Ever since the announcement of The Interview earlier this year, North Korea has been vowing revenge against Sony for a movie which they described as an 'act of war.' At the time, not many people took their claims of retaliation seriously, but could it be that North Korea is about to have the last laugh?
The North Korean Retaliation?
Yesterday, we saw a statement from the North Korean government which stated that the filmmakers behind the upcoming James Franco and Seth Rogen Kim Jong-Un assassination-comedy, The Interview, would be subject to "stern punishment." At the time, many dismissed these claims as nothing but hot air - since after all, North Korea is the world's primary exporter of scary sounding threats which are never actually put into motion.
However, now speculation abounds that North Korean hackers are behind the recent massive breach of Sony's computer systems. Thousands of files and business documents were stolen, but worst of all, five Sony movies - Fury, Annie, Still Alice, Mr. Turner and To Write Love on Her Arms - were also leaked online, some of them before their actual release date.
Since the leak, Fury has already been downloaded more than 1.2 million times, while Annie has been downloaded 200,000 times.
Who's Claiming Responsibility?
Entertainment site Mashable was recently contacted by a shadowy group calling itself the 'Guardians of the Peace' who claimed responsibility for the hack. It has since been revealed by Sony that a group calling itself GOP did hack into their computers and displayed the above image on all their computers attached to the network.
The group has threatened to release Sony's "top secrets" if its demands (which are not known to the public) were not met. Furthermore, they claimed they had only leaked part of their haul, stating: "we have much more interesting data than you know." At the moment, there is no information on what any additional leaks may contain, but surely it's enough to cause concern within Sony.
There are claims this leak could be an inside job from within Sony, but increasingly the finger of blame is being pointed towards the authoritarian and secretive North Korean state. Re/code report that Sony and "outside security consultants" suggest the hack could have originated within China, a country with strong political and cultural ties with North Korea. Although as South Korean officials have previously stated: "[i]ntelligence experts believe that North Korea routinely uses Chinese computer addresses to hide its cyber-attacks".
The name 'Guardians of the Peace' also suggests a political element which isn't immediately present with other hacker collectives, while it also seems in keeping with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's slightly ironic approach to naming things.
North Korea and Cyber-Warfare
With little political or economic power to flaunt on the world stage - and China increasingly isolating its troublesome ally - North Korea has little means to project power or influence geopolitically. This means that in recent years Pyongyang has expanded its cyberattack capabilities as a means to clandestinely hit back at South Korea and the US in ways it was previously unable to use.
For example, in 2013, a suspected North Korean cyberattack affected South Korean television networks and banks, freezing their computers and blocking payments. Similar attacks were also identified in 2009 and 2011.
Furthermore, North Korean hackers have been accused of penetrating U.S. military systems more frequently than any other nation, while the state's cyberwarfare force - Unit 121 - also gained access to 33 of the 80 wireless communication networks used by the South Korean military and brought down US government websites.
More bizarrely, North Korean hackers have also been known to use online games, such as World of Warcraft and Lineage, to create 'auto-players' which farm in-game currency which is then sold for real cash. The plan, it seems, was to draw South Korean money into North Korea to cripple their economy.
What Is The Damage?
In reality, most of these attacks are nothing but minor inconveniences to those affected, but it certainly suggests a growing competency in the field of cyberwarfare.
For their part, North Korea is slyly refusing to confirm or deny they are behind the leak. Instead, the spokesman for North Korea's UN mission merely said:
The hostile forces are relating everything to the DPRK (North Korea). I kindly advise you to just wait and see.
Although North Korean cyberattacks have had little lasting effect on government or military systems, things might be different for a private corporation like Sony. If the recent leak of The Expendables 3 is anything to go by, the cyber-theft of unreleased movies can have serious financial implications - ruining the box office performance of high budget movies.