Federal authorities on Friday officially blamed North Korea for the recent debilitating hack on Sony Pictures, marking a sharp escalation in hostilities between the U.S. and the oppressive Communist regime.
"The FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions," the agency said in a statement. "We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there. Further, North Korea's attack on [Sony] reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States."
The stern rebuke of North Korea arrives just days after Sony abruptly canceled the Christmas Day release of The Interview—a comedy depicting James Franco and Seth Rogen traveling to the hermetic nation on a covert CIA-sponsored mission to assassinate the country's dictator, Kim Jong-un—due to threats of 9/11-like violence if the film's premiere went forward.
Despite the condemnation, authorities did not formally charge North Korea with hacking crimes, marking a departure from recent precedent. In May, the Justice Department indicted five Chinese military officers for hacking into the computers of six American companies in order to steal trade secrets in a first-of-its-kind criminal case against a foreign government for cyberspying.
Authorities also did not specify how it would respond to North Korea, though yesterday the White House said it was prepared to offer a "proportional response." That may include further tightening of economic sanctions against the country.
The FBI's announcement did not include any mention of China possibly being involved in the hack, despite reports that surfaced earlier Friday indicating investigators believed North Korea's ally may be involved.
Investigators concluded North Korea is the culprit of the cyberattack based in part on analysis of malware used in the attack that the FBI said North Korean actors have previously used. The FBI also observed "significant overlap" in the infrastructure of the attack and other malicious cyber actions carried out by the regime. In addition, the hack has similarities to a cyber attack from March of last year that hit South Korean banks and media outlets, which also was carried out by North Korean operatives.
North Korea's cascading cyberattack has proven crippling for Sony Pictures. The entertainment company is losing untold hundreds of millions due to the The Interview's cancellation and other fallout from the hacks, which has caused its relationship with Hollywood to quickly sour. The movie studio is also enduring an ongoing public-relations disaster, as mountains of internal company emails posted online by the hackers have portrayed many of its executives as gossipy, conniving, sexist and racist. In one well-circulated exchange, Amy Pascal, the company's co-chairwoman, joked with producer Scott Rudin about President Obama's taste in movies, implicitly suggesting he only liked movies starring black actors. Pascal has since apologized for "insensitive" emails.
Several celebrities and politicians have also criticized Sony for bowing to the hackers' demands, noting it could lead to a further chilling of satirical speech in the film industry. The Department of Homeland Security had said there was "no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States."
North Korea's series of cyber intrusions first became public on Nov. 24, when a hacking collective calling itself "Guardians of the Peace" stole personal and medical documents from Sony and began uploading them to the Internet while issuing imprecise demands. Speculation slowly began to build that North Korea was behind the attack, though the nation originally denied those allegations. It did, however, commend the attack as a "righteous deed."
Hackers continued to taunt Sony on Friday, sending a statement to company executives saying that they made a "very wise decision to cancel the release of The Interview," according to CNN's Brian Stelter. The missive, which did not acknowledge any affiliation to North Korea, said it would "ensure the security of your data" if the film was not ever released and would cease, indicating the leaks of emails may stop.
"And we want everything related to the movie, including its trailers, as well as its full version, down from any website hosting them immediately," the note read.
But another message posted online Friday and sent to Sony executives seemed to strike a different, conciliatory tone:
"We lift the ban. The Interview may release now. But be careful. September 11 may happen again if you don't comply with the rules. Rule #1: no death scene of Kim Jong Un being too unhappy; Rule #2: do not test us again; Rule #3: if you make anything else, we will be here ready to fight."
Sony chose to pull the movie after the nation's five largest theaters balked at showing it on its scheduled Dec. 25 premiere date. In a statement announcing the decision, the entertainment company said it had "been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers and our business."
The government's official blaming of North Korea caps a whirlwind week of controversy surrounding The Interview and nearly a month of fallout from the breach of Sony's computer systems. Sony originally indicated it would not cancel the film's release, but eventually capitulated a day after the hackers suggested violence may await moviegoers.
"The world will be full of fear," the hackers said earlier this week. "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment."