Update, 19 December: The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says “has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions.” President Barack Obama told reporters that “we will respond proportionally and we will respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” He also called Sony’s decision to cancel release of the “The Interview” a mistake.
The idea of North Korea hacking a Hollywood studio in retaliation for making a comedy film about an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong un might have sounded absurd at first. But U.S. officials say they have uncovered evidence of North Korea’s involvement in the cyberattack on Sony Pictures and subsequent public leaking of a slew of internal corporate files ranging from embarassing executive e-mails to the upcoming slate of unreleased films.
News publications such as the New York Times cited “senior administration officials” as saying President Obama’s administration was debating whether to formally accuse North Korea of launching the equivalent of a cyberterrorism attack. The Sony Pictures hack recently took on an even darker tone when the purported hackers invoked the memory of the 11 Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks and threatened attacks on movie theaters if Sony went ahead with the theatrical release of its comedy film “The Interview.”
Such threats led all four major theater chains in the U.S. to cancel showings of “The Interview” and prompted Sony Pictures to officially put the film’s release plans on hold, according to Deadline. The chill descending over the freedom of artistic expression may be felt for a long time in Hollywood: an untitled thriller set in North Korea involving director Gore Verbinski and actor Steve Carell has also been scrapped.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest deflected questions about North Korea’s involvement at a press briefing held today (18 December), but President Obama is scheduled to speak during his usual end-of-year press briefing tomorrow. Earnest only described the cyberattack as a “serious national security matter” involving a “sophisticated actor.” He also confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice is working with the FBI on the investigation.
Attributing responsibility for cyberattacks is notoriously difficult. According to the New York Times, the forensic evidence from the Sony Pictures hack suggests the attackers used commonly available commercial tools and techniques found in previous cyberattacks on a Saudi Arabian oil company and on South Korean banks and media companies. Experts also suspect insider help because of the names of Sony servers and administrative credentials found in the malware code that infiltrated Sony’s computer network. (See IEEE Spectrum’s previous story “How Not to Be Sony Pictures.”)
The New York Times added that the U.S. National Security Agency has attempted to penetrate North Korea’s computer networks to keep track of the country’s cyber activities. But many of North Korea’s cyberattacks originate from China, a country that also has swarms of hackers for hire. Criminal hacker organizations also exist in many other countries worldwide.
U.S. officials potentially face a dilemma in deciding how to respond to North Korea, if they decide the Sony hack constitutes a serious act on the level of something like cyberterrorism. Coincidentally, Hollywood’s Universal Studios recently released a second trailer for its upcoming Michael Mann thriller “Blackhat,” which stars Chris Hemsworth as a hacker helping U.S. and Chinese law enforcement track down a cyberterrorist.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.