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Incident Response

Industry Reactions to Devastating Sony Hack

The systems of entertainment giant Sony have been hacked once again, and although the full extent of the breach is not yet known, the incident will likely be added to the list of most damaging cyberattacks.

The systems of entertainment giant Sony have been hacked once again, and although the full extent of the breach is not yet known, the incident will likely be added to the list of most damaging cyberattacks.

Feedback Friday for December 5, 2014

A group of hackers called GOP (Guardians of Peace) has taken credit for the attack and they claim to have stolen terabytes of files. Sony admitted that a large amount of information has been stolen, including business and personnel files, and even unreleased movies.

On Friday, security firm Identity Finder revealed that the attackers leaked what appears to be sensitive personal data on roughly 47,000 individuals, including celebrities.

North Korea is considered a suspect, but the country’s officials have denied any involvement, and Sony representatives have not confirmed that the attack was traced back to the DPRK.

Researchers from various security firms have analyzed a piece of malware that appears to have been used in the Sony hack. The threat is designed to wipe data from infected systems.

The FBI launched an investigation and sent out a memo to a limited number of organizations, warning them about a destructive piece of malware that appears to be the same as the one used in the attack against Sony.

Some experts believe the FBI sent out the alert only to a few organizations that were likely to be affected. Others have pointed out that the FBI doesn’t appear to have a good incident response plan in place.

And the Feedback Begins…

Cody Pierce, Director of Vulnerability Research at Endgame:

“The latest FBI ‘flash’ report warning U.S. businesses about potentially destructive attacks references malware that is not highly advanced. Initial reports associate the alert with malware that overwrites user data and critical boot information on the hard drive, rendering the computer effectively useless. Based on analysis of the assumed malware sample, no technology exists within the sample that would warrant a larger alert to corporations. Additional information, either present in the malware–like IP address or host information–or during the investigation, also likely made it clear who required advance notification. Because of the malware’s low level of sophistication as well as the reportedly targeted nature of the attacks, it is entirely reasonable that the FBI would only inform a small number of companies.

The goal of these coordinated alerts is to raise awareness to the most likely targets so that they can ensure their security readiness, without unnecessary burden to those unlikely to be affected. In this case, because the malware is targeted and not sufficiently advanced, the FBI’s approach is justified. Conversely, in the event that more sophisticated malware or a new attack vector had been discovered, greater communication would have been necessary. Based on the information available, the FBI made the right decision in issuing this particular alert.” 

Mark Parker, Senior Product Manager, iSheriff:

 “For many organizations in the midst of breach investigation, decisions are often made very quickly. Without the luxury of planning meetings and impact analysis, some of the things are done in a ‘from the cuff’ manner based upon the evidence in hand, which may in fact be incomplete. In the case of the FBI memo that was sent out, it was done in a manner that was clearly done hastily. The threat posed by the malware was significant and a quick decision was made to send out an alert.


While I wasn’t in the room, I am fairly certain from having been in similar rooms, and in similar situations, that a list of who should receive the alert was not a very long conversation, and the point was to get the information out as soon as possible. What this demonstrates is that both Sony and the FBI do not have a good incident response plan in place for this type of incident. All organizations should have an incident response plan in place that lays out this sort of information in advance so that time is not spent on such issues. A clear process for key decisions is a very important part of any incident response plan, as is a list of who should be contacted in different situations.”

Steve Lowing, Director of Product Management, Promisec:

“Given that Sony Pictures is releasing a movie next month that satirizes assassinating North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un, and after learning about this release last June declared war on the company, it’s widely held that the North Korean government is behind the attack. It’s likely that this is true at least at a sponsorship level given the number of attacks on South Korean banks and various businesses over the course of the last year, with the likely attackers being the country’s cyber warfare army known as unit 121.

Unit 121 is believed to be operating out of a Shenyang China luxury hotel giving them easy access to the world with being an arm’s reach from North Korea. The main reason for this is China’s close proximity to North Korea, North Korea’s almost non-existent internet access and China’s far superior network and cyber hacking resources. This is yet another example of State sponsored hacktivism targeting companies directly.”

