The Slatest

NSA Reportedly Hacked North Korea Years Before the Country Hacked Sony

North Korean children learn to use the computer in a Pyongyang primary school in 2011.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

The crippling hack of Sony Pictures was costly—not to mention embarrassing—for the company. But who actually did the hacking? The Hollywood studio had made a determined enemy in North Korea for its depiction of its leader Kim Jong-un in The Interview, a film based on the leader’s assassination. The U.S. government quickly fingered the North Korean regime. Even still however, in the aftermath, debate continued about the identity of the mastermind of the attack.

It turns out, the reason the Obama administration was able to pinpoint North Korea with such speed—and certainty—was the National Security Agency had hacked the North Koreans computer systems first. Here’s the New York Times on the NSA’s pre-hack hack that dated back to 2010:

Spurred by growing concern about North Korea’s maturing capabilities, the American