Sony’s winter of discontent – a timeline

5 Jan 2015

The last few months for media and entertainment giant Sony have been pretty harrowing, with hacking and leaks ruining the company’s Christmas – but hey, the film The Interview is quite famous now!

Sony Pictures’ horrid end to 2014 was quite emphatic, with the fallout from the Guardians of Peace’s hacking still reverberating around the web, at board level within Sony and even in the White House following FBI investigations into a North Korean conspiracy.

Any involvement by this reclusive state remains unlikely, but once the hack was announced, and media outlets subsequently harked back to North Korea’s targeted – and aggressive – response to Sony’s film The Interview, this story has grown more legs than an ant colony.

In quite a strange dichotic reality that has emerged following the original hack way back in November, Sony has been both thoroughly embarrassed as well as utterly ahead of its time with promoting its latest film. As execs at the company reel following personal communiqué leaks, The Interview stands atop a brand new pedestal, quite possibly a pioneering masterpiece of marketing.

Here’s the story so far…

November 24

Just one day after November 23, when the entire Sony empire slept soundly in its bed, a malicious hacker attack took its entire computer system offline. This was hacking on a massive scale. A post appeared in the /r/ hacking thread on Reddit by a person claiming to be a former Sony Pictures employee and claiming credit for the attack. A screenshot emblazoned with the words “Hacked By #GOP” was also posted in the Reddit thread.

The Interview is not mentioned, nor is North Korea

November 27

The hackers release a zip file that contains three text documents, two of which list the stolen material acquired during the November 24 hack. Included is a variety of sensitive information, including various passwords, emails, documents relating to film budgets and PDF files that apparently contained the passports, visas, and other identity documents of cast and crew for various Sony productions, including actors Jonah Hill, Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie.

“These two files are the lists of secret data we have acquired from SPE,” wrote the hackers in a file called readme.txt. “Anyone who needs the data, send an email titled ‘To the Guardians of Peace’ to the following email addresses.”

November 28

Perhaps part of the same leak, several Sony Pictures movies are leaked online including the recently released (in cinemas) Fury, and the unreleased (at the time) Annie, Mr Turner, Still Alice and To Write Love on her Arms.

Brad Pitt stars in Sony Pictures film Fury

Re/Code, through “sources”, link the leak to North Korea, in response to The Interview.

November 30

By now, Fury had been downloaded a whopping 888,000 times. That’s a lot of people who got to see an awesome movie for free. The Interview is not picked up on, nor is North Korea, despite Re/Code’s article.

December 1

Finally Re/Code’s piece gets traction and the FBI gets involved, substantiating the links. Sony start investigating these developments, US news outlets such as NBC take notice.

December 5

Former employees of Sony come out to criticise the entertainment giant, as the fallout from the major security breach continues. The hack and leak of Sony Pictures now includes a major tranche of personal information, including social security numbers of over 47,000 current and former employees.

According to The Wall Street Journal, an analysis of 33,000 Sony documents by security firm Identity Finder LLC “found personal data, including salaries and home addresses, posted online for people who stopped working at Sony Pictures as far back as 2000 and one who started in 1955.”

December 8

Sony just can’t catch a break. In an unrelated hack attack, Lizard Squad takes down PlayStation’s PSN service. It accomplished this through DDoS attacks, bombarding servers that host online services with traffic to a point where they were incapable of handling connections from real users – PlayStation’s 20th anniversary is only a few hours old at this stage.

December 9

In a significant ‘full circling’ of the narrative, the Guardians of Peace acknowledge The Interview for the first time. Along with the hack group’s fourth release of Sony information, it calls for the film to be cancelled.

North Korea has denied it has any links with Guardians of Peace but described the act as “a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathisers”.

Amid reports that Sony staff received threatening emails in the aftermath of all of these leaks, the GoP says, “We know nothing about the threatening email received by Sony staffers, but you should wisely judge by yourself why such things are happening and who is responsible for it.”

James Franco and Seth Rogen in the spoof comedy The Interview

December 11

Reports emerge that Sony has counter-attacked with a spate of DDoS attacks against pirates and sites hosting stolen information.

At the time, Sony Pictures Entertainment was understood to be using hundreds of computers in Asia to execute the denial of service (DDoS) attacks against sites that had hosted stolen material, from files to illegal copies of its movies. If you can’t catch the perpetrators, shoot down the pigeons carrying the message.

December 15

Leaked documentation lends clues to a potential new Mario Bros movie. This isn’t the most ground-breaking revelation of the Sony fallout, but Mario Bros are great.

December 17

Moderators on Reddit are understood to have started preventing users from sharing stolen Sony documents on the site by banning them after receiving take-down notices from Sony.

December 18

Amazingly, in what seems like the finale to a poor heist movie, The Interview – now the most famous film since Titanic – is withdrawn from cinemas in the US, just as US government officials finally name North Korea as the source of the attack. Unnamed officials in a number of reports lay blame for the attack on Unit 21 of North Korea’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance. Not everyone is convinced, but by now the story is too strong to stop.

North Korea’s links to the Sony attack remain clouded in mystery

December 19

And for every poor heist movie, there’s an even worse sequel. Now GoP want all evidence that the film even existed erased from history. In an email sent to Sony executives and obtained by CNN, the hackers said the company’s decision to cancel the 25 December US theatrical release of The Interview was “very wise”. “And we want everything related to the movie, including its trailers, as well as its full version down from any website hosting them immediately.”

December 22

A lawyer for Sony says the company will release The Interview in an act of defiance against hackers who caused the movie’s cancellation at cinemas. US President Barack Obama deems the cancellation “a mistake,” before a rather sloppy reference to Kim Jong Un as “some dictator some place”. Bit rude. Interestingly, such state-sponsored moves in the US greater validate the countries deep routed surveillance operations. ‘If we don’t keep an eye, North Korea will get us!’…

December 23

Sony is understood to have threatened social media giant Twitter with legal action if it doesn’t ban accounts that are sharing leaked information emerging from the recent cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment. Cart. Horse. Bolted.

In a move widely assumed to be US-made, North Korea’s already limited internet access goes down for 10 hours.

December 25

Christmas Day, finally some solace … oh. PlayStation goes down once again, remaining down for several days. Again, Lizard Squad is behind this separate attack, however some solace for Sony as the FBI step in and start arresting alleged members of the group.

January 2

Sony forced to act as PlayStation users complain. “Since access to PlayStation Network was impacted during the holidays, we wanted to show our appreciation for your patience by offering all PlayStation Plus members that had an active membership or free trial on December 25th a membership extension of five days,” said Eric Lempel, vice president of Sony Network Entertainment in a blog post.

Then reports emerge that the original hackers probably still have access to Sony Pictures’ online activities. Citing two people familiar with the investigation, The Wall Street Journal said investigators were unable to confirm that the hackers had been eradicated from Sony’s systems.

Broken Christmas baubles image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic