Why Is Cybersecurity Critical for Financial Services?

The financial sector has become highly interconnected, due to the rise of fintech and digital banking. This interconnectivity enhances the sector's efficiency and accessibility, but it also increases exposure to cyber threats. While the financial sector was always a lucrative target for cybercriminals, the sector’s digital transformation has amplified these threats.

Amit Sheps
December 31, 2023

A cybersecurity breach in a financial institute could lead to massive monetary losses, damage to reputation, and erosion of trust amongst customers and investors. This underscores the need for robust cybersecurity measures to protect the integrity of financial services.

Regulatory compliance is another key aspect of cybersecurity in financial services. Regulatory bodies worldwide have established stringent standards for data protection and cybersecurity. Non-compliance with these regulations can result in fines and penalties, further emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity for financial services.

This is part of a series of articles about application security

In this article:

Types of Financial Institutions and their Security Requirements 

Types of Financial Institutions and their Security Requirements 

Investment Banks

Investment banks deal with substantial amounts of sensitive data. They often handle transactions involving large sums of money, making them a prime target for cybercriminals. Their security requirements, therefore, are stringent and complex.

The biggest security challenge for investment banks is protecting confidential client data. This can include anything from personal identification information to transaction details. Breaches can lead to a loss of client trust, hefty regulatory fines, and significant financial losses.

To combat this, investment banks require a multifaceted cybersecurity strategy. This includes robust firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and regular audits. Furthermore, employee training plays a crucial role in maintaining security. Staff should be educated on potential threats and the importance of following security protocols.

Retail Banks

Unlike investment banks, retail banks offer services to the general public. They provide services like checking and savings accounts, loans, and credit cards. As a result, they manage a vast amount of personal data and financial information of customers.

The challenge for retail banks is to provide convenient digital services while ensuring the integrity and security of customer data. This means implementing advanced authentication methods, secure communication channels, and robust monitoring systems.

Cybersecurity measures for retail banks also include data encryption, secure network design, and regular system updates. Like investment banks, retail banks also need to invest in employee training to mitigate human errors that could lead to breaches.

Financial Exchanges

Financial exchanges operate in the high-stakes world of trading. They are where buyers and sellers meet to trade financial instruments like stocks, bonds, commodities, and derivatives. Given the massive daily transactions, these platforms become attractive targets for cyber-attacks.

The main security requirement for financial exchanges is the ability to detect and respond to threats in real-time. This means having advanced threat detection systems and a well-trained incident response team. They also need to ensure the integrity of trading data and maintain system availability to prevent potential market manipulation or disruption.

A comprehensive cybersecurity approach for financial exchanges includes network segmentation, regular system patching, and multi-factor authentication. They should also conduct regular penetration testing to identify any potential vulnerabilities in their systems.

Payment Processors

Payment processors handle transactions between buyers and merchants. They are responsible for transferring payment information from the customer to the merchant and then transferring payment from the buyer’s bank to the merchant’s bank. Given the nature of their operations, they are a prime target for cybercriminals.

For payment processors, securing transaction data is paramount. They need to ensure that the data they handle is encrypted and secure from breaches. Additionally, they need to comply with strict industry standards like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Payment processors need to implement robust encryption methods, secure network infrastructure, and comprehensive monitoring systems. They should also have a solid incident response plan to mitigate the impact of any potential breaches.

Digital Payment Providers

Like payment processors, digital payment providers also need to secure transaction data and comply with industry regulations. However, they also need to secure customer accounts and protect against fraudulent transactions.

Digital payment providers need to implement advanced authentication methods, such as biometrics or two-factor authentication. They also need to monitor transactions for any suspicious activity. Regular system updates and patches are also necessary to protect against known vulnerabilities.

Learn more in our detailed guide to bank cyber security

The Biggest Cyber Threats for Financial Services 

Here are some of the significant cyber threats facing the financial services sector.

Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks remain one of the most prevalent cyber threats facing the financial services sector. These attacks typically involve sending fraudulent emails or messages that appear to come from legitimate sources, such as banks or financial institutions, with the intent to trick employees or customers into revealing sensitive information. The information obtained can include login credentials, personal identification numbers, or financial details. 

The sophistication of these attacks has increased, with attackers often using social engineering tactics to personalize messages and make them more convincing. Financial institutions must continuously educate their staff and customers about these threats and implement advanced email filtering, anti-phishing solutions, and authentication measures.


Ransomware attacks have become a significant threat to financial services, where cybercriminals encrypt an organization’s data and demand a ransom for its release. These attacks can cripple critical systems, causing significant financial loss and damage to the institution’s reputation. Financial firms are attractive targets due to their capacity to pay large ransoms and the critical nature of their data. 

Protecting against ransomware involves updating software to address known vulnerabilities, conducting regular backups, and training employees in recognizing and responding to threats. Incident response plans should also be in place to quickly address any ransomware attacks that occur.

