North Korean Cyber Terrorism: You’re Unprepared

It was revealed yesterday, in an announcement from the FBI, that North Korea was responsible for the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The attack resulted in the public release of thousands of confidential (and embarrassing) email messages and documents involving Sony, its executives, popular celebrities, and many of the entertainment company’s business partners—among other misappropriations of intellectual property. This included various Sony films now freely available on pirate sites. According to Patrick Mahaffey, CEO of software consulting firm Room 5, the Sony hack “may have ushered in a new era of state sponsored terrorism against civilian targets.”

the_interview for linkedinThese acts have also caused the controversial cancellation of the release of Sony’s movie The Interview, the comedy drama that was the motivation for North Korea’s actions. In the movie, the characters portrayed by Seth Rogen and James Franco are enlisted by the American government to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. (Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, the two American spies complete their mission; there’s a viral video excerpt trending on social media if you’re curious.)

North Korea’s actions weren’t financially motivated, but rather purely political in nature. However, they were financially impacting. Kim Jung-un’s third world, impoverished totalitarian regime just cost an American subsidiary of a Japanese company $200-300 million in lost revenue—not to mention a severely tarnished reputation. To put this in perspective, Sony Pictures Entertainment, based in Culver City, California, reported $8 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2014.

On December 15, CNNMoney reported that parent company Sony’s stock had fallen 10 percent due to the incident. Then, on December 17, the FBI announced that it considered the hacking incident a national security threat. On December 19, the event elicited public statements from President Barack Obama, who said that Sony Pictures “made a mistake” in cancelling the release of the film and that the United States would respond to the attack “in a place and manner and time that we choose.”

According to Reuters: “‘North Korea’s ultimate goal in cyber strategy is to be able to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United States,’ said Kim Heung-kwang, a defector from the North who was a computer science professor and says he maintains links with the community in his home country.”

The general tone among Americans has been that Sony (and, by extension, Hollywood) spinelessly caved to the influence of a rogue dictator. Echoing the President’s comments, social media has been abuzz with anti-Sony sentiment, and even calls for boycotts.

I would argue that North Korea’s actions amount to a terrorist act on the part of a communist totalitarian nation, in the form of a cyber attack that, akin to an act of war, brought Japanese Sony, American-based Sony Pictures Entertainment, and American partners like Snapchat to their knees. I would also argue that this event can be—in the long run—good for us. Here’s why.

It’s easy to become too internally focused when you’re in one of the most technologically, culturally, and economically advanced nations in the world—and a shining example of democracy and progress, despite all of our internal bickering and ideological and religious contention.

the_interview_3_for_linkedinFortunately, we have organizations like the FBI, CIA, and the military’s various internal counter cyber-terrorism groups. Before you laugh and begin schooling me on how none of these organizations can be trusted (and bring up torture and waterboarding), remember “same team” (and 9/11, if you have a short memory).

This isn’t the time to be pointing out how the family dog crapped on the rug a few times. Rather, we should be thankful that Rover keeps the house safe from intruders and kills pesky rodents before they begin living in the garage or digging into that 50-lb bag of bird seed. It’s our bird seed, dammit, and Rover—rug pooping and all—helps protect it from thieves.

North Korea’s recent acts of cyber terrorism are a wake-up call not only to large corporations like Sony, but also to middle class Americans. Although I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, I don’t think it was a wake-up call to our government’s security agencies or the military. I believe they’re in the loop on this one.

Kim Jong-un for linkedinWe middle class consumers, however, are sloppy with our data and online accounts. Our passwords suck, most of us never backup our data, and asking us about our firewall is like inquiring about the pH balance of our lawn; we simply don’t know. And, all too often, we don’t give a damn. Again, we’re too busy dealing with social media, work headaches, and our kids to bother with the likes of password strength and data backups. As Americans, we’re pinnacle procrastinators. Watching The Voice or True Detectives is more important to us than personal data security. We prove it every day.

