WASHINGTON, December 2, 2014 — North Korea is “almost certainly” behind the attack yesterday on Sony Pictures, according to intelligence officials and cyber security professionals.
“We see numerous similarities between previous attacks by North Korea and the latest cyber attack against Sony Pictures. We also believe Pyongyang has motivation for the attack,” explained one U.S. security official who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the incident.
“The type of malware used in the attack erases information and carries fingerprints very similar to what we have seen North Korea use in the past,” explained the U.S. official.
Experts caution, however, that they are unlikely to be able to definitively identify the culprit.
Last week, a group calling itself the Guardians of Peace attacked Sony’s servers. The group accessed Sony’s financial information, emails, personal information about celebrities in Sony movies, and even contract details concerning movies.
Most damaging appears to be the attacks that accessed several not-yet-released Sony films, including Fury, Annie, Mr. Turner, Still Alice, and To Write Love on Her Arms. Although it is difficult to estimate the damage caused by the leaks, movie industry professionals estimated that the previous leak of Expendables 3 cost production studios more than $10 million. That would put the loss for Sony from five leaked movies to about $50 million.
North Korea has virtually no Internet infrastructure, so it carries out cyber attacks from China. Like China, North Korea considers cyber warfare an important part of its military capability, and it has allocated an entire unit of its military to perfect the attacks.
Unit 121 was created in 1998, and is now one of the top ten perpetrators of cyber attacks. The unit employs approximately 17,000 soldiers and has a budget of approximately $70 million.
The unit has had significant success. Last year, it attacked two South Korean television stations and wiped out their entire network. It also targeted South Korea’s ATM network, making it impossible for South Koreans to withdraw money. Other South Korean targets include wireless communications networks and the South Korean military.
It has also penetrated the U.S. Department of Defense, and has accessed U.S. military systems more frequently than attackers from any other country. Even Russia and China have had less success than North Korea against the U.S. military.
North Korea also has the capability to jam GPS satellite signals, and to input false GPS coordinates into the signals. This has implications for both military and civilian systems.
The North Korean cyber capabilities resulted in a resolution by the United Nations banning sales of computers to North Korea.
It appears that the motivation for the attack is the Sony Pictures comedy, “The Interview.” In the movie, staring James Franco and Seth Rogen, the CIA attempts to recruit two journalists to assassinate Kim Jung Un after they are invited to interview the North Korean leader.
North Korea, however, is not amused. The country has lobbied both the United Nations and President Barack Obama to stop the release of the movie.
Kim Jung Un has called it “a declaration of war” and threatened to retaliate. A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement warning, “If the United States administration tacitly approves or supports the release of this film, we will take decisive and merciless countermeasures.”
When asked whether North Korea was behind the attack, a spokesman for North Korea’s mission to the United Nations said, “I kindly advise you to just wait and see.”
While the attack caused pain for Sony, it may have backfired on North Korea. Interest in the film, scheduled for release on December 25, appears to have increased since North Korea’s strong reaction against it.