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SEC Issues Cybersecurity Alert For Brokers And Financial Advisers

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On May 17, 2017, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), through its National Exam Program, issued a “Risk Alert” to broker-dealers, investment advisers and investment firms to advise them about the recent “WannaCry” ransomware attack and to encourage increased cybersecurity preparedness. The purpose of the alert, according to the SEC, was to “highlight for firms the risks and issues that the staff has identified during examinations of broker-dealers, investment advisers, and investment companies regarding cybersecurity preparedness.”

Based on a 2015 survey of 75 SEC registered broker-dealers, investment advisers and investment firms, the SEC National Exam Program staff recognized certain firm practices that registrants may find relevant when dealing with threats such as the WannaCry ransomware attack:

  • Cyber-risk Assessment: Five percent of the broker-dealers, and 26 percent of the investment advisers and investment companies examined “did not conduct periodic risk assessments of critical systems to identify cybersecurity threats, vulnerabilities, and the potential business consequences.”
  • Penetration Tests: Five percent of the broker-dealers, and 57 percent of the investment companies “did not conduct penetration tests and vulnerability scans on systems that the firms considered to be critical.”
  • System Maintenance: All broker-dealers, and 96 percent of investment firms examined “have a process in place for ensuring regular system maintenance, including the installation of software patches to address security vulnerabilities.” And only ten percent of the broker-dealers, and four percent of the investment firms examined had a significant number of critical and high-risk security patches that were missing important updates.

The SEC recommends registrants undertake at least two separate tasks: (1) assess supervisor, compliance and/or other risk management systems related to cybersecurity risks; and (2) make any changes, as may be appropriate, to address or strengthen such systems. To assistant registrants, the SEC highlights its Division of Investment Management’s recent cybersecurity guidance, and the webpage of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which has links to cybersecurity-related resources.

The SEC cautions that the recommendations described in the Risk Alert are not exhaustive, “nor will they constitute a safe harbor.” Factors other than those described in the Risk Alert may be appropriate to consider, and some factors may not be applicable to a particular firm’s business. Moreover, future changes in laws or regulations may supersede some of the factors or issues raised in the Risk Alert. Ultimately, the “adequacy of supervisory, compliance, and other risk management systems can be determined only with reference to the profile of each specific firm and other facts and circumstances.”

The SEC recognizes that it is not possible for firms to anticipate and prevent every cyber-attack. However, “appropriate planning to address cybersecurity issues, including developing a rapid response capability is important and may assist firms in mitigating the impact of any such attacks and any related effects on investors and clients.”

Dentons is the world’s largest law firm, a leader on the Acritas Global Elite Brand Index, a BTI Client Service 30 Award winner, and recognized by prominent business and legal publications for its innovations in client service, including founding Nextlaw Labs and the Nextlaw Global Referral Network. Dentons’ global Privacy and Cybersecurity Group operates at the intersection of technology and law, and was recently singled out as one of the law firms best at cybersecurity by corporate counsel, according to BTI Consulting Group.