Jonathan Carter, Technical Director, Arxan Technologies:

“So far, the evidence seems to suggest that the Sony hack was accomplished via execution of malicious malware. Hackers typically conduct these attacks by somehow tricking the user into executing something that is malicious in nature from within a system that is sensitive in nature. The recent iOS Masque and WireLurker vulnerabilities clearly illustrate that the delivery and execution of malicious code can take some very clever approaches. In light of these recent revelations, it is reasonable to expect to see a rise in distribution of malware (disguised as legitimate B2E apps that have been modified) via mobile devices owned by employees that have access to sensitive backend systems.”

Vijay Basani, CEO of EiQ Networks:

“It is possible that the hackers accessed not only unreleased movies, but also gained access to user accounts, celebrity passport details, sensitive trade secrets and know how. This demonstrates that in spite significant investments in traditional and next-gen security technologies, any network can be compromised. What is truly required is a total commitment from the senior management to building a comprehensive security program that delivers pro-active and reactive security and continuous security posture.”

Craig Williams, Senior Technical Leader and Security Outreach Manager for Cisco’s Talos team: 

“The recent FBI ‘flash alert’ was published covering the dangers of a new wiper Trojan that has received quite a bit of media attention. There are a few key facts that seem to be overlooked by many of the early news accounts of this threat:

Cisco’s Talos team has historic examples of this type of malware going back to 1998.  Data *is* the new target, this should not surprise anyone – yet it is also not the end of the world.  Recent examples of malware effectively “destroying” data – putting it out of victims’ reach – also include Cryptowall, and Cryptolocker, common ransomware variants delivered by exploit kits and other means.

Wiping systems is also an effective way to cover up malicious activity and make incident response more difficult, such as in the case of the DarkSeoul malware in 2013.

Any company that introduced proper back-up plans in response to recent ransomware like Cryptolocker or Cryptowall should already be protected to a degree against these threats detailed by the FBI.  Defense-in-depth can also detect and defeat this type of threat.”

Carl Wright, general manager at TrapX Security:

“The FBI and other national government organizations have an alerting process that we are sure they followed to the letter. It is important for them to provide an early warning system for these types of attacks, especially in the case of the Sony breach, because of the severe damage that could ultimately be used against our nation’s critical infrastructure.

Timely information sharing must be completely reciprocal in nature, meaning, corporations also have to be willing to share their cyber intelligence with the government.


When we look at the significant incidents of 2014 and in particular Sony, we see that most enterprises are focusing efforts and investments on breach prevention. 2014 has clearly highlighted the need for corporations and government to include additional technological capabilities that better detect and interdict breaches before they can spread within an organization.”

Ian Amit, Vice President, ZeroFOX:

“The Sony breach is a tricky situation. How it occurred is still up for debate – possibly nation state? Possibly an insider? Possibly a disgruntled employee? Regardless, it’s clear the breach goes very deep. It has gotten to the point that Sony is outright shutting down its network. This means even the backups are either nonexistent or compromised, and the hackers likely got just about everything, making this one of the worst breaches ever at an organization of this size. The attack touches anyone involved with Sony – auditors, consultants, screenwriters, contractors, actors and producers. The malware might be contained on Sony’s servers, but the data loss is much further reaching. Make no mistake, this breach is a big one.

I am skeptical this attack is nation state-level attack. The idea that North Korea is retaliating against Sony for an upcoming film is a wildly sensationalist explanation. Hackers regularly cover their trails by leaving red herrings for the cleanup crew – indications that the Russians, Chinese, Israelis, North Koreans and your grandmother were all involved. A small script of Korean language is hardly damning evidence. Code can be pulled from a variety of sources and there is no smoking gun (yet) in the case of the Sony breach.”

Oliver Tavakoli, CTO, Vectra Networks:

“Any malware that destroys its host will have limited impact unless it is part of a larger coordinated attack. One or two laptops being wiped at Sony would be a nuisance, but large numbers of devices being wiped all at once is devastating. The latter style of attack requires an attacker to achieve a persistent network-level compromise of the organization before the wiper malware even becomes relevant.

