Hackers Sent Threatening E-mails to Sony Employees

Pedestrians walk past Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, California on December 4, 2014, a day after Sony Pictures denounced a "brazen" cyber attack it said netted a "large amount" of confidential information, including movies as well as personnel and business files, but downplaying a report that North Korea was behind the attack, saying it did not yet know the full extent of the "malicious" security breach. (PHOTO CREDIT: Fredrick Brown, AFP/Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk past Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, California on December 4, 2014, a day after Sony Pictures denounced a “brazen” cyber attack it said netted a “large amount” of confidential information, including movies as well as personnel and business files, but downplaying a report that North Korea was behind the attack, saying it did not yet know the full extent of the “malicious” security breach. (PHOTO CREDIT: Fredrick Brown, AFP/Getty Images)

The malicious software that crippled Sony Pictures Entertainment and resulted in the release of gigabytes of sensitive information was not something that even state of the art antivirus software would have picked up.

“This incident appears to have been conducted using techniques that went undetected by industry standard antivirus software,” the FBI said in a statement released Saturday.

In an email to Sony staff obtained by USA TODAY, the security company analyzing the attack said “the malware was undetectable by industry standard antivirus software and was damaging and unique enough to cause the FBI to release a flash alert to warn other organizations of this critical threat.”

Kevin Mandia, CEO of Mandiant, the security firm, went on to say in his email, “this was an unparalleled and well planned crime, carried out by an organized group, for which neither SPE nor other companies could have been fully prepared.”

The ongoing cyberattack against SPE began two weeks ago. Security experts say it could portend a new era in computer assaults — one of wanton destruction and the release of embarrassing and potentially devastating data to the world.

“This is a game-changer for us in the United States, this level of maliciousness is unprecedented. I’ve never seen it, ever,” said Jim Penrose, a former National Security Agency computer security expert now with Darktrace, a British security firm.

Sony is just the latest, and perhaps the hardest hit, in a long list of major U.S. corporations assaulted by cybercriminals in the past year. They include Target, P.F. Chang’s, The Home Depot, Goodwill, Dairy Queen, JPMorgan Chase and the U.S. Postal Service.

Despite corporations spending millions of dollars on network security and the rise of hundreds of computer security firms, the attackers keep getting through.

The cost to investigate, notify and respond to these attacks is devastating. The average cost to a breached company was $3.5 million in 2014, according to a study released this year by the Ponemon Institute, which conducts independent research on information security.

Companies then pass on those increased costs for computer security, notification and, in some cases, remediation to their customers, even if those consumers don’t even realize they’re being affected.

A staggering 43% of companies worldwide have reported being breached in the past year, according to the Ponemon Institute. In addition, people whose credit cards or identities are compromised must also deal with replacement hassles and possible identity theft.

But the Sony hack takes cyberattacks to a new, alarming level. In fact, nothing like it has been seen since the so-called Wild West days of the 1990s, when teenage hackers sometimes destroyed systems just to show they could.

But in the ’90s, when the Internet was tiny and had almost no commercial interest, “nobody even noticed,” said Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer for Trend Micro, a security software firm.

That is clearly no longer the case.

Today, Sony Pictures Entertainment has sales of $8 billion. A subsidiary of Japan’s Sony Corp., SPE’s global operations includes the production of movies, TV shows and digital content. Its biggest franchise is Spider-Man and it is home to stars such as Seth Rogen, George Clooney and Adam Sandler.

“This is totally different, this is literally the equivalent of burning the building down — it’s a wake-up call about how bad it can get,” said Kellermann.

The Sony attackers, who call themselves the “Guardians of Peace” or the “GOP,” continue to taunt the company whose computer network they brought down on Nov. 24. On Friday, a threatening e-mail was sent to employees warning that what had come before “is only a small part of our further plan.”

In somewhat mangled English, Friday’s e-mail told employees to “make your company behave wisely.” If they did not, “not only you but your family will be in danger.”

Some employees were told to shut off mobile phone and tablets, though some could still check email.

Nothing is known about who the GOP are, what country they are from or what they want. Their messages would indicate they have some gripe with Sony and are making some demands on the company. But what those are isn’t publicly known.

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SOURCE: USA Today
Elizabeth Weise