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Sony Hack: Poster Child For A New Era Of Cyber Attacks

What made the Sony breach unique is the combination of four common tactics into a single orchestrated campaign designed to bend a victim to the will of the attackers.

In early 2014, George Kurtz and I predicted, in our "Hacking Exposed: Day of Destruction" presentation at the RSA Conference, an increase in data destructive attacks and even showed demos of attacks that can achieve physical destruction. On Nov. 24, that prediction came true with an attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) from a SILENT CHOLLIMA adversary, which CrowdStrike attributes to North Korea.

The Sony attack consisted of four phases: 

1. The initial infiltration into SPE network, likely through a spearphish email, and the subsequent reconnaissance of that network, theft of administrative passwords, and exfiltration of sensitive data, including confidential emails and unreleased movies and scripts.
2. Deployment of the wiper malware on Nov. 24 across the SPE network with hardcoded administrative credentials inside, which enabled the malware to automatically spread. The malware proceeded to securely overwrite data files and Master Boot Record (MBR) to make the machine un-bootable, as well as launch a local web server hosting a menacing skeleton image and bearing a blackmail threat.
3. In the weeks after the wiper attack, the adversaries have carried out an orchestrated public release (doxing) of sensitive data, with direct outreach to media organizations and the hosting of stolen data on BitTorrent sites. The goal of the release was to bring further embarrassment and damage to the SPE executives, as well as hurt their business, by revealing highly proprietary and confidential business strategies and salary information.
4. Lastly, on Dec. 16, the attackers published a threat of physical violence on Pastebin against movie theaters that carry the film “The Interview,” resulting in the initial cancellation of the theatrical release of the movie.

None of the elements of the attack had been truly novel or unprecedented. Certainly, intrusions and exfiltration of data from corporate networks are a daily occurrence these days. Wiper malware variants, while less common, have been seen in use pervasively by SILENT CHOLLIMA against government, media, and financial institutions in South Korea since 2009; as well as by other adversaries against a variety of targets in the Middle East in recent years. Confidential data releases have been perfected by hacktivist groups like Anonymous over the last decade and physical threats on Pastebin are a dime a dozen.

However, what made the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment so unique is the highly effective combination of these tactics into a single orchestrated campaign designed to bend a victim to the will of the attackers and blackmail them into canceling the release of the movie that they had found objectionable. Remarkably, they had achieved some success in getting the movie pulled from most of the theaters across the country -- a truly unprecedented event!

This incident also highlighted another important point. It doesn’t matter what business or industry you are in; if you have valuable information that someone might want or if someone has a grudge to bear against you, you are a target. Nation-state attacks are not just something that defense contractors or the financial sector have to worry about. At CrowdStrike, we routinely help companies of all sectors and sizes recover from intrusions by a variety of nation-state sponsored adversaries.

Another important lesson learned from this incident is how critical it is to stop an adversary before they are able to steal credentials. Administrative credentials are the necessary oxygen that fuel the lateral movement and action on objectives stages of the attack kill chain. Without these credentials, an adversary is contained to just the initial machines they have breached. They cannot freely move around the network, access and exfiltrate any part of your data they wish to have access to, or even deploy a wiper malware across your entire network. In other words, you can stop them in their tracks and contain the damage they can possibly cause.

The advantage of focusing detection and prevention efforts on monitoring endpoints and Indicator of Attack (IOA)-based hunting for credential theft activities is that it doesn’t matter how an adversary breached your network or whether their intent is exfiltration or destruction; you can find them and thwart their objectives long before they can act on them.

For the first time publicly, I will be showing the effects of the malware used to target Sony on a real network, in a live simulation Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 2 p.m. EST, on crowdstrike.com. See what Sony employees saw on their machines when they got to work on Monday, Nov. 24 and learn how to keep your organization protected from today’s increasingly sophisticated attackers.

Dmitri Alperovitch is the Co-Founder and CTO of CrowdStrike Inc., leading its intelligence, research and engineering teams. A renowned computer security researcher, he is a thought-leader on cybersecurity policies and state tradecraft. Prior to founding CrowdStrike, Dmitri ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2015 | 1:36:16 PM
Re: You don't get to choose if you are a target, your adversary does that for you
You guys in the industry would get a lot more credibility if you actually answered a question and quit this generic "anything can be hacked so you need me" message to get hired, consulting dollars or to sell products of questionable value.

By definition, any system designed to be used can be used. The question is by who. If you don't connect it to the internet, phone lines or even local LAN, then it is only going to be used by someone with physical access to the system. Period.

Guys like myself and Technoctrati want to know how someone gets hacked using two factor, when you must append a number which changes every 30 seconds to the end on a password you know. And you are in Russia and I am in US? How does spearphishing accomplish that? That's what I want to see in Dark Reading, not this generic no info stuff like this article and your comment.

If the problem is companies are so stupid they put their primary data server on the internet with Admin password of "123456", then say so. But if our company wasting our money on VPN tunnels and SecurId tokens because it does us no good, then explain why that is true.

My IBM i5 server is sitting at Let's see you hack it from where you are at and install any malware on it. Talking about pawning Windows laptops hooked to a common WiFi is a freaking joke compared to the real world. Or least what I hop ethe real world is based on steps we try to take at our lowly Mfg company.
User Rank: Apprentice
2/17/2015 | 10:07:50 AM
You don't get to choose if you are a target, your adversary does that for you
Dimitri, excellent post, you hit on the most important of messages for all entities, be they small, medium or large, for profit or non-profit, you don't get to decide if you are fall within the targeting sights of an adversary who is making that detemination based on a decision tree of which you have no visibility.  

I was at the session where you and George destroyed some perfectly good laptops on stage, and subsequently shared your "prediction" with others via the RSA Conference blog. 

Please keep sharing your insights, it gives those are engaged in security awareness, architecture and resourcing cannon fodder for those discussions with those who say it can't happen to them.

All the best,


CEO Prevendra, Inc.
User Rank: Ninja
2/16/2015 | 5:52:39 PM
The How and Who dunit: Sony Pictures Entertainment ( Unplugged )
Thanks Dmitri for providing some possible scenarios for how Sony's network was compromised. Looking at this from a purely technical view. How was it carried out ? It was likely thorough spearphish and wiper malware ? Which might be considered another form of social engineering ?

If it was due to an end-user mistake which end-user ?   I am really intrigued that millions spent on IT infrastructure can be consistently breeched with seemingly ease.

And I still believe it had to be someone formally of SPE which there are many, but at least these people can now add Pascal to the list.
User Rank: Ninja
2/16/2015 | 1:58:33 PM
No two factor?
Regarding #1, the spearphish. I assume the hack was done from outside the internal network. Does this mean they had no VPN tunnel controlling that access, using something like SecurId tokens or SMS one time passwords to cell phones? If they did, how would you even phish something like that?

We are just a boring mfg company and we have that stuff. How could someone like Sony not? Seems like without #1, nothing can create 2, 3 and 4.

I've wondered this about many of the hacks I read about. The sites the public hits are in DMZ (or should be), how are they bridging from those to the private internal network behind them, which likely isn't even internet routable?
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