There are still many unanswered questions about the recent attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, such as how the attackers broke in, how long they were inside Sony’s network, whether they had inside help, and how the attackers managed to steal terabytes of data without notice. To date, a sizable number of readers remain unconvinced about the one conclusion that many security experts and the U.S. government now agree upon: That North Korea was to blame. This post examines some compelling evidence from past such attacks that has helped inform that conclusion.
The last time the world saw an attack like the one that slammed SPE was on March 20, 2013, when computer networks running three major South Korean banks and two of the country’s largest television broadcasters were hit with crippling attacks that knocked them offline and left many South Koreans unable to withdraw money from ATMs. The attacks came as American and South Korean military forces were conducting joint exercises in the Korean Peninsula.
That attack relied in part on malware dubbed “Dark Seoul,” which was designed to overwrite the initial sections of an infected computer’s hard drive. The data wiping component used in the attack overwrote information on infected hard drives by repeating the words “hastati” or “principes,” depending on which version of the wiper malware was uploaded to the compromised host.
Both of those terms reference the military classes of ancient Rome: “hastati” were the younger, poorer soldiers typically on the front lines; the “principes” referred to more hardened, seasoned soldiers. According to a detailed white paper from McAfee, the attackers left a calling card a day after the attacks in the form of a web pop-up message claiming that the NewRomanic Cyber Army Team was responsible and had leaked private information from several banks and media companies and destroyed data on a large number of machines.
The message read:
“Hi, Dear Friends, We are very happy to inform you the following news. We, NewRomanic Cyber Army Team, verified our #OPFuckKorea2003. We have now a great deal of personal information in our hands. Those includes; 2.49M of [redacted by Mcafee] member table data, cms_info more than 50M from [redacted]. Much information from [redacted] Bank. We destroyed more than 0.18M of PCs. Many auth Hope you are lucky. 11th, 12th, 13th, 21st, 23rd and 27th HASTATI Detachment. Part of PRINCIPES Elements. p.s For more information, please visit www.dropbox.com login with email@example.com::lqaz@WSX3edc$RFV. Please also visit pastebin.com.”
The McAfee report, and a similarly in-depth report from HP Security, mentions that another group calling itself the Whois Team — which defaced a South Korean network provider during the attack — also took responsibility for the destructive Dark Seoul attacks in 2013. But both companies say they believe the NewRomanic Cyber Army Team and the Whois Team are essentially the same group. As Russian security firm Kaspersky notes, the images used by the WhoisTeam and the warning messages left for Sony are remarkably similar:
Interestingly, the attacks on Sony also were preceded by the theft of data that was later leaked on Pastebin and via Dropbox. But how long were the attackers in the Sony case inside Sony’s network before they began wiping drives? And how did they move tens of terabytes of data off of Sony’s network without notice? Those questions remain unanswered, but the McAfee paper holds a few possible clues. Continue reading →