The revelation of North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures proves that we’re much more vulnerable than we think. If a black hat hacker anywhere, foreign or domestic, wants to steal your identity, copy or corrupt your data, or blackmail or embarrass you, even a moderately talented cyber thief can do so with relative ease. The reason it hasn’t happened to you is because you haven’t been targeted. At least, not that you’re aware.

According to Daniel Solove, a research professor of law at George Washington University Law School, “All of our personal data is at significant risk. At home or at work, your personal data is at risk. Whether in the cloud, or on your computer, or in an email, your data is at risk. The internet wasn’t built for security; it is a very risky zone, like wandering a minefield.”

Computer and networking technology, along with the common skills of hackers, have evolved to the point that, regardless of motive, these cyber bad guys can swoop in, steal or corrupt your data, and leave almost no trace. You may have been hacked and have no idea. The IT departments of major retailers like Target, Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus have been hacked and suffered the theft of point-of-sale data for tens of millions of customers. And, in some cases, they barely learned that it happened. If $100 million IT departments are vulnerable, what do you think can happen to you and me?

the_interview_2_for_linkedinThe reason most of us haven’t had our data or personal home networks compromised is simply because we’re not big targets—not because our data or networks are secure. If a frustrated, psychotic co-worker, spurned lover, mean ex-husband, angry neighbor, or pissed-off friend really focused on messing with your data, they could do so with relative ease. It just might involve hiring a savvy teenage nerd to make it happen. Don’t assume, because a person doesn’t possess computer skills, that they can’t be responsible for a data attack on you and your family.

Statistics from a variety of sources indicate that the majority of Americans never (as in never) backup their data. Surveys and metrics also indicate that our passwords—even for things like bank and investment accounts—are pathetically weak. Do you have any “password1234” passwords in your collection? How about a derivation of your name (or your pet’s name)? Do you use the same password, or a slight variation, on all of your accounts? I know; it makes them easier to remember. It also makes you extremely vulnerable to hacking.

There’s plenty of books and resources available to help you improve your data security. I won’t push my book, because the point is simply to get you to improve your personal data security, not necessarily buy something from me. But do something.

james franco for blogCyber terrorism and hacking activities, from governments, large corporations, and individuals, are only going to increase. We’re all susceptible, from Sony Pictures to your next door neighbor. However, there are many things you can do to help prevent digital disaster that results in identity theft, public embarrassment, and financial loss.

Learn about what you can do. Make a plan. Execute it. Maintain your efforts. Be diligent.

Take it seriously.

Did you, or one of your friends, ever run a car out of gas? Wasn’t there a feeling of incredible stupidity and regret? Wasn’t there a realization that a brief stop at a local gas station could have been made oh-so-easily, preventing the embarrassment and expense of your negligence and oversight?

Well, get ready. Because the Sony Pictures hack by North Korea is only the beginning. Organizations and individuals that aren’t prepared will, sooner or later, suffer.

Try not to be one of them.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 3

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts and Slideshare slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion.

This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Upscaling / Upconversion

As you’ve already learned, DVDs feature a video resolution of 480 horizontal lines. When compared to Blu-ray’s 1080 lines, DVDs seem pretty wimpy. But if you have a large (and expensive) DVD collection, you probably don’t want to simply trash or sell them. Re-purchasing your collection is frustrating and expensive. Damn you, double-edged pace of technology!

Most Blu-ray players (and many AV receivers) automatically apply something called upscaling, or upconversion (both terms are used interchangeably) to DVDs in an effort to make them 1) fit on a 1080 TV, so they’re not displayed as a little box in the center of the display panel, and 2) appear to be higher resolution than they actually are (by simulating 1080).

