A lot's happened with Sony, The Interview, and North Korea over the last three weeks, and it's been easy to get lost. So we've put together a quick refresher on all the news that's come out since the attacks began. It's been one of the strangest and most befuddling stories of the year, but we've answered the biggest questions below.
What happened to Sony?
On November 24th, the computers at Sony Pictures Entertainment abruptly stopped working, blasting a red skeleton image onto every monitor along with a message. The message said that they had been hacked by a group called the Guardians of Peace, who pledged not to stop until Sony Pictures was destroyed. Attackers wiped every hard drive, shut down the email system, and made off with a huge cache of private company data. In the weeks since, they've been releasing that data through public torrents, and the press (including The Verge) has reported on much of the information as it was released.
The attackers seem to have pulled whatever was available on the company servers, but that adds up to a lot of sensitive and previously secret information. Private emails from Sony executives revealed huge infighting over the pre-production of the movie Jobs, as well as Snapchat's attempts to launch a music label. The leaks also revealed more troubling anti-piracy efforts from the MPAA, including a coordinated campaign against Google. The most sensitive data so far has been the social security numbers of 47,000 employees, including celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and Judd Apatow, which may be used as fodder for identity theft attacks for years to come.
Who was behind the attacks?
According to the FBI, it was the work of North Korea's cyberattack squad. The FBI report points to "significant overlap" in both the methods and the infrastructure used in this hack and a 2013 attack on banks and other infrastructure in Seoul, an attack that was widely attributed to North Korea. "There were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks," the report reads. There's also a reference to further evidence from "sensitive sources and methods" that hasn't been included in the report, which has been widely taken as a reference to data pulled from the NSA's web monitoring tools.
North Korea is also the only party with a clear motive. Earlier this summer, North Korea had threatened retaliation for the release of The Interview, a comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Later messages from the attackers also called for Sony to halt the release of the film. After the attacks began, North Korean officials denied that the country was responsible, but called the attacks "a righteous deed" and openly applauded whoever was responsible.
How damaging were the attacks?
Very damaging! Just repairing the computer system and protecting employees will cost tens of millions, and the total damage is likely to top $100 million. Strategies were revealed, early deals squished, and for nearly a month, employees were threatened and terrorized by anonymous hackers. Sony is already facing two separate lawsuits from employees who say the company didn't do enough to protect their private information. Then there's the simple reputation damage: in one leaked email, mega-producer Scott Rudin called Angelina Jolie a "minimally talented spoiled brat" — how do you put a price tag on that?
Then there's also the ongoing fallout from the cancelled release of The Interview, announced on Wednesday...
Wait, what happened to The Interview?
At first, the hack didn't put much of a dent in The Interview's release schedule — star Seth Rogen even joked about the attacks on Saturday Night Live. That changed on Tuesday, when the hackers threatened terror attacks on theaters showing the film. (The message was posted anonymously, but came along with fresh data from Sony servers, suggesting it came from the same attackers.) Sony reacted by canceling the film's New York premiere as well as many of the accompanying press appearances. The studio didn't officially cancel the release, but it gave theater owners permission to cancel screenings if they felt security was a concern. In response, nearly every major US theater chain pulled the film, and Sony officially canceled the release shortly after.
As it stands now, it's unclear whether the film will ever be seen again. The attackers have demanded that the studio erase every existing trace of the film to prevent further leaks, and for now, the studio seems to be complying with the demand. Some have called for an online release, but the studio has responded by saying that no online service has stepped forward to distribute the film -- an implausible claim, since Sony owns the online distribution service Crackle. Nonetheless, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton maintains that the studio wants to release the film. The only question is how and when.
So…what is the US Government doing about all this?
They're still working it out! We've never had a hack this messy or public before, and politicians are still figuring out what to do. In a press conference on Friday, President Obama promised a response to the attack, but gave few details beyond that, saying: "We will respond proportionately and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose." Still, it's unclear what a proportionate response to a cyberattack might look like, and North Korea's continued isolation from the international community has made many observers skeptical that the country will face any meaningful repercussions.
At the same time, President Obama urged Congress to act on a new cybersecurity law to defend against attacks like this in the future. The details of the proposal are still unclear, but many are already taking it as an excuse to limit web freedoms in the name of security. With an increasingly hostile Congress arriving in the new year, the fate of the bill remains uncertain.
12/19 5:34pm ET: Updated to reflect the FBI statement, the president's press conference and other developments