By Joseph Klein, Special for USDR
The FBI accused the North Korean government last week of perpetrating the devastating cyber attacks against Sony’s computer network for which a group calling itself the Guardians of Peace took responsibility. The North Korean government denied the charge and warned of serious consequences if the United States launched any counter-attack. President Obama ignored the threat, declaring that the U.S. would respond “proportionally” to what he characterized as cyberspace “vandalism.”
This Monday, North Korea experienced a total Internet outage for a bit less than ten hours. “I haven’t seen such a steady beat of routing instability and outages in KP before,” Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at DYN Research, told North Korea Tech, referring to North Korea’s Internet country code top-level domain. “Usually there are isolated blips, not continuous connectivity problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are absorbing some sort of attack presently.”
North Korea’s Internet access, which it obtains through China-based facilities, has since been restored.
Some observers have attributed the temporary Internet outage to the fulfillment, in part or in whole, of Obama’s “proportional” response, which a White House National Security spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny. Whether China may have played a role in the temporary outage is unknown, but doubtful.
The FBI said that its evidence of North Korean complicity in the Sony hacking was based in part on similarities between the malware found to be used in the Sony hacking and software used in previous cyberattacks carried out by North Korea — “similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.” While some cybersecurity experts have questioned the FBI’s findings, North Korea certainly has a self-declared motive for going after Sony and it has sophisticated cyberattack capabilities. Moreover, it would not be North Korea’s first time engaging in such tactics. Last spring, South Korea concluded that North Korea was responsible for the hacking of several South Korean banks and media outlets that, along with another attack last year, were estimated to have caused damages in the neighborhood of $800 million.
The cyberattacks against Sony were evidently in retaliation for a movie called The Interview Sony was planning to release that depicted a mission to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. His regime demanded that the U.S. government ban the film, characterized it as an act of war in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last June and threatened a “merciless and resolute” response. In addition to the cyberattacks which resulted in the release of sensitive and sometimes embarrassing confidential information and internal Sony communications, the attackers issued threats of terrorist attacks against theaters that dared to display the film. An e-mail of theirs warned: “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.”
Theater owners cowered in the face of these threats. Sony withdrew its planned Christmas Day release of the movie, although it now claims it will make the film available to the public after all.
It would be easy to dismiss this latest incident as yet another in a long series of spats between the United States and the North Korean regime, precipitated in this case by a movie studio’s decision to produce and release a tasteless farce offensive to the megalomaniac North Korean dictator. President Obama played into this trivialization by downplaying the cyberattack as a mere act of “vandalism.” Instead, it should be seen as a preview of what is likely to come as rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, as well as technology savvy jihadists such as ISIS, focus on this alternative form of warfare and intimidation to censor speech they find offensive.
Rep. Patrick Meehan, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, warned the “attack on Sony is the latest high-profile example of the growing danger of the cyber threat, and it won’t be the last. American businesses, financial networks, government agencies and infrastructure systems like power grids are at continual risk. They’re targeted not just by lone hackers and criminal syndicates, but by well-funded nation-states like North Korea and Iran. A lack of consequences for when nation states carry out cyberattacks has only emboldened these adversaries to do more harm.”
Reuters quoted a South Korean specialist in nuclear designs, South Korea University’s Su Kune-yull, as saying, following the recent hacking of computer systems at South Korea’s nuclear plant operator:
“This demonstrated that, if anyone is intent with malice to infiltrate the system, it would be impossible to say with confidence that such an effort would be blocked completely. And a compromise of nuclear reactors’ safety pretty clearly means there is a gaping hole in national security.”
The control systems of the U.S. electric bulk power distribution system, the electrical grid, is particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks without adequate defenses, which are sorely lacking today. As Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., President of the Center for Security Policy, warned:
“The vulnerability of America’s electric grid is a ticking time-bomb…Many of our foes are aware both of the grid’s susceptibility to attack and the potentially catastrophic consequences for this country and its people should it happen.”
Cyberattack is one of the means available to our enemies to exploit the electric grid’s vulnerability and create a literal nightmare for the nation’s population so dependent on electricity for their day-to-day lives.
Congress passed earlier this month the Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which President Obama is expected to sign. While the legislation is a step in the right direction of enlisting government and private enterprise resources to enhance the nation’s cyber defenses and awareness, it is not enough. It must be accompanied by forceful actions by the Commander-in-Chief to deter any future cyberattacks against sensitive systems and infrastructures. Our enemies are watching. As U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told the UN Security Council during its open debate on December 22nd regarding North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, “Dictators who see threats are an effective tool for silencing the international community tend to be emboldened and not placated.”
Slaps on the wrist, like the type of temporary Internet outage that the Obama administration may or may not have caused to North Korea’s Internet access, are woefully insufficient. We cannot give even the appearance of being intimidated by thug regimes and terrorists who want to bully us into suppressing the fundamental right of free expression in our own country. In addition to restoring North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, further counter-measures should be seriously considered now. These may include cutting off North Korea’s access to global finance as completely as possible and targeting critical pieces of North Korea’s military infrastructure control systems with viruses of the sort used to infiltrate and incapacitate some of Iran’s centrifuges. Another counter-measure worth pursuing is the launching of a massive propaganda counter-offensive, using the Internet and social media to which North Korean elites and military officers have access to sow further doubts they may already be harboring in Kim Jong-un’s leadership.
Less rhetoric and more action from President Obama is what is needed. As Teddy Roosevelt said: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”