In a nutshell, this means the Blu-ray player analyzes the video content of a DVD and adds more lines, creating a pseudo-1080 image. While upconverted 480 video doesn’t look as good as the native 1080 display of Blu-ray content (with 1080 unique lines, featuring none of the pixel redundancy that comes with upscaling), it does look better than standard 480. In terms of the end result, upconversion for video is akin to matrixed surround sound for audio: It’s all about optimizing legacy media formats on modern-generation equipment. (To learn more about matrixed and discrete surround sound formats, see the Surround Sound chapter.)

The quality of upconversion is determined entirely by your equipment (the hardware and software running within it; see the Video Processing section below for more info). Better Blu-ray players do a superior job of upscaling than their less-expensive siblings. The $300-$600 players offered by companies like Denon, OPPO, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, and Marantz will do a considerably nicer job of upconversion than an entry-level $80 Sony or Samsung unit (which aren’t the best suited for home theater environments).

A standard definition DVD will never look better than when upconverted on a home theater with a decent Blu-ray player. So what’s your takeaway? Don’t sell those old DVDs on Craigslist or relegate them to a dusty box in a closet! If you’re willing to tolerate the slight decrease in quality between upscaled DVDs and native Blu-ray content (which many people don’t even perceive), upconversion can help you avoid rebuying your DVD movie collection. Also consider that the majority of discs available from your local video rental store or library—even in 2014—are DVDs, not Blu-rays.

Real-World Upscaling

One study claims that 39% of viewers can’t tell the difference between standard-definition video (480 lines of resolution, as featured on DVDs and old camcorders) and high-definition content (1080 on Blu-ray discs or streamed via a service like Netflix). If this is even marginally true, an even greater percentage of consumers will be oblivious to the difference between an upscaled DVD featuring “fake” 1080 resolution and a Blu-ray disc producing the real thing. If you’re one of them, keep your eyes peeled for those grocery store bargain bins full of clearance DVDs. (Your local brick-and-mortar video store—if your community still has one—is another great source of discounted new and used DVDs.)

Video Processing

Your Blu-ray player’s video processing is handled by a dedicated computer chip (or set of chips) and special software stored on it. Many manufacturers utilize fairly generic, average processing chips—which don’t always produce the best results, especially when upscaling DVDs to 1080 resolution. More potent models feature special leading edge video processing technologies licensed from third-party companies, such as Marvell’s Qdeo and Silicon Image’s VRS ClearView.

Many popular Blu-ray models, including those from Cambridge Audio, OPPO, Onkyo, and Pioneer Elite, feature Qdeo processing. Note that there are several generations of Qdeo, so one from three years ago won’t be as good as what’s shipping on current models. OPPO’s top Darbee models feature VRS ClearView video processing and upscaling.

PCM vs. Bitstream

If you’re connecting your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, there are two options for how data is sent from the player to the receiver. The first, PCM (Pulse-code Modulation,  sometimes called LPCM), is when your Blu-ray player performs all decoding of the compressed audio on the disc (a variant of either Dolby or DTS). In this scheme, the fully decoded audio is sent to your receiver, then passed along to your speakers. Many receivers allow you to select PCM output from the same menu from which you choose DLP sound fields (and will indicate the mode by displaying “PCM” on the front panel).

Bitstream, on the other hand, means your Blu-ray player does the opposite, performing no decoding of the compressed audio of the disc, instead sending along the raw, encoded bitstream to your receiver, where the decoding takes place. In this case, the receiver will display the exact encoding method employed by the disc (Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, for example). The only disadvantage of bitstream is that any “secondary audio,” such as commentaries and other supplemental features of Blu-ray, will be lost. If you ever use these features, you obviously should lean on PCM.

Typically, both methods work equally well and, in practical applications, it doesn’t really matter which you employ. However, if you had a much nicer (and newer) Blu-ray player than receiver, you might choose to have it do the heavy lifting to improve the quality of the audio pumped into your speakers. If both your Blu-ray player and receiver are of relatively equal capability and age, the difference between these two schemes will almost certainly be negligible.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.