The information released as part of the FBI alert bears this out. The malware sample detailed in the alert was compiled only days before it was used. This is a strong sign that Sony was compromised well before the time the malware was built, and the wiper malware was the coup de grâce at the end of the breach.

This is particularly significant when evaluating the FBI alert. Sharing indicators of compromise (IoC) is a good thing, and the industry needs more of this sharing. But we need to keep in mind that these particular indicators represent the absolute tail end of a much longer and widespread attack. In fact, some of the IoCs detailed in the alert are only observable once the wiper malware has begun destroying data. Obviously, this sort of indicator is much too late in the game, but too often is the only indicator that is available. What the industry needs badly are indicators of attack that reveal the compromise of the organization’s network at a point when security teams can still prevent damage.”

Kenneth Bechtel, Tenable Network Security’s Malware Research Analyst:

 “This type attack is not new, it’s been around for a long time, with multiple examples. The most recent similarity is the ransomware that’s been attacking systems. These attacks are often difficult to detect prior to the execution of the payload. The best thing is a good backup scheme as part of your response. Many times the answer to modern malware infections is to reimage the system. In case this occurs on your system, a reimage is often the best response. The only thing that reimaging would not solve is having most current data like documents and spreadsheet. It’s this combination of reimaging and restoring backups that is the most efficient response to the attack. While this ‘fixes’ the host, network forensics should be done to identify the attack and create defenses against the attack in the future.”

Jon Oberheide, CTO, Duo Security:

“I don’t believe that the limited distribution of the FBI warning was improper. But, I think the scope and focus on data-destroying malware was a bit misguided.


Certainly data loss can have a big impact on the operations of a business. We saw that big time back in 2012 with the Saudi Aramco attack by data-wiping malware. But, regardless of whether the data loss is intentional or inadvertent, it’s vital to have proper disaster recovery and business continuity processes in place to be able to recover and continue operation. However, when considering a sophisticated cyber-attack, disaster recovery processes must assume that an attacker has more capabilities and reach than standard inadvertent data loss events. For example, an attacker may have access to your data backup infrastructure and be able to destroy backups as well. So, modern organizations may have to revisit their DR/BC models and take into account these new threat models.

The real impact of the Sony breach is not the destruction of data, but the longer term effects of confidentiality and integrity of their data and infrastructure. Rebuilding all their infrastructure post-breach in a trusted environment is an incredibly challenging and arduous task. The disclosure of credentials, infrastructure, critical assets, employee PII, and even things like RSA SecurID token seeds will have a much longer-term, but more under-the-radar, impact on Sony’s business.

Most importantly, in the modern day, breaches don’t only impact the directly-affected organization, but they tend to sprawl out and negatively impact the security of all organizations and the Internet ecosystem as a whole. A breach doesn’t happen in a vacuum: stolen credentials are re-used to gain footholds in other organizations, stolen source code is used to find vulnerabilities to assist future attacks, and information and experience is gleaned by attackers to hone their tactics, techniques, and procedures.”

Idan Tendler, CEO of Fortscale:

“The traditional concept for security was to keep the most important resources, i.e. the vaults with the cash (or in Sony’s case, films) safe. What we’re seeing with breaches of this magnitude is that the harm now goes far beyond any immediate and limited capital damage. Leaked sensitive information regarding employee salary and healthcare has the potential to cause enormous reputational harm and internal turmoil within a workforce. Revealing that kind of data can lead to jealousy, resentment and distrust among workers and create a very toxic work environment.

With news of passwords to sensitive documents also being leaked, Sony will need to be more vigilant in securing user access to resources by constantly monitoring and analyzing user activity for possible credential abuse.”

Clinton Karr, Senior security specialist at Bromium:

“These attacks are troublesome, but not surprising. Earlier this year we witnessed Code Spaces shutdown after a successful attack destroyed its cloud back-ups. Likewise, the evolution of crypto-ransomware suggests attackers are targeting the enterprise with destructive attacks. These attacks are unlike the “cat burglary” of Trojan attacks, but much more brute force like a smash-and-grab or straight vandalism.”

