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FBI Doubles Down on North Korean Ties to Sony Cyber Attack

10 Jan, 2015 By: Erik Gruenwedel

The Interview

By Erik Gruenwedel

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has reiterated the agency’s claim that the North Korean government was behind the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Speaking Jan. 7 at a Fordham Law School cyber security conference in New York, James Comey shed new light on the pre-Thanksgiving attack that exposed Sony executives’ personal emails and salaries, in addition to digital files of unreleased theatrical movies, among other issues.

The motivation for the attack was the planned theatrical release of The Interview, an ‘R’-rated buddy comedy from Seth Rogen and co-starring James Franco in which a tabloid journalist’s interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is co-opted by a CIA assassination attempt.

Sony Pictures slated the film to hit 3,000 screens on Christmas Day, which was downsized to 301 independent theaters when major theatrical chains canceled screenings after threats from the hackers. Sony subsequently released the film for digital sellthrough and rental Christmas Eve, and expanded screenings to 581 theaters. The Interview has generated more than $31 million in digital revenue and $5 at the box office through Jan. 6.

The film, which was downsized from a 3,000-screen nationwide debut to 301 (now 580) independent theaters, was released on digital sellthrough and rental Christmas Eve. Interview has generated more than $36 million in collective revenue through Jan. 6.

The FBI, President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security contend the attack was masterminded by North Korea — a claim some cyber security firms have disputed.

Comey said the hackers — who called themselves the Guardians of Peace — at times got sloppy, botching security measures such as using proxy servers to mask IP addresses that led back directly to North Korea.

“In nearly every case, [Guardians of Peace] used proxy servers to disguise where they were coming from in sending these emails and posting these statements. But several times they got sloppy … either because they forgot or because of a technical problem, they connected directly and we could see that the IPs they were using … were exclusively used by the North Koreans,” Comey said.

The director said the hackers moved quickly to cover their tracks “but not before we saw where it was coming from.”

Some cyber security firms have asked for more transparency in the FBI’s investigation and conclusion — a request Comey said wouldn’t happen due to national security concerns.

“[Cyber security firms] don’t have the facts that I have. They don’t see what I see,” he said, adding that cyber attacks will undoubtedly occur again against other companies and government institutions, which, he said requires preserving “our methods and our sources.”

Indeed, President Obama Jan. 2 issued his first executive order of 2015, calling for additional sanctions against North Korea for its role in the hack. The White House press secretary said the executive order was in response to North Korea’s “ongoing provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies” at the enter of a “destructive and coercive” cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

“We take seriously North Korea’s attack that aimed to create destructive financial effects on a U.S. company and to threaten artists and other individuals with the goal of restricting their right to free expression,” Obama said in the statement.

In the president’s letter — the basis for the press statement — Obama said that in accordance with the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, he was expanding the national emergency declared in previous executive orders against North Korea on June 26, 2008, Aug. 30, 2010, and April 18, 2011.

Obama’s fourth executive order against North Korea authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to impose sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the communist country’s government.

Meanwhile, Sony Corp. CEO Kazuo Hirai Jan. 6 visited Sony’s Culver City, Calif. headquarters and thanked employees in person and by email for their resilience during the ordeal.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of association are the lifeblood of Sony and our entertainment businesses. Your resourcefulness and creativity during this time has been truly extraordinary. I look forward to Sony Pictures emerging from this experience stronger than ever,” Hirai said in the email.

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