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Sony hack: Disinformation, extortion or other?

Published:Monday | December 15, 2014 | 12:00 AM
In this May 22, 2013 file photo, Sony's logo is seen outside the company's headquarters in Tokyo. -FILE

SAN FRANCISCO, California:Was the Sony hack simply an extortion attempt rather than an act of belligerence by a nation-state?

An email sent to Sony Pictures Entertainment on November 21, three days before the hack attack that virtually shut the company down, threatened "great damage" if "monetary compensation" was not forthcoming.

The email was sent to several top Sony executives, including Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal, who are co-CEOs of Sony Pictures. The subject line read, "Notice to Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc".

It was unclear if it had been read by any executives at the media giant.

Cyberextortion growing

Cyberextortion attacks on companies are growing increasingly common, though most are paid off quietly and never make it into the public eye.

Not all, however. In June, a code hosting company called Code Space went bankrupt after hackers were able to breach its security systems. The company refused to pay an extortion demand, and the hacker deleted multiple strategic files.

'Denial of service' attacks against companies, in which a flood of messages render a firm's network inoperable, have also been increasing. Arbor Networks, a security company, says on a graph the increase looks like a hockey stick.

The extortion email to Sony was part of a cache of correspondence and other files stolen from the company and posted online. The November 21 email was first posted on Mashable.

The full text reads:

"We've got great damage by Sony Pictures.

The compensation for it, monetary compensation we want.

Pay the damage, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole.

You know us very well. We never wait long.

You'd better behave wisely.

From God's Apstls"

Subsequent emails and posting about the Sony hack have been from someone or some group calling itself the 'Guardians of Peace.' Why the names are different isn't known.

Whoever originally hacked into Sony has been slowly releasing what they stole in pieces, posting it on hacker and file-sharing sites every few days.

They have been labelled consecutively: 'Gift of GOP for 2nd day', 'Gift of GOP for 3rd day', 'Gift of GOP for 4th day'.

Most of the files are quickly taken down by the sites they have been posted to, though not before copies have been made by quick-clicking viewers.

No 'Gift of GOP for 5th day' file had been posted as of Tuesday afternoon.

Discrepancies between the email of November 21, which sounds like an extortion attempt, and later emails, which seem to be more threatening about geopolitics, are difficult to explain.

However, creating disinformation is a long-time hacker pastime, a puzzle within a puzzle that might appeal to many in the tech world.

Much has been made of the theory that North Korea is behind the attack, because it was angry over Sony's forthcoming release of The Interview, which makes fun of the secretive dictatorship.

However, FBI assistant director Joe Demarest of the Cyber Division told the audience at a Bloomberg Cybersecurity Summit on Tuesday that the FBI so far has not attributed the attack to North Korea.