attack mechanisms that have infiltrated your business. You need to shift the focus of cyber-security tactics from building walls to analyzing, detecting, and expunging threats already inside your system. How can those be identified, stymied, and removed?

Due to the complex kaleidoscope of attackers, motives, and tools, these are difficult questions to answer. Yet the SEC — and your stakeholders — are going to be holding you responsible for doing so. SEC guidance is now that firms must declare any material risk to their networks, including the following:

  • Aspects of your business or operations that give rise to material cybersecurity risks, and the potential costs and consequences of those risks.
  • Functions that you outsource that have material cybersecurity risks, and how you address them.
  • Description of cyber-incidents you’ve experienced that are — individually or in the aggregate — material, including a description of the costs and other consequences. 
  • Risks related to cyber-incidents that may remain undetected for an extended period.(4) 

This is a lot of responsibility for a firm to shoulder, so many banks have reached out to the United States government for help. Firms have banded together to pool resources and knowledge in the face of this common threat. Increasingly, even the largest, most sophisticated financial services firms — like businesses in every other industry — have begun to realize that mitigation of security risks has become such a complex task that it’s much like a separate line of business. Which raises the question every firm should ask itself: do you want to be in the cyber-security business? Is state-of-the-art IT security a specialty that you want — or can afford — to build in house? 

“High-profile data breach events have hastened stakeholder focus on the ways in which sensitive data is housed and whether management is taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to protecting the data.”
Bloomberg Law Reports
What is the Next Attack?

Today’s threat environment comprises more attackers — and more tools — than ever before. It’s impossible to describe all the tools and other resources that may be used to launch an attack on your organization, because the scope is expanding all the time. Criminal enterprise supply chains sell inexpensive software tools that can be quickly customized to suit the attacker’s goals and avoid detection by systems. Commercial DDoS attack services and DDoS bots that combine high-volume bandwidth and low-volume application-level attacks are readily available and can be used to shut down your online services — and can also serve as a distraction while a more focused and stealthy attack takes place on your organization or on another organization that uses the same ISP. Public websites that your staff visits can be infected in a way that specifically targets your business. Wellcrafted spear-phishing emails can hook even senior and savvy employees. And new “bots” are continually evolving to be smaller, harder to detect, more effective, and more organized, making them impossible to flush out of systems.

Today’s threat landscape:

  • 111,111 unique strains of malware deployed every day
  • 10,000 malicious new domains deployed every day 
  • 1,100 DDoS attacks launched every day 
  • 47.59 Gbps peak attack (just one recent example)  1,057 active botnets

Where is the Next Attack Coming From?

This continually evolving arsenal of tools is in the hands of a wide range of attackers, from shadowy organizations and individuals such as nation-states, criminals, hacktivists and terrorists, to the most damaging attackers of all — well-known and even well-liked insiders.


Recent news has highlighted the cyberterrorist activities of nation-states motivated by political and ideological differences. Iranian terrorists carried out cyber-attacks on nine of the US’s leading banks using data networks or clouds — like those run by Amazon and Google — as well as a host of smaller companies. They may have been behind the “Operation Ababil” DDoS attacks that caused disruptions at major banks. Using servers and customized malware, the attackers leveled between 70 Gbps and 100 Gbps of peak traffic at the targeted sites and tailored the campaign to get around defenses specifically designed to stop floods of data.


Criminals are everywhere — and cybercriminals are also nowhere, making them virtually impossible to catch. Young hackers are being offered large sums of money — and bragging rights — in exchange for taking on the challenge of bringing down major institutions. As one example, a cyber-gang thought to be based in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is recruiting dozens of people to participate in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from 30 major U.S. banks, according to RSA. The organizers are thought to be associated with the Hangup Team, which claims to have used a proprietary Trojan family, called Gozi, to siphon $5 million through online banking accounts since 2008. This is just one example. There are likely to be many more such gangs in operation.

Hacktivists and cyber-terrorists

Hacktivists and cyber-terrorists, some sponsored by nation states and others working only for themselves or small groups, are motivated mostly

by the desire to destroy prosperity and stability. Security organizations track pending campaigns, and warn that some of the threats on the horizon could be devastating to financial services firms. Project Blitzkrieg, for example, is a “credible threat” according to McAfee Labs, because though it hasn’t yet infected thousands of victims, the attackers have managed to run an operation undetected for several months while infecting a few hundred businesses. This attack combines an innovative technical backend with the tactics of a successful, organized cybercrime movement. Rather than launch a sweeping attack, McAfee said the campaign selectively targets accounts at investment banks, consumer banks, and credit unions, because doing so makes it easier for attackers to evade network defenses. While it is possible that Project Blitzkrieg will fizzle out, causing almost no damage, there will be more such attacks, and some of them will be larger, more sophisticated, and potentially more devastating to the financial services industry.


