North Korea's Cyber Skills Get Attention Amid Sony Hacking Mystery | KERA News

North Korea's Cyber Skills Get Attention Amid Sony Hacking Mystery

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on December 10, 2014 11:32 am

The most closed country on earth — North Korea — is now denying its involvement in one of the biggest corporate hacks in history.

Someone attacked Sony Pictures Entertainment last week and made public troves of stolen data, including five unreleased films, medical records and salaries of nearly 7,000 global employees. But before a recent denial — another North Korean diplomat played coy about the country's involvement.

That North Korea could be capable of a sophisticated hack may seem counterintuitive, since the nation known as the Hermit Kingdom is so cut off from the rest of the world. But North Korea watchers say its cyber-espionage skills are actually quite developed.

This recent tussle began when Kim Jong Un — the dictator of North Korea — wasn't pleased about an upcoming Hollywood movie. Kim is going to be featured in The Interview, a slapstick comedy starring famous goofballs Seth Rogen and James Franco opening Christmas day.

In The Interview, Franco plays a famous television host named Dave Skylark invited to North Korea to interview Kim. But then — and this is the plot of the film — the CIA asks Franco and Rogen's characters to assassinate the supreme leader.

"The North Korean state has been taking this really seriously," says Katharine Moon. She is the chair in Korea studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"North Koreans do not have an independent world of art and entertainment. And so they don't separate propaganda from entertainment. So it's very difficult for them to understand that the U.S. and many other countries have a completely independent world that's called Hollywood," Moon says.

The Hollywood studio releasing the film, Sony, shrugged off North Korea's promise of "merciless counter-measures" until last week. That's when hackers hit the studio where it hurts. They stole 40 gigs of sensitive data including the unreleased films, Social Security numbers and details on salary negotiations.

"It shut down the company. They had to use handwritten notes, fax machines, a lot of telephone conversations because they were fixing the issues on their servers," says Amy Chang, a cybersecurity researcher at the Center for a New American Security.

Sony didn't respond to requests for an interview but told The New York Times the company is working with the FBI to figure out whether North Korea — or maybe a former employee — is responsible. East Asia experts say if anyone's questioning whether closed-off North Korea could pull off an attack, the answer is yes.

"North Korea is indeed capable of quite crippling hacks. It has a very effective, efficient, capable hacking machinery," Moon says. While the general citizenry there may not have wide Internet access, she says, the latest counts show about two million North Korean elites and those who live along the Chinese border are connected to a 3G network. And the state supports training in cyber-espionage.

"Those who succeed in North Korea then are sent to China and Russia to get extra training," Moon says.

Cybersecurity researchers and firms that have analyzed the technical traces of this hack point to a North Korean source of the attack, as North Korean spokesmen send conflicting messages. Sony will continue investigating and shoring up its security.

Curiously, one upcoming film the hackers didn't release to the public is The Interview — the movie about assassinating Kim Jong Un.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

North Korea says, it wasn't us. The country is denying its involvement in the embarrassing corporate hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment. That hack happened last week, revealing staff medical records and salaries of nearly 7,000 global employees. It's thought that some unreleased films were leaked, as well. So could North Korea actually pull off something like this? NPR's Elise Hu reports on the cyber-espionage skills of the so-called Hermit Kingdom.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea, is revered as a god, but only by his people who are part of the most cut off society in the world. In America, he's about to be featured in a slapstick comedy starring well-known goofballs Seth Rogen and James Franco.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INTERVIEW")

SETH ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) Ok, let's do it.

JAMES FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) We're going to North Korea.

HU: In the soon-to-be released film "The Interview," Franco plays a famous television host named Dave Skylark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INTERVIEW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Our supreme leader Kim Jong Un is interested in doing an interview with Dave Skylark.

ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) Oh, my god.

FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) I will be traveling to Pyongyang, North Korea, to interview President Kim Jong Un.

HU: But then - and this is the plot of the film - the CIA asks the Franco and Rogen characters to assassinate the supreme leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INTERVIEW")

ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) You want us to kill the leader of North Korea?

LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Agent Lacey) Yes.

ROGEN: (As Aaron Rapaport) What?

HU: It sounds like just a silly movie, right? Well, not to the North Korean dictator.

CATHERINE MOON: The North Korean state has been taking this really seriously.

HU: Catherine Moon is the chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

MOON: North Koreans do not have an independent world of art and entertainment. And so they don't separate propaganda from entertainment. So it's very difficult for them to understand that the U.S. and many other countries have a, you know, completely independent world that's called Hollywood.

HU: The Hollywood studio releasing the film - Sony - shrugged off North Korea's promise of, quote, "merciless counter-measures" until last week. That's when hackers hit the studio. They stole 40 gigs of sensitive data, including unreleased films, social security numbers and details on salary negotiations. Amy Chang is a cybersecurity researcher at the Center for New American Security.

AMY CHANG: It shut down the company. They had to use the hand written notes, fax machines, a lot of telephone conversations because they were fixing the issues on their servers.

HU: Sony didn't respond to requests for an interview, but told The New York Times it's working with the FBI to figure whether North Korea - or maybe a former employee - is responsible. East Asia experts say if anyone's questioning whether closed off North Korea could pull off an attack, the answer is yes - Catherine Moon.

MOON: North Korea is indeed capable of quite crippling hacks. It has a very effective, efficient, capable hacking machinery

HU: She says that while the general citizenry there may not have wide Internet access, about 2 million North Korean elites, and those who live along the Chinese border, are on a 3G network. And the state supports training in cyber-espionage.

MOON: Those who succeed in North Korea then are sent to China and Russia to get extra training.

HU: Cybersecurity researchers say the technical traces of this hack point to a North Korean source. North Korean spokesmen are sending conflicting messages. And Sony will continue investigating and shoring up its security. Curiously, one film the hackers didn't release to the public...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INTERVIEW")

FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) We got the interview.

HU: "The interview" - the film about assassinating Kim Jong Un. Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.