Insider Threats

Insider threats come from individuals within the organization who misuse their access to sensitive information or systems. This can include employees, contractors, or business partners. Insider threats are particularly dangerous in financial services due to the access to large volumes of sensitive financial data. 

These threats can range from unintentional data breaches caused by negligence to malicious activities intended to steal or compromise data. Financial institutions need to enforce strict access controls, regularly monitor and audit user activities, and foster a security-aware culture to mitigate these risks.

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

APTs are prolonged and targeted cyberattacks where attackers infiltrate a network to steal data over time without being detected. Financial institutions, with their wealth of sensitive data, are prime targets for these sophisticated attacks. APTs are carried out by highly skilled adversaries, often with substantial resources, making them particularly challenging to defend against. 

To combat APTs, financial services need to implement layered security strategies, continuous monitoring, and advanced threat detection systems. Regular security assessments and employee training are also crucial in identifying and responding to these threats.

API Vulnerabilities

With the increasing adoption of open banking and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) in the financial sector, API vulnerabilities have emerged as a significant threat. APIs are used to connect services and transfer data, and any security weakness can be exploited by cybercriminals to access sensitive financial information or disrupt services. 

These vulnerabilities can arise from inadequate authentication, flawed authorization protocols, or unsecured data transmissions. Financial institutions must ensure rigorous API security measures, including regular security testing, strict authentication and authorization controls, and encryption of data in transit to safeguard against these vulnerabilities.

Mobile Banking Threats

With the increasing prevalence of mobile banking, cybersecurity threats targeting mobile platforms have escalated. These threats include exploiting vulnerabilities in banking apps, intercepting data over unsecured Wi-Fi networks, and mobile-specific phishing attacks (smishing). 

Financial institutions must prioritize the security of their mobile banking applications, ensuring strong encryption and secure authentication processes. Additionally, educating customers about safe mobile banking practices, such as avoiding public Wi-Fi for transactions and recognizing suspicious messages, is crucial in mitigating these risks.

DDoS Attacks

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are a significant threat to financial services, aiming to overwhelm systems and disrupt service availability. These attacks can cause critical operational interruptions and serve as diversions for more severe security breaches. Financial institutions are attractive targets for DDoS attacks due to the criticality of service availability. 

To combat these threats, financial firms implement robust network security measures, continuous traffic monitoring, and specialized DDoS mitigation services to ensure service resilience and continuity.

Key Compliance Standards in the Financial Sector and How They Impact Cybersecurity 

Here are some of the key regulations that impact cybersecurity in the financial sector:


The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a European Union regulation that has significant implications for cybersecurity in financial services. GDPR mandates stringent data protection measures and grants individuals more control over their personal data. Non-compliance with GDPR can result in hefty fines, making it a crucial consideration for financial institutions’ cybersecurity strategies.

Examples of cybersecurity measures mandated by GDPR include:

  • Data encryption and pseudonymization to ensure confidentiality and integrity.
  • Regular testing and assessments of technical and organizational measures for securing personal data processing.
  • Mechanisms for ensuring the ongoing confidentiality, integrity, availability, and resilience of data processing systems and services.


The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) sets forth standards for the protection of cardholder data to prevent fraud and data breaches. Compliance with PCI DSS is mandatory for all entities that handle cardholder data. PCI compliance is divided into four levels, ranging from under 20,000 to 6 million transactions per year. The higher the compliance level, the more rigorous auditing is required by the organization.

Examples of cybersecurity measures mandated for organizations managing cardholder data:

  • Installation and maintenance of firewalls to protect cardholder data.
  • Not using vendor-supplied defaults for system passwords and other security parameters.
  • Protecting stored cardholder data and encrypting transmission of cardholder data across open, public networks.
  • Regular updating and patching of systems to protect against known vulnerabilities.


The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) is a U.S. regulation that requires financial institutions to protect consumer financial information. GLBA mandates that financial institutions implement a comprehensive information security program to safeguard customer data. To be GLBA compliant, organizations must communicate how they share sensitive data, give customers the right to opt-out, and protect private data in line with a written information security plan.

Examples of cybersecurity measures mandated by GLBA include:

  • Ensuring secure and resilient network infrastructure through risk assessments and the implementation of security controls.
  • Encrypting sensitive consumer financial information during transmission and while stored on networks.
  • Establishing access controls to ensure only authorized individuals can access consumer financial information.
  • Monitoring systems and analyzing logs to detect and respond to unauthorized activities.


The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) is a U.S. law that aims to protect investors from fraudulent financial reporting by corporations. While SOX primarily focuses on corporate governance and financial disclosure, it also has significant implications for cybersecurity. SOX requires corporations to implement adequate internal controls for data protection.

Specific cybersecurity measures mandated by SOX include:

  • Implementation of access controls to limit the risk of unauthorized alteration or theft of financial data.
  • Regular audits of financial data processing systems to ensure they are secure against unauthorized access.
  • Integrity checks and verification procedures to maintain the accuracy and reliability of financial data.
  • Documentation and testing of internal controls over financial reporting and data processing.

