North Korea is capable of pwning Sony. Whether it did is another matter
PART 2 – It looked like a training exercise anyway
Sysadmin blog Researchers think they have figured out how Sony was hacked. Long story short: the hackers knew what they were doing and covered their tracks with some clever, but really basic, tricks. I'm not particularly surprised by this, but I am surprised that others are surprised by it.
The Register commenter Yet Another Anonymous Coward had a topical comment titled "Let me get this straight", saying that "The world's most backward country executed the world's most advanced cyber attack and chose as its target the American subsidiary of a Japanese entertainment company?"
"Or, perhaps it has secretly infiltrated every other military and government computer system in the west and are actually running everything?"
Neither possibility should be particularly surprising.
Hacking isn't hard
First off, let's start with the statement that I don't have any idea if North Korea did, in fact, hack Sony. It may have. It may not have. You can't trust anything North Korea has to say on the matter. Sadly, we also can't trust anything any of our governments say.
That all said, I absolutely believe North Korea has the capability to do this. Yes, North Korea is backwards. It doesn't have enough bombs and missiles and guns to really make anyone except South Korea really sit up and take notice.
Even South Korea isn't really all that worried, because if you tried to get those bombs and missiles and guns from A to B then everyone on earth would see it happening and a cloud of cruise missiles would rain down on the North Korean military movement, making for a short but exciting news cycle.
North Korea's leadership know this. So what's a megalomaniacal false demigod of a leader to do in order to strike at the hearts of his perceived enemies? Develop "cyber" capabilities. Being a good hacker doesn't take some mystical skill. It doesn't take a super computer and it doesn't take a country full of cloud providers.
A half decent hacker can penetrate almost any system with nothing more than a netbook and good operational security. You can use any operating system or device if you know your tools well enough, or you write good enough tools. For the difficult hacks you're realistically going to have to do both.
Hacking isn't about technology. It's about process. It's about procedure. It's about discipline, knowledge, study and caution.
We portray hackers as people who have a stroke of genius and then mash the keyboard really hard and poof! They've reversed the polarity on the tachyon inverter and suddenly used the thermostat to overwrite the hidden sectors on the tablet that controls the nuclear reactor. Oh noes!
Anyone who has the resources to hire a full-time research team and a pair of decent developers can build credible offensive hacking capabilities. This means that most 50-individual companies on the planet theoretically have the resources to build both malware and network-based deployment capabilities.
Not only does this make every government on earth a threat, but by dint of the low cost of developing this capability, industrial espionage hacking teams are guaranteed to be practically everywhere. Organised crime will, without question, have extensive capabilities as well.
The idea of "state-level" capabilities moves the needle a bit, but in all honesty not by much. The primary advantage that state sponsorship brings to a hacking team is not additional nerds or computer infrastructure. It is spies and saboteurs.
Governments have people around the world, or they can hire mercenaries and consultants to get the job done. People cost money and this means that only a handful of organisations can manage the global reach of even a small government.
Any large enterprise has the financial resources to develop this capability. The large organised religious groups would as well. The larger organised crime groups have global reach, but many are loose collections of small families or clans and may not have the cohesion for unified long-term investments on this level.
Network activist and hacktivist body Anonymous and other loose – but large – populist collectives or organisations could theoretically bring state-level resources to bear. In the case of Anonymous it would be easier to herd cats than to develop any true state-level offensive capabilities, but there are plenty of non-commercial, non-governmental, non-religious organisations with global presences to be considered, and state-level hacking capabilities are more about the ability to physically access networks, people and research resources than the software cooked up by the nerds.
I don't doubt that North Korea could have cut through Sony's defences like they weren't even there. Every state-level actor out there could probably go through most corporate or personal networks with similar ease. This doesn't, however, mean that these state-level actors could get into an actively well defended network.
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