Obama: U.S. Will Respond 'Proportionately' To Sony Cyber Attack

President Obama says the United States will take action against North Korea in response to the cyber-attack on Sony.

Brian Prince, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading

December 19, 2014

4 Min Read

In remarks to the media, U.S. President Barack Obama today promised that the United States would respond to the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures "proportionately," but did not detail what that response would be.

The FBI officially named North Korea today as the culprit behind the attack.

"We will respond," Obama says. "We will respond proportionately and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It is not something that I will announce here today at a press conference. More broadly though, this points to the need for us to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the Internet and cyber operates."

He also called upon Congress to work with the White House to pass legislation that facilitates the sharing of cyber-threat information.

"If we don't put in place the kind of architecture that can prevent these attacks from taking place, this is not just going to be affecting movies, this is going to be affecting our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily significant," he says.

According to the FBI, a technical analysis of the data-deletion malware used in the attack revealed links to other malware the FBI believes was developed by North Koreans. In addition, the FBI noticed what it called a significant overlap between the infrastructure used in the Sony attack and other malicious cyber activity that has been previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, several Internet Protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data-deletion malware used in the attack.

Finally, the tools used in the Sony attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea, according to the FBI. With blame officially placed on the country's government, the question now becomes about how the United States should respond.

"Instead of going on the offensive, I believe the better option is focus on defense," opines Ken Westin, security analyst for Tripwire. "It has become clear that Sony had woefully inadequate security policies and controls in place. Businesses need to start taking some responsibility for implementing better security, not just for their own business, but the impact it has on their community and nation as whole."

Economic sanctions would be the logical retaliatory measure, but in the case of North Korea, there's nothing to sanction, argues Michael Sutton, vice president of security research at Zscaler.

"You can…rest assured that offensive cyber operations are already underway, not so much for retaliation, but for intelligence gathering," Sutton says. "The extent of the [Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE)] breach took everyone by surprise, the US government included, and there are a number of three-letter agencies that want to know the true capabilities of Unit 121, North Korea’s military unit focused on offensive cyber actions."

"The more likely immediate and overt repercussions from the SPE breach will come from independent groups, not nation states," he continues. "Hacktivists now have a very direct example of the power that they wield. The decision by SPE to pull The Interview from theaters will influence attackers from now on."

According to a report from CNN, investigators have gathered evidence that hackers stole the user credentials of a system administrator to get access to Sony's computer system. U.S. officials also reportedly told CNN that they do not believe the attack on Sony was an inside job, refuting suspicions that had arisen due to Sony's laying off employees in its technology unit earlier this year.

Obama said he is sympathetic to Sony's plight, but feels the corporation made a mistake in caving to the hackers' demands.

"We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States," he says, "because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like, or news reports they don't like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended."

"We'll engage with not just the film industry, but the news industry, the private sector, around these issues," Obama says. "We already have. We will continue to do so. But I think all of us have to anticipate occasionally there are going to be breaches like this. They are going to be costly. They are going to be serious. We take them with the utmost seriousness. But we can't start changing our patterns of behavior anymore then we stop going to a football game because there might be the possibility of a terrorist attack."

About the Author(s)

Brian Prince

Contributing Writer, Dark Reading

Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a news reporter for the Asbury Park Press, and reported on everything from environmental issues to politics. He has a B.A. in journalism from American University.

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