US penetrated North Korean networks years ago -New York Times

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

How the U.S. Knew North Korea Was Behind the Sony Hack.

WASHINGTON — The trail that led US officials to blame North Korea for the destructive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in November winds back to 2010, when the National Security Agency scrambled to break into the computer systems of a country considered one of the most impenetrable targets on earth. Spurred by growing concern about North Korea’s maturing capabilities, the US spy agency drilled into the Chinese networks that connect North Korea to the outside world, picked through connections in Malaysia favored by North Korean hackers, and penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other US allies, according to former US and foreign officials, computer experts later briefed on the operations, and a newly disclosed NSA document.

The Times reported that the penetration occurred before the hack of Sony, but U.S. intelligence officials would not discuss the report Sunday or confirm its details. South Korea’s military recently indicated that there are roughly 6,000 hackers in the North who are mostly commanded by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s primary intelligence service, and the country’s secretive hacking unit, Bureau 121.

But the Times report ays the evidence gleaned from the U.S. penetration of North Korean government hackers’ activities persuaded Obama and other top officials that North Korea was behind the attack. The newspaper quoted officials as saying the programme grew into an effort to place malware that could track many networks and computers used by hackers in North Korea. The N.S.A and allies in South Korea had built up a sophisticated and wide-ranging program that involved placing malware on the North’s hacker unit’s computers and networks that allowed the tracking of their online activity. Such activity ultimately proved crucial in persuading President Barack Obama to implicate the North Koreans in the Sony attack, the officials told the paper.

The piece purports to answer the myriad criticisms of numerous security experts who have questioned the government’s findings saying the evidence publicly disclosed so far was flimsy at best. A hacker group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” released sensative emails and threatened a 9/11-style attack if Sony released “The Interview,” a comedy featuring Kim’s assassination. The N.S.A. has declined publicly to acknowledge the existence and effectiveness of its North Korean operations fearing that they would lose what valuable intelligence access they had on a country that for intents and purposes is hermetically sealed off from the world. Obama Administration officials, including FBI Director James Comey, have defended the results of the investigation, saying in a speech in New York earlier this month that the hackers were “sloppy” in carrying out their attack and that they had left bread crumbs leading to systems known to have been used by North Korea. Obama’s decision to accuse North Korea of ordering the largest destructive attack against an American target — and to promise retaliation, which has begun in the form of new economic sanctions — was highly unusual: The United States had never explicitly charged another government with mounting a cyberattack on American targets.

Lewis, a cyberwarfare expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Times. “Attributing where attacks come from is incredibly difficult and slow.” When American whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA to media outlets in June 2013, the country had mixed feelings about whether the U.S. government should monitor their personal communications in the search for potential threats, the Washington Post reported Saturday. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday indicates twice as many Americans are willing to give up their privacy to protect themselves from potential terror threats as those who oppose the surveillance.

What it doesn’t say is why, if the NSA had so fully penetrated North Korea’s cyber operations, did it not warn Sony that an attack of this magnitude was underway, one that apparently began as early as September. It was also later established that the Sony hack was a dedicated two month effort by North Korea’s hacking units that involved mapping Sony’s computers systems and identifying the most critical files.

Motivated in part by plans to release an R-rated comedy called “The Interview,” about two bumbling TV reporters tapped to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the attackers brought the operations of Sony Pictures’ computer networks to a halt, and proceeded to disclose mountains of sensitive corporate information including emails and business documents. Only in retrospect did investigators determine that the North had stolen the “credentials” of a Sony systems administrator, which allowed the hackers to roam freely inside Sony’s systems.

So his interaction with General Kim was not a formal or pre-scheduled engagement to meet with his North Korean intelligence counterparts to discuss intelligence matters. The Times reports that the level of sophistication, patience and commitment North Korea put into the hack had caught many American officials by surprise despite Pyongyang stating that the controversial Seth Rogen film The Interview was “act of war”, a deliberate provocation that would see retribution. Because of the sensitivities surrounding the effort to obtain Bae and Miller’s release, the DNI [director of national intelligence] was focused on the task and did not want to derail any progress by discussing other matters. But he added that even with their view into the North’s activities, US intelligence agencies “couldn’t really understand the severity” of the destruction that was coming when the attacks began Nov. 24.

While we will not specifically address the Sony matter beyond what was stated publicly by the DNI and FBI Director Comey last week, Director Clapper is (and was) fully aware of North Korea’s many efforts in recent years to probe and infiltrate U.S. commercial networks and cyber infrastructure. However, when it comes to senior citizens the divide is drastically different: 75 percent of people more than 65 years of age say threats should be examined. The Chinese were reportedly able to use data stolen from American intelligence to create “fifth-generation” fighter that could threaten the dominance the U.S. holds in the skies.

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