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.

Personal Data Security: Password Basics

securityThis post is an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security, which covers centralized data, backups, strong passwords, and malware protection. The following is from Chapter 4: Passwords.

Also check out the previous posts in this series, including Personal Data Security: Backups, 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite, and Personal Data Security: NAS.

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Curt Robbins


Basic Password Rules

There are some basic rules that will help prevent hackers from stealing your passwords, gaining access to your online accounts, or stealing your identity. While following these rules doesn’t guarantee that your accounts won’t be compromised, it vastly improves the resiliency of your online accounts and protects you about as much as possible.

You’re creating what is known as a “strong password,” meaning it has a mix of letters (both lower and upper case), numbers, and symbols and is of a minimum length.

  • Make a Strong Password: Use a minimum of 16 characters that are a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use easy-to-guess phrases, such as “iloveyou” or “MaryHadALittleLamb.” While “MaryHadALittleLamb” has both upper and lower case letters and is of appropriate length, it lacks numbers and symbols. Also, hackers look for common phrases, using dictionaries and even terabytes of Wikipedia and Bible content as a “check against” list. Guess it’s time to change that “yabbadabbado123” password.
  • Change Your Password Frequently: You should change your password/passphrase every six months. This is the rule few people follow (simply because it’s a hassle), especially if all of your online accounts feature unique passwords. Nobody ever said protecting your accounts and data was a total cakewalk.
  • Use a Unique Password on Each Account: Nobody likes this because it’s such a pain (especially when you should change all passwords with such frequency). This is where password vault software comes in handy. In 2014, nearly no one has only one or two online accounts. A dozen or more accounts is not uncommon. As you’ll learn below, password vault apps that store all of your passwords in a single password-protected program or app are a solid strategy for keeping several long, strong passwords at your fingertips.
  • Tell Nobody: This means nobody. Putting effort into creating strong passwords that are difficult to crack and then simply giving them away to a friend or co-worker is stupid. Even if your friend/family member has no malicious intent, they can easily get sloppy and expose your password to others (like by writing it on a sticky note and slapping it on their computer monitor!). There’s no reason for anyone else to know your passwords. It’s simply antithetical to the cause!

Even if a hacker doesn’t get your password from you or your devices, the bad guys can compromise a password database held by a service provider (your bank, email service, large retailers like Target or Amazon, social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, etc.). Once the hacker has gotten into the password database (often by breaking its encryption), they then have to guess the passwords. Something like “P@ssw0rd1” will be guessed in mere seconds. Regardless of the quality of your home or office firewall or the security of the individual devices you use to access your accounts, the password itself must stand up to the most robust cracking attempts that will most likely be perpetrated on the organization with which you have an account.

Strong Passwords

You have already learned that the strength of your passwords is determined by their length, complexity, and lack of predictability (why you don’t want “maryhadalittlelamb” or “ILoveNY”).

The password “Tr0ub4dor&3” seems like a relatively strong password on the surface. Although it’s too short (only 11 characters), it features both lower and upper case letters, numbers, and a symbol. However, a hacker with a computer capable of producing 1,000 guesses per second (an old computer can do this) will require only three days to guess this password. Compare this to “correcthorsebatterystaple,” a passphrase that requires 550 years to crack (at the same rate of 1,000 guesses per second). And this passphrase doesn’t even include upper case letters, numbers, or symbols! By adding these elements, you would have a passphrase that, for all practical purposes, is nearly impossible to crack (unless it’s the NSA trying to get it) and relatively easy to remember.

Longer, more complex passphrases are also more difficult for others to steal through simple observation. Sometimes, passwords are nefariously obtained by the act of observing the owner type them. Short, simple passwords and passphrases can be learned by watching the owner input them only once or maybe a few times. If someone really wants your password, they may even use a wi-fi-based webcam or security camera to record your keystrokes! Don’t underestimate the lengths to which a hacker or enemy will go to steal your information, identity, or money.

One of the best ways to understand strong passwords is to consider weak examples. Weak passwords include those that:

  • are shorter than 16 characters
  • include personal details such as your name or the name of a family member, a pet’s name, your street or address, your birthday, etc.
  • include complete words or sequential number strings (like “qwerty” and “12345678”)
  • lack a mix of upper and lower case letters
  • lack numbers
  • lack symbols

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.