While advancing technology benefits mankind and contributes significantly to its progress, it can sometimes be considered a curse. For instance, while online financial transactions have simplified our lives, they have also instilled a sense of paranoia—the fear that our security could be breached, and hackers could potentially access our bank accounts at any time. Nowadays, traditional bank robberies are a thing of the past, as hackers now exploit this technology and easily gain access to bank accounts while sitting in the comfort of their own homes. Daniel Gordon’s documentary film, Billion Dollar Heist, explores this unsettling and terrifying crime, which reveals how cybercriminals execute highly skilled and intricate online robberies that can result in the theft of almost a billion dollars from heavily fortified banks. This is exemplified in the Bangladesh case, where a group of hackers targeted an almost billion-dollar heist without leaving any trace for the authorities to pursue them.
Several documentaries, like Alex Gibney’s Zero Days‘ and Karim Amer’s The Great Hack, have deftly delved into the negative impact of cyber malware and technology. However, Gordon’s Billion Dollar Heist attempts to focus on the bank heist subject yet simultaneously loses its focus. While it promises to give us an engaging insight into the heist, it becomes muddled by additional information that often makes the project lose focus on the main storyline. We can’t blame it, as documentaries inherently aim to explore broad aspects and discuss multiple dynamics of the subject matter, but this approach isn’t executed well in Billion Dollar Heist. The filmmakers attempted to cover all facets of the subject but failed to provide a comprehensive discussion that could be engaging.
What Is This Documentary About?
Billion Dollar Heist brought to light one of the most perplexing bank heists involving a cybersecurity breach. This incident occurred in Bangladesh, where an unknown group of hackers exploited the security flaws of the SWIFT banking network and targeted a theft of one billion dollars. On February 6, 2016, a Muslim Friday, the duty manager of the Bangladesh Central Bank went to review the transactions. Normally, after each transaction, the bank’s printer produces a ledger. However, on that day, multiple ledgers containing individual payment requests to the Federal Bank in New York unexpectedly began printing out. This baffled the bank employees, as they couldn’t comprehend the issue their bank was dealing with. They initially couldn’t grasp that it might be a hack and contacted the bank governor. The governor suspected that it might be a technical error, which further helped the hackers carry out their heist. However, before the bank employees could intervene to halt it, 30 transactions totaling $951 million were identified as potentially suspicious. 5 out of 35 transfer requests were successful in transferring US 101$ million dollars. While US $20 million was initially sent to Sri Lanka but later retrieved, US $81 million vanished into the Philippine banking system on February 5, 2016. Later, in Philippine casinos, the money was laundered out, using gambling as a cover.
Often, when we watch high-action thrillers involving hackers, we raise our eyebrows, wondering how a hacker could be so adept at infiltrating security systems. Well, in the case of the Bangladesh bank heist, this situation seemed just as surreal as it does in films.
Billion Dollar Heist took a deep dive into the core of the issue, seeking to address all the potential reasons and methods of the bank heist. This group of hackers possessed exceptional skills and had extensively studied and researched the entire procedure for infiltrating any system. They targeted a large banking network and initiated their well-planned procedure in January 2016. By gaining access to multiple computers, they created a chain of connections that ultimately led them to the SWIFT banking network. Their goal was to find a bank with a less sophisticated security system to breach, like the Central Bank of Bangladesh.
The tactics they employed were both surprisingly simple and cunning. These hackers didn’t need to do much; they merely tricked some bank employees through emails disguised as emails from someone seeking employment at the bank. Through this phishing tactic, the hackers managed to gain access to the computers, after the employees interacted with these deceptive emails. This allowed them to immediately assume the identity of the employee, infiltrate the system, and then initiate their heist.
Meanwhile, on February 8, the Bangladeshi bank continued its efforts to communicate with the Philippines’ RCBC Bank in order to halt the transactions. Fortunately for the hackers, this fell during a non-working day in the Philippines when the entire country was closed due to Chinese New Year celebration. The holiday allowed the hackers to continue their activities without anyone stopping them. Nonetheless, the hackers requested $20 million be transferred to Sri Lanka in the name of the “Shalika Foundation.” But a silly typo, which was the misspelling of “Foundation” as “Fandation,” caught the attention of Deutsche Bank, which then temporarily halted the transaction. Although the initial approval was granted, Bangladesh later managed to recover the $20 million. However, the remaining $81 million became history.
The investigation brought in several cybersecurity experts, including individuals like Rakesh Asthana, Misha Glenny, and many others, who shared their insights regarding the case. Some investigators believed a connection could exist between this heist and the Sony breach. During the investigation of the Sony incident, the authorities found out about a group of hackers known as the “Guardians of Peace”, or the “Lazarus” group, who were deemed the prime suspects in the case. The investigators found similarities between these two incidents, but there was no concrete evidence to back up the speculation.
Did The Hackers Get Caught?
Billion Dollar Heist shed light on various other cybercrimes, including the “I Love You” virus and the “WannaCry” virus, showcasing their detrimental impact on our trust in cyber technology. The film also highlighted concerns about how teenage boys were increasingly drawn to such criminal activities. They often go as far as bolstering their self-image as formidable beings because they are capable of exploiting technology in such a way. On the other hand, an unsettling cybercrime like the Bangladeshi bank heist had the potential to shake the nation’s economy. This was especially important in Bangladesh, where their economic state, which was less prosperous than the US, would have suffered a loss of nearly $1 billion to hackers.
Multiple authors, journalists, and cybersecurity specialists have emphasized that cybercrime is as damaging as pandemics and climate change, which are impacting mankind and global security. Even with growing technology, halting cybercrime has become a very impossible task. As we reached the conclusion of the film, it upset us as we saw the hackers getting away with the crime. In contrast, the documentary highlighted the case of Maia Deguito, an RCBC bank employee in Manila, Philippines, who was charged with money laundering in this heist. Despite the heist being orchestrated by a group of men (as mentioned in the documentary), she became the one who was penalized. She had only facilitated an $81 million transfer, while the hackers, who were the ones who initiated the heist, evaded the law.
While Billion Dollar Heist tackled an intriguing subject, it often failed to thoroughly explore all the aspects it had intended to point out. It lacked a comprehensive approach to portraying and discussing the entire heist, which caused detachment between pieces of information. Despite its fast pace and numerous topics, the film suffered from repetition. It made the film a little monotonous in the second half. However, the documentary is a decent option, aiming to highlight different issues, though not always seamlessly. It introduces us to various cyber-malware and their ability to breach system security. The film should be praised for raising awareness about cybercrime and making us more cautious about traps and phishing messages surrounding us.