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Despite Box Office Patriotism, Experts Question North Korea Hacker Claims

"In the post-Watergate/post-Snowden world the U.S. government can no longer simply say 'trust us.'"

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Security experts are claiming that, despite official rhetoric, North Korea was likely not behind the Sony hack that spurred patriotic zeal and widespread rallying around the Christmas Day release of the comedy film The Interview.

The Sony Pictures film, which on Thursday opened in 331 theaters and was made available for online viewing, boasted sold out crowds, $1 million in sales, and was the number one downloaded movie on all the digital platforms on which it was released: Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video, as well as on a Sony website.

Moviegoers cited "patriotism" and defense of the First Amendment as reasons for watching the film, which was reportedly the motive behind the recent security breach. The film is a satire about a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

However, security researchers are questioning whether North Korea was really behind the hack and, alternately, are saying it looks like a possible "inside job."

Citing numerous experts, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth details why these claims against North Korea are so dubious, despite accusations by both President Obama and the FBI. Perlroth reports:

For one, skeptics note that the few malware samples they have studied indicate the hackers routed their attack through computers all over the world. One of those computers, in Bolivia, had been used by the same group to hack targets in South Korea. But that computer, as well as others in Poland, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Cyprus and the United States, were all freely available to anyone to use, which opens the list of suspects to anyone with an Internet connection and basic hacking skills. 

For another, Sony’s attackers constructed their malware on computers configured with Korean language settings, but skeptics note that those settings could have been reset to deflect blame. They also note the attackers used commercial software wiping tools that could have been purchased by anyone. 

They also point out that whoever attacked Sony had a keen understanding of its computer systems — the names of company servers and passwords were all hard-coded into the malware — suggesting the hackers were inside Sony before they launched their attack. Or it could even have been an inside job.

Because of the flimsy evidence presented, skeptics of the North Korea's claim are attacking President Obama for vowing a "proportional response" against the rogue nation.

"[I]n the post-Watergate/post-Snowden world the U.S. government can no longer simply say 'trust us,'" writes conservative columnist and former national security official Paul Rosenzweig at the Lawfare blog.

Rosenzweig argues that if the government is "going to speak to the issue at all it has to release information that persuades."

He continues: "Otherwise it should stand silent and act (or not) as it sees fit without trying to justify it’s actions. That silence will come at a significant cost, of course — in even greater skepticism.  But if the judgement is to disclose, then it must be more fulsome, with all the attendant costs of that as well."

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