Security Experts:

Sony Attack: Implications for 2015

What will the world of cyber threats look like in 2015?  Will the New Year be defined by continuation, perhaps escalation, of data breaches as experienced by Home Depot, JP Morgan and many other organizations in 2014?   Or will unpredictability, such as demonstrated by the recent Sony attacks prevail, spinning yet a different story for the state of cybersecurity twelve months hence?

Keeping in mind that cyberspace is a multidimensional, rapidly evolving threat environment not easily suited to prediction, it is still relevant to establish at least a baseline for cyber threats in 2015 from two respected industry sources.

McAfee Labs’ 2015 Threats Predictions report is an eye-opening read which forecasts increased levels of crime, espionage and warfare operations.  Cybercriminals are expected to use more sophisticated methods to remain hidden on a victim’s network, carrying out long-term theft of data without detection.  McAfee also points out the growing vulnerability from the use of mobile devices and the proliferation of devices populating the “Internet of Things.” 

In a similar report, cybersecurity firm Fortinet expects greater threats from “denial of service attacks on assembly line, factory, industrial control systems, and healthcare and building management...resulting in revenue losses and reputation damages for organizations globally.”

Increasing threats yet another level from these baselines are reports chronicling two recent attacks, one on U.S. financial markets, the other global.

In the first, hackers seemingly well versed in Wall Street vernacular have infiltrated publicly traded firms seeking information that could affect global financial markets. 

Computer security firm FireEye has discovered hacking schemes targeting more than 100 organizations which seek inside information on clinical trials as well as on merger and acquisition.  Such information holds the potential to impact trading and valuations of such firms and perhaps eventually the entire market. 

In a second troubling report from Reuters, suspected Iranian hackers recently targeted major airlines, energy and defense companies in a campaign that not only enables spying but may provide capability for future physical damage.  According to security firm Cylance, firms targeted are based in the United States, Israel, China and other countries.

The North Korea-attributed attacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment thrusts an even newer level of threats into perspective.

Described as one of the most destructive and disruptive reported cyberattacks in U.S. history, the Sony attack opens new doors of risks in the areas of corporate extortion, altering of corporate business operations, and the extension of cyberattacks to include physical threats of harm to U.S. civilians.

If current U.S. intelligence reports are correct and North Korea is confirmed as the source of the Sony attacks - research on attribution is continuing - do North Korea’s actions serve as models for potential future cyber threats?  In remarkably prescient thinking, global risk advisory firm Control Risks CEO Richard Fenning believes so. 

Fenning recently provided a geopolitical perspective on 2015 cyber risks that bears directly on the North Korean threat to the United States:  “Relations between states are at the worst level since the height of the Cold War.  Technology and weak state power together are providing increased opportunities for terrorists and cyber criminals, with minimal prospects for international cooperation and policing to fight these threats.”

If North Korea is connected to the Sony attacks, it would be an archetypal example of such a weaker state using cyber operations to level the playing field in potential confrontations with the United States at a time and in a way of its choosing.

Whether such ‘leveling the playing field’ actions begin to occur from other sources will revolve around the larger question of how the U.S. decides to respond to the Sony attacks.  The decisions made will impact not only future actions by North Korea but, even more significantly, cyberattack decisions by other nation-states and militant extremists. 

Will the U.S. engage in ‘proportional’ response to the Sony attacks?  How is ‘proportional response’ to be defined in this instance?  Largely ceremonial legal action from the U.S. Justice Department?  Banking restrictions limiting North Korean access to the dollar?  Or perhaps crippling cyber counterattacks, and against whom?

Regardless of response, two points are clear. Appeasement in any form or inaction will broadcast signals of U.S. weakness to other nations and extremist groups across the globe. 

Related: Why You Should Demand Proof Before Believing The U.S. Government On North Korea and Sony

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James McFarlin is a former high-tech CEO, noted author and international speaker on cyber security. (Twitter: @jimmcfarlin). The second edition of his cyberthriller “Aftershock: A Novel” was released in March of 2014.