U.S. Weighs ‘Proportional Response’ to Hack on Sony Pictures

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The Obama administration is weighing a “proportional response” to the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment computers and is wary that the intrusion may have been designed to provoke a large-scale U.S. reaction, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Earnest refused to say whether the U.S. had concluded that North Korea was behind the attack, which crippled Sony’s computers and forced the studio to pull its movie “The Interview” from its planned released.

The attack was “initiated by a sophisticated actor” and the U.S. investigation is making progress, he said. The character of the intrusion makes it a national security matter, not just an economic one, he said.

A person familiar with the investigation, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said yesterday that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials have sufficient evidence to determine with high confidence that the North Korean government is responsible.

The hacking and the potential U.S. response have been the subject of regular meetings at the White House that include senior members of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the military and the diplomatic corps, Earnest said.

Presidential Attention

President Barack Obama “is understandably interested in the conversations under way and this is something he’s monitoring very closely,” he said. “This is something that has taken up time on the presidential schedule the last couple days.”

Earnest refused to discuss the options and said the administration won’t necessarily reveal any actions if they are taken.

Obama’s national security team “will be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response,” he said. “Sophisticated actors, when they carry out an activity like this, are seeking to provoke a response from the United States of America” and “we want to be mindful of that too.”

Sony Corp.’s Culver City, California-based studio yesterday canceled the planned Dec. 25 release of its film, after major theater chains said they wouldn’t show the picture. A group claiming credit for the cyber-attack invoked Sept. 11 this week in threatening movie fans with violence if they went out to see the film.

Cyber Attack

The Seth Rogen comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un drew condemnation from that country. In late November, attackers crippled the movie studio’s computers and began releasing thousands of internal documents, including e-mails, salaries and medical histories.

The cyber-attack may spur the U.S. government to define what -- if any -- responsibility and authority it has to protect private companies that control major parts of the nation’s financial, energy and communications infrastructure.

“This will definitely put pressure on the U.S. government to do something,” said Jason Syversen, the founder and chief executive officer of Siege Technologies, which develops defenses against cyberweapons. “This is a statement that will demand action, and the question is what is that action going to be.”

Typical retaliatory tools, such as imposing economic sanctions or restricting trade and financial dealings, would have no effect on the isolated nation, which the United Nations has sanctioned for its nuclear weapons program.

“We can’t just cut them off economically, because what are we going to cut off?” Syversen said. “This is a very tough problem to solve.”

International Relations

Further complicating the matter, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation, are the tense U.S. relations with the two nations that could pressure North Korea, China and Russia. The U.S. has been engaged with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in trying to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Another issue is whether the U.S. Cyber Command, co-located with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, should retaliate against attacks sponsored or carried out by foreign governments, in this case North Korea.

One consideration in deciding on retaliation is the danger of a retaliatory attack escalating into an uncontrollable cyberwar that some have suggested could threaten the U.S. economy and financial system, according to one official.

The U.S. response will be depend on whether it’s been determined the North Korean government directly led the attack versus private hackers supportive of Pyongyang who were working largely on their own, said Michael Fey, president and chief operating officer of Blue Coat Systems Inc., a network security company in Sunnyvale, California.

“Clearly the attack was North Korean motivated,” Fey said in a telephone interview today. “Time will tell how far removed from North Korean oversight the attack was.”

U.S. Options

The U.S. has some options that may make a significant impact on Kim’s authority and the ability to keep the regime together, said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and Asia expert who is now associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

With China’s tacit support, the U.S. could focus on the financial actions of the regime’s illicit activities and impose sanctions on financial institutions as it has in the past, Maxwell said. Cyber Operations

Additionally, the U.S. could persuade other countries to enforce national laws, making it harder for North Korean diplomats to use their immunity to generate hard currency for the regime. The U.S. could also step up proliferation enforcement and conduct cyber-operations against North Korean commercial interests, Maxwell said.

Jason Healey, director of the cyber statecraft initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said it’s unlikely the U.S. will retaliate against North Korea in cyberspace because the country’s Internet footprint is so small.

“It’s a little like unleashing the Air Force on the Islamic State,” Healey said. “If the bad guys only have pickup trucks, there is only so much damage you can do.”