Lessons from the Sony hack

Peter W. Singer and Allan Friedman write: The hack of Sony has often been lumped in with stories ranging from run of the mill online credit card theft to the Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan breaches to the time that Iranian-linked hackers allegedly “erased data on three-quarters of Aramco’s corporate PCs.” In fact, most of these crimes have little more in common than the fact that they were committed using computers. It’s a lot like lumping together every incident in New York that involves a gun, whether it’s a bank robbery, a murder or a football player accidentally shooting himself.

What made the Sony hack distinct is that it mixed an evidently organized effort, using advanced tools (what is known as an “advanced persistent threat”) that some have linked to the North Korean state, but with the goal of maximizing attention and embarrassment for the target. That is, they weren’t a few hackers phishing after any target, nor were they trying to keep quiet, so that they could continue to secretly exfiltrate data. Rather, they appear to have wanted to cause havoc — and make sure everyone knew.

Differentiating between these kinds of threats is critical, because different risks require different types of responses. The claims some have made that the Sony hack is an act of “cyberterrorism” are a case in point. The FBI definition of cyberterrorism requires “an act that results in violence,” which stealing scripts about James Bond carrying out acts of violence wouldn’t meet. This also applies to the recent threats by the hackers to create 9/11 style events at any movie theater that shows the film. Rapidly becoming an illustration on how not to handle online threats, virtually all the major U.S. theater companies have now said they won’t show the movie. Yet the ability to steal gossipy celebrity emails is clearly not the same as having the capacity to undertake physical attacks at thousands of movie theaters across the country. So, at least based on their actions so far, the “bitter fate” the hackers promised moviegoers is most likely to be the price they pay for popcorn. [Continue reading…]

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