A lot’s happened with Sony, The Interview, and North Korea over the last three weeks, and it’s been easy to get lost. So we’ve put together a quick refresher on all the news that’s come out since the attacks began. It’s been one of the strangest and most befuddling stories of the year, but we’ve answered the biggest questions below.
What happened to Sony?
On November 24th, the computers at Sony Pictures Entertainment abruptly stopped working, blasting a red skeleton image onto every monitor along with a message. The message said that they had been hacked by a group called the Guardians of Peace, who pledged not to stop until Sony Pictures was destroyed. Attackers wiped every hard drive, shut down the email system, and made off with a huge cache of private company data. In the weeks since, they’ve been releasing that data through public torrents, and the press (including The Verge) has reported on much of the information as it was released.
The attackers seem to have pulled whatever was available on the company servers, but that adds up to a lot of sensitive and previously secret information. Private emails from Sony executives revealed huge infighting over the pre-production of the movie Jobs, as well as Snapchat’s attempts to launch a music label. The leaks also revealed more troubling anti-piracy efforts from the MPAA, including a widespread anti-Google campaign. The most sensitive data so far has been the social security numbers of 47,000 employees, including celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and Judd Apatow, which may be used as fodder for identity theft attacks for years to come.
Who was behind the attacks?
There’s still some disagreement, but the broad consensus (shared by US officials as well as security firms like Symantec and Kaspersky Labs) is that the hack came from North Korea’s cyberattack squad. Earlier this summer, North Korea had threatened retaliation for the release of The Interview, a comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Later messages from the attackers also called for Sony to halt the release of the film. After the attacks began, North Korean officials denied that the country was responsible, but called the attacks “a righteous deed” and openly applauded whoever was responsible. Wednesday night, The New York Times reported that US government officials were primed to name North Korea as the attacker, echoing earlier reports from Recode that Sony believed the country was behind the attacks.
There’s also significant technical evidence linking the hack to a 2013 attack on banks and other infrastructure in Seoul, an attack that was widely attributed to North Korea. The 2013 attack, dubbed DarkSeoul, also wiped hard drives and employed a skeleton image. It also shared significant portions of code with the Sony attack, and the two attacks shared at least one command-and-control server, according to a Bloomberg report. Additionally, at least one of the attackers’ programs was written on a computer coded to type in Korean.
How damaging were the attacks?
Very damaging! Just repairing the computer system and protecting employees will cost tens of millions, and the information released in the leak will cost the company significantly more. Strategies were revealed, early deals squished, and for nearly a month, employees were threatened and terrorized by anonymous hackers. Sony is already facing two separate lawsuits from employees who say the company didn’t do enough to protect their private information. Then there’s the simple reputation damage: in one leaked email, mega-producer Scott Rudin called Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat” — how do you put a price tag on that?
Then there’s also the ongoing fallout from the cancelled release of The Interview, announced on Wednesday…
Wait, what happened to The Interview?
At first, the hack didn’t put much of a dent in The Interview’s release schedule — star Seth Rogen even joked about the attacks on Saturday Night Live. That changed on Tuesday, when the hackers threatened terror attacks on theaters showing the film. (The message was posted anonymously, but came along with fresh data from Sony servers, suggesting it came from the same attackers.) Sony reacted by canceling the film’s New York premiere as well as many of the accompanying press appearances. The studio didn’t officially cancel the release, but it gave theater owners permission to cancel screenings if they felt security was a concern. In response, nearly every major US theater chain pulled the film, and Sony officially canceled the release shortly after. Some are still hoping for an online release, but it doesn’t look good.
So…what happens now?
It’s unclear. We’ve never had a hack this messy or public before, and politicians are still figuring out what to do. It seems unlikely North Korea will face any real repercussions from the act, simply because all the “soft” diplomatic measures against the country have already been taken and there’s little appetite for a sustained military action. Still, politicians and business leaders are already calling the ultimate failure of The Interview a sad blow against free speech, and it seems likely the political repercussions within the US are just beginning. If there’s any bright spot, the attack may convince the US government to reexamine its cyberdefense priorities, which spends billions protecting government infrastructure but currently leaves companies like Sony to fend for themselves.