Insiders include current or former employees, contractors, or other business partners who have or had authorized access to your network, system, or data. Because they can bypass your security measures through legitimate means, they can misuse that access and knowledge to impact the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of your information or information systems. Privileged access enables insiders to inflict more damage than almost any other attackers. Sometimes, they do so unintentionally, through error or carelessness. But if managers in financial services organizations set out to commit fraud, studies show that their schemes tend to cost organizations twice as much as when non-managers instigate these crimes.

Your customers’ employees pose an insider risk, too. SMBs report malicious or rogue company employees as the cause of online fraud in 42 percent of fraud cases involving their financial institutions. One survey revealed simple employee carelessness to be the root cause of a data breach in 78 percent of such cases, but despite this trend, only 15 percent of SMBs conduct fraud prevention education.(5)

What Does an Attack Cost You?

Some attacks are aimed at defrauding financial services firms. In these cases, it can be relatively easy to quantify the monetary damage your firm suffers: an average mid-sized enterprise with $10 million in annual revenue could lose more than $150,000 from just one successful DDoS attack.(6)  But attacks can be even more damaging in ways that are less easy to measure. Your firm’s credibility suffers when customers experience down time as a result of a DDoS attack. Your brand loses value. Customer satisfaction decreases, too, as some attacks can take a site offline — or reduce performance to a crawl — for hours. During that time banks often suffer losses in sales opportunities and revenue because they are unable to respond promptly to market conditions. 

Productivity takes a hit as well, as highly-paid employees are forced to idle, waiting for service to be resumed. Long after the attack is over, your firm could still feel the effects of loss of customer confidence. Your SMB customers view security as your job, not theirs. In fact, according to a recent survey, 10 percent of SMBs don’t even use basic firewalls and perimeter controls, anti-virus/anti-malware solutions, or database security tools. This means that if a fraud incident occurs, they will blame you. In a recent survey, 70% of SMBs who had experienced a single instance of fraud reported diminished confidence; approximately 40% closed their accounts and switched to other financial services providers.(7)

What Can Your Firm do for Itself?

Like most financial services firms, you have probably already taken extensive precautions in house. You’ve almost certainly locked down applications and servers, configured perimeter firewalls to block known network DDoS attacks, and implemented as many of the other 30 or so security best practices set out in various websites(8) as you could afford to do.

But is that enough?

In every industry, firms are asking the same question — and in the high-profile, high-stakes world of financial services the question is even more

urgent. Increasingly, firms are weighing the merits of buying IT security services, rather than trying to build (and maintain) their own. Today’s constantly changing landscape of threats and rapid evolution of new technologies make it difficult for most firms to fend off attacks. Leveraging the scale and — most importantly — the expertise of IT security services providers offers your organization a way to gain higher-quality protection, more cost-effectively, than you could do on your own. 

Buying IT Security as a Managed Service

Depending on the provider and package, buying IT security as a managed service can provide your firm the hardware, software, infrastructure, and — most critically — the information and expertise that you need to protect your business in today’s complex and evolving threat environment. This is not a complete list, but it does cover some of the most important — and some less well-known — security issues to consider.

DDoS mitigation services should be at the top of your list of required services. Consider only those providers who can detect attack traffic on their or your network before it impacts your infrastructure. Providers should be able to divert traffic and cleanse it of malicious packets before forwarding it to your site. Services can be expensive, so look for one that charges only a low monthly “retainer fee,” plus an hourly charge for traffic cleansing, so you get protection but don’t pay a large monthly premium for mitigation you may rarely need. You’ll also want one that commits fully to standing by you in case of an attack, with skilled analysts who not only monitor the network for attack traffic, but also work with you around-the-clock during an attack to deploy any available countermeasures to keep your site protected.

Web application protection can help your organization to costeffectively protect its sensitive financial, human resources, and customer credit card data from application-based attacks by detecting and blocking malicious web requests, learning the expected usage and monitoring activity of protected applications, and inspecting outbound traffic to ensure no data leakage — all with minimal latency.

Cloud computing security services are essential for your hosted or internal cloud. Your provider should secure your data through encryption and masking but allow you to remain in control of it. In order to buffer your infrastructure from the dangerous world that exists beyond your network, the provider should proactively identify attacks that can pose the greatest threats to your highest-value IT assets, filter out insignificant attacks so you can focus on the more critical ones, and continually scan for internal vulnerabilities.

Log management may not seem like a front-line security issue, but it is important as the volume of log data you accumulate increases and as compliance requirements proliferate. There’s a lot of work involved in collecting, analyzing, and archiving IT logs. Look for a service that can cost-effectively assist your organization in addressing its compliance requirements, such as the PCI DSS requirement that any entity that processes credit card data must securely gather, analyze, and archive specific log data, making it available online for 90 days and archiving it for 12 months. And to help you get value from that data, it should also provide an easy-to-use interface that includes a broad range of standardized reports as well as the ability to customize reports to meet your specialized requirements.

Network intrusion detection and prevention can help you keep pace with the growing volume of increasingly complex cyber-attacks. Look for a service that will alert you when a critical threat that might have a significant impact on your security infrastructure appears and respond around-the clock with appropriate action based on your preferences. Even when no threat is on the horizon, you should seek a service that configures, monitors, and maintains Intrusion Detection and Prevention (IDP) sensors, and provides ongoing detailed monitoring and reporting for a better view of potential problems and vulnerabilities.

Content integrity monitoring too often flies under the radar of internal security groups. But with some attacks focused on tampering with data in files, you need a service that helps you keep a constant watch on your mission-critical files and programs. Look for one that monitors critical directories and files residing on a host computer and alerts you whenever specified files undergo an unexpected change. 

A State-of-the-Art Solution: CenturyLink Managed IT Security Services 

CenturyLink offers all the state-of-the-art services described in this paper — and more. Whether you want security protection delivered at your premises, within a CenturyLink data center, or “in the cloud,” we’ve got you covered. Our services range from a basic firewall to comprehensive security coverage that includes threat management, DDoS attack mitigation, log management, web application protection, authentication and authorization services, and physical data center security.  When you select CenturyLink as your managed security services provider, we enter into a partnership with you, helping you assess your organization’s unique risk profile and threat landscape, spelling out the protective measures available to you, and then working with you as you decide which security tasks you’d prefer to handle in-house and which you would like us to take on.

No matter which path you choose, you’ll be able to tap into the unmatched range of skills of our corporate security team. Security is not a sideline for us: it’s the heart of our business, and we invest in it accordingly. We have staff focused exclusively on network security, physical data security, infrastructure, law enforcement, national security, fraud management, enterprise technology protection, and enterprise security. Specialists in each of these areas interact to gain fresh perspectives on current, emerging, and future threats to our clients. In addition, we are engaged in state-of-the-art information sharing and technology through public-private partnerships, including the FCC Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC), and with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and The White House.

Government and private-sector organizations worldwide must take responsibility for protecting cyberspace, and information sharing among these organizations is likely to grow, particularly following President Obama’s announcement of an executive order to improve the nation’s cybersecurity.

CenturyLink infrastructure by numbers:
  • 50+ data centers in North America, Europe and Asia
  • 1,500+ enterprise security clients • Hundreds of financial services clients 
  • 5,000+ security installations under management
  • 12+ years of delivering security

CenturyLink is positioned to be a key player in any such initiatives. The CenturyLink infrastructure includes more than 50 data centers in North America, Europe, and Asia, serving more than 1,500 enterprise security clients and hundreds of financial services clients. With more than 5,000 security installations under management, and a track record of more than 12 years of delivering security, we have unparalleled expertise in security for enterprise IT. And, unlike some vendors, we are completely technology agnostic. We adopt only best-of-breed products to address emerging threats.

Can You Afford State-of-the-Art Security? Can You Afford not to Have it?

Growing a financial services business has always required cultivating customer relationships and decreasing churn. These days, security and customer confidence are critical to that effort — and your business’ revenues. You should consider making security a prominent part of your marketing and outreach activities, to communicate to customers and prospects that you offer unparalleled security for their business.

To deliver the security customers demand of their financial services providers today requires expertise and resources that few firms have in house. If you wanted to create state-of-the-art security in house, just keeping your equipment and software current would take up a huge share of your total IT budget. 

Security technologies are expensive, and constantly changing. But that’s not enough. You would also need to find — and recruit and retain — skilled security professionals. These people are rare, and charge a premium for their services. You might choose to turn to your partners and third party providers for assistance with security, but unless you can be certain of every member and every system within that larger ecosystem, you could be increasing your company’s vulnerability rather than decreasing it.

CenturyLink has the scale and resources to provide the worldclass security your firm needs in order to maintain and grow its business in today’s ever-changing and darkening threat environment — all at a commodity price. Call us today to start the conversation about how CenturyLink Managed Security Services can help your organization protect itself — and its customers — from evolving internal and external threats. 

1 Worldwide Infrastructure Security Report, 2012 Volume VIII, Arbor Networks
2 “Booz Allen Reports Top Ten Cyber Security Trends for Financial Services in 2012,” www. Boozallen.com
3 “2012 Business Banking Trust Trends Study,” Ponemon Institute, August 2012
4 Bloomberg Law Reports, January 3, 2012, Vol 6 No 1
5 2012 Business Banking Trust Trends Study, Ponemon Institute, August 2012
6 2011 DDoS Attacks: Top Ten Trends and Truths, Neustar, 2012
7 2012 Business Banking Trust Trends Study, Ponemon Institute, August 2012
8 http://www.checkpoint.com/defense/advisories/public/cpsa_index.html