Key Cybersecurity Solutions for Financial Services 

In light of the evolving threat landscape and the regulatory requirements, financial institutions need substantial security measures. We’ll discuss several modern cybersecurity solutions, which are not specific to the financial sector, but are especially important for financial services due to the high stakes involved.

Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to a resource such as an online account. This method can help safeguard customer accounts from unauthorized access even if their passwords are compromised.

Types of threats MFA can address:

  • Account takeover attacks resulting from stolen or weak passwords.
  • Phishing attacks aiming to capture login credentials.
  • Brute-force attacks attempting to guess passwords.
  • Credential replay attacks from different locations.
  • SIM swapping attacks that hijack two-factor authentication codes sent via SMS.

End-to-End Encryption for Data at Rest and in Transit

End-to-end encryption ensures that data is encrypted at its origin and only decrypted at its intended destination. It’s a vital tool in protecting sensitive financial information from being intercepted during transmission.

In addition to protecting data in transit, it’s also essential to safeguard data at rest. Encrypting data at rest ensures that stored data, whether on a server or in a cloud storage service, is protected from unauthorized access. This measure is crucial in preventing financial data breaches, where sensitive information may be stolen directly from storage.

Types of threats encryption can address:

  • Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks intercepting data during transmission.
  • Eavesdropping on unsecured networks to capture sensitive information.
  • Unauthorized data access due to weak network security.
  • Physical theft of devices containing sensitive information that’s not encrypted.
  • Illicit attempts to access stored data by bypassing network security.

Endpoint Protection Solutions

Endpoint protection solutions protect network endpoints, like user devices, from being exploited by cyber threats. They work by monitoring and blocking risky activities and suspicious files on user devices that could jeopardize the security of the network. Modern endpoint protection goes beyond traditional antivirus, using advanced machine learning techniques to identify unknown malware and zero-day threats.

Endpoint protection solutions are particularly crucial in a remote work environment, where many employees access company networks using personal devices. Without adequate endpoint protection, these devices could become entry points for cyber threats, potentially leading to a data breach.

Types of threats endpoint security can address:

  • Malware and ransomware attacks on individual devices.
  • Zero-day exploits targeting unpatched vulnerabilities in software.
  • Phishing attacks that trick users into compromising their devices.
  • Rootkits that gain unauthorized access to the endpoint and conceal themselves.
  • Memory scraping malware that collects data from active processes on endpoints.

Data Loss Prevention Tools and Strategies

Data loss prevention (DLP) is a strategy that involves using tools and procedures to prevent data loss, misuse, or unauthorized access. In the context of financial services, DLP can help protect sensitive data such as customer information, banking details, and transaction records.

DLP tools can monitor and control data endpoints, data in motion, and data at rest. They can identify sensitive financial data, track how it’s used, and enforce policies to ensure its security. If an attempt is made to move, copy, or transmit sensitive data without authorization, the DLP tool can block the action and alert the administrator.

Types of threats DLP can address:

  • Unauthorized transfer or sharing of sensitive information.
  • Insider threats where employees may intentionally or accidentally leak data.
  • External attacks that aim to extract sensitive data through network breaches.
  • Cloud storage misconfigurations leading to unintended data exposure.
  • Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) that remain undetected over long periods, continuously exfiltrating sensitive data.

Cloud Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP)

Many financial services providers are transitioning operations to the cloud, or adopting cloud native technologies like containers and Kubernetes, as part of their digital transformation. Thus, a primary concern is protecting cloud-native applications and data. 

Cloud Native Application Protection Platforms (CNAPP) help secure applications, data, and infrastructure in public, private, and hybrid clouds. CNAPP implements security measures at every stage of your application’s lifecycle, from development to deployment and maintenance. It combines multiple security tools into a unified solution, including vulnerability scanning, cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM), cloud security posture management (CSPM), and runtime workload protection (CWPP). 

CNAPP integrates with the application and infrastructure layers, providing real-time security monitoring and automated protection. It can detect and respond to cybersecurity threats in real time, reducing the risk of a successful cyber attack. 

Types of threats CNAPP can address:

  • Unauthorized access or manipulation of cloud infrastructure.
  • Exploitation of misconfigured cloud services.
  • Insider threats to cloud environments.
  • Compromised credentials leading to cloud service attacks.
  • Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) targeting cloud-stored data.
  • Serverless function vulnerabilities in a cloud setup.
Amit Sheps
Amit is the Director of Technical Product Marketing at Aqua. With an illustrious career spanning renowned companies such as CyberX (acquired by Microsoft) and F5, he has played an instrumental role in fortifying manufacturing floors and telecom networks. Focused on product management and marketing, Amit's expertise lies in the art of transforming applications into cloud-native powerhouses. Amit is an avid runner who relishes the tranquility of early morning runs. You may very well spot him traversing the urban landscape, reveling in the quietude of the city streets before the world awakes.