Ariel Dan, Co-Founder and Executive VP, Porticor:

“Reporting the technical details of a specific attack is a sensitive topic. Attack details can and will be used by new hackers against new targets. On the other hand, companies can’t do much to defend against a type of attack they know very little about. One relevant example of such a potential attack was around a severe security bug in the Xen virtualization system that exposed cloud users of Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and other cloud providers. The cloud vendors had stealthily patched affected systems, issued a vague notification to their users of an immediate restart action, and only after it was all done was the attack realized and publicized. Reporting the bug prior to fixing the problem would have a devastating effect on cloud users.


Back to the Sony attack: I personally believe that reporting the entire details of a security breach can do more harm than good, but there should be a way to communicate enough meaningful information without empowering the bad guys. Blogs like KrebsonSecurity provided additional details, including a snort signature to detect this specific attack. Such data is meaningful for the defender and does not help an attacker. From this information we learned that organizations should embrace an “encrypt everything” approach as we step into 2015. We should be able to guarantee that data is not exposed even if an organization has been infiltrated.”

Tim Keanini, CTO at Lancope:

“I think the question being asked here is a great opportunity to describe the threats of yesterday versus the threats we face today.  In the past, broad advisories on technical flaws were effective mainly because the problem was universal.  Attackers would automate tools to go after technical flaws and there was no distinction between exploitation of a large corporation or your grandmother. If the vulnerability existed, the exploitation was successful.  In the case of Sony, we are talking about a specific adversary (Guardians of Peace) targeting Sony Pictures and with specific extortion criteria.  With this type of advanced threat, warnings sent out by the FBI on the investigation itself will be less prescriptive and more general making its timeliness less of a priority. 

From everything we have seen disclosed so far, it is difficult to assess and advise on the information security practice when some of the flaws exploited seem to suggest very little security was in place.  The analogy would be: it would be hard to assess how the locks where compromised when the doors to host the locks were not even present.   For example, some of the disclosure on reddit earlier in the week suggests that some files named ‘passwords’ were simply in the clear and stored unencrypted in txt and xls files.  The investigation will determine the true nature of all of this speculation but I use this as an example because the FBI could issue a warning every day of the week that said “Don’t do stupid things” and be just as effective.

The lesson learned here is that if you are connected to the Internet in any shape or form, this type of security breach happening to you and your company is a very real risk.  Step up your game before you become the subject of another story just like this.  It would be weird but Sony Pictures should write a movie on how a cybercrime group completely comprised and held an entertainment company for cyber extortion – categorized under non-fiction horror.”

Kevin Bocek, Vice President of Security Strategy & Threat Intelligence at Venafi:

“As the FBI, DHS and others investigating the Sony hack work furiously to uncover the details and the threat actors behind this breach, it’s important that we recognize the attack patterns that are right in front of our face: cybercriminals are and will continue to use the same attack blueprint over and over again. Why? Because they use what works.

In April 2011, Sony’s PlayStation Network was breached where asymmetric keys were stolen, compromising the security of 77 million users’ accounts. Now, nearly four years later, Sony is still facing the same threat — only this time it’s directed on Sony Pictures Entertainment. In this latest breach, cybercriminals successfully gained access to dozens of SSH private keys – the same way they stole private keys in the Mask, Crouching Yeti and APT18 attacks. Once these keys are stolen, the attackers can get access to other systems — and then it just goes from bad to worse. It’s critical that incident response and security teams realize that the only way that the attackers can *truly* be stopped from accessing these systems is by replacing the keys and certificates. Until then, they will continue to wreak havoc and cause more damage with elevated privileges, the ability to decrypt sensitive data in transit, and spoof systems and administrators. All it takes is one compromised key or vulnerable certificate to cause millions in damages. Hopefully, Sony will learn its lesson this go round.”

Until Next Friday… Have a Great Weekend!

Written By

Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.

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