TECH
12/29/2014 08:04 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

U.S. Suspects North Korea Had Outside Help In Sony Hack

WASHINGTON/BOSTON, Dec 29 (Reuters) - U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month's massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang "contracted out" some of the cyber work. The official was not authorized to speak on the record about the investigation.

The attack on Sony Pictures is regarded to be the most destructive against a company on U.S. soil because the hackers not only stole huge quantities of data, but also wiped hard drives and brought down much of the studio's network for more than a week.

While U.S. officials investigate whether North Korea enlisted help from outside contractors, the FBI stood by its previous statement that Pyongyang was the prime author of the attack against the Sony Corp unit.

"The FBI has concluded the Government of North Korea is responsible for the theft and destruction of data on the network of Sony Pictures Entertainment," the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement to Reuters.

North Korea has denied that it was behind the Sony attack and has vowed to hit back against any U.S. retaliation.

The people who claimed responsibility for the hack have said on Internet postings that they were incensed by the Sony Pictures film "The Interview," a comedy about a fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Because of the hackers' threats, major U.S. cinema chains refused to show the film. Last week, Sony struck deals with some 320 independent theaters to distribute "The Interview" and also made the film available online.

BLAMING NORTH KOREA

Some private security experts have begun to question whether Pyongyang was behind the Sony cyberattack at all.

For instance, consulting firm Taia Global said the results of a linguistic analysis of communications from the suspected hackers suggest they were more likely from Russia than North Korea. Cybersecurity firm Norse said it suspects a Sony insider might have helped launch the attack.

"I think the government acted prematurely in announcing unequivocally that it was North Korea before the investigation was complete," said Mark Rasch, a former federal cybercrimes prosecutor. "There are many theories about who did it and how they did it. The government has to be pursuing all of them."

The FBI said its determination that North Korea was behind the hack was based on information from a variety of sources, including intelligence sources, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, foreign partners and the private sector.

"There is no credible information to indicate that any other individual is responsible for this cyber incident," the agency said.

Kevin Mandia, whose security firm was hired by Sony to investigate the attack, said the only way to know who the culprits are is to trace the network traffic from the infected machines back to the hackers' machines. Only the government and Internet service providers have that kind of visibility, he added.

"I don't have the data that they have to come up with that conclusion," Mandia, chief operating officer of FireEye Inc , said in a video interview with Reuters.

"Every attack loops through numerous machines," he said. "You have to peel that onion all the way back. It isn't an easy thing to do."

Mandia, who has supervised investigations into some of the world's biggest cyberattacks, said the Sony case was unprecedented.

"Nobody expected when somebody breaks in to absolutely destroy all your data, or try to anyway, and that's just something that no one else has seen," he said. (Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Warren Strobel)

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's N
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgy
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong p
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong pr
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's Sou
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea.
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/Da
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a buil
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    In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a building side as the sun rises over Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Ko
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang p
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Gutt
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along the road in North Korea's North Hwanghae province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang pro
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans s
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans say the late leader Kim Jong Il was born around Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues dr
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues drive in Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of S
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's
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    In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Kor
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Koreans venerate Mount Paektu for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin,
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the outskirts of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, N
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/Da
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea.  (AP Photo/David Gutte
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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