Russian hackers attacked the U.S. financial system in mid-August, infiltrating and stealing data from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and at least one other bank, an incident the FBI is investigating as a possible retaliation for government-sponsored sanctions, according to two people familiar with the probe.
The attack resulted in the loss of sensitive data, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the probe is still preliminary. Authorities are investigating whether recent infiltrations of major European banks using a similar vulnerability are also linked to the attack, one of the people said.
In one case, the hackers used a software flaw known as a zero-day vulnerability in one of the banks' websites. They then plowed through layers of elaborate security to steal the data, a feat security experts said appeared far beyond the capability of ordinary criminal hackers.
The incidents occurred at a low point in relations between Russia and the West. Russian troops continue to mass on the Ukrainian border and the West is tightening sanctions aimed at crippling Russian companies, including some of the country's most important banks.
The sophistication of the attack and technical indicators extracted from the banks' computers provide some evidence of a government link. Still, the trail is muddy enough that investigators are considering the possibility that it's cyber criminals from Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Other federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, are now aiding the investigation, a third person familiar with the probe said.
"The way the Russians do it, to the extent we can see into the process, is they encourage certain targets," said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The Russians typically keep open the options to do something more, and the question now is what would trigger that and what would our response be."
J. Peter Donald, an FBI spokesman in New York, declined to comment.
"Companies of our size unfortunately experience cyberattacks nearly every day," said Patricia Wexler, a JPMorgan spokeswoman. "We have multiple layers of defense to counteract any threats and constantly monitor fraud levels."