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It's a war game, Wall Street style.
Banks large and small are girding for an elaborate drill this week that will test how they would fare if hackers unleashed a powerful and coordinated attack against them.
The exercise is called "Quantum Dawn 2," and if the name sounds like a video game, it's also meant to convey the seriousness of the threat.
Cyber-attacks on the banking industry are growing more frequent and sophisticated and the list of assailants is ever-changing: crime bosses who want money, "hacktivists" who want to make political statements, foreign governments that want to spy on U.S. companies. A successful, widespread attack on the industry would shake confidence in the banking system, and the possibility has banks and regulators on edge.
Jamie Dimon, CEO of the country's biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase, acknowledged that attacks are becoming more complex and dangerous, no longer carried out by "fairly simplistic" hackers commandeering people's personal computers.
"Now you're talking about state-sanctioned folks, hundreds of programmers," he said in a call with reporters this spring, "taking over not just PCs but servers and mainframes."
JPMorgan and peers like Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo have signed up for Thursday's drill, which is being organized by Wall Street's biggest trade group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or SIFMA.
About 50 banks and organizations will participate, including government agencies like the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI.
During the drill, bank employees will be stationed at their normal offices, and will be blasted throughout the day with bits of information that could indicate an encroaching hacker attack. They'll monitor a simulated stock exchange for irregular trading and will be pressed to figure out what's going on and how to react while sharing information with regulators and each other.
As the name suggests, this isn't the first Quantum Dawn. The original drill was in November 2011, and it attracted scant attention and only about half as many participants. But that was before a wave of cyber-attacks last fall, when big banks were forced to temporarily shut down their websites after attackers bombarded them with traffic — akin to overwhelming a phone line with too many calls.
"If you went to banks three years ago, and said, 'What are your top five risks?', probably none of them would put cyber on there," said Karl Schimmeck, SIFMA's vice president for financial services operations. Now, he said, the calculation has changed.
Software giant Symantec calculates that cyber-attacks against U.S. businesses jumped 42 percent last year. Banks, though, are reluctant to give more details about how they're affected, financially or otherwise, for fear of becoming a target, and attacks often go undetected and unreported.
Whatever the number, banks and the government are on high alert. President Obama warned about international hacking against the banking industry in February's State of the Union address. He later met with JPMorgan's Dimon, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and other business leaders to discuss the threat.
Big banks have started listing cyber-attacks as a potential risk factor in filings for regulators and investors. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks, recently held a call with community bankers to warn them that they're not free from danger either: Since September, attacks have been increasingly aimed at businesses with fewer than 250 employees, the OCC says.
Banks realize the threat isn't going away. If anything, the possibility of an online attack will grow as customers do more transactions online and banks outsource operations to other companies whose systems might not be as secure.
Says Greg Garcia, a former DHS official who now runs the consulting firm Garcia Cyber Partners: "If someone asks, 'When are you going to stop cyber-crime?' Well, when are you going to stop crime?"
The banks downplay the risk of hackers tapping into any individual customer's account. For most, that will never happen, the banks say, and even if it did, the customer wouldn't be responsible. Customers would have to go through certain steps to get their money back, like filing a claim, showing that they weren't negligently tossing their account information around and giving the bank time to investigate. But federal regulations protect retail customers from being held accountable when money is removed from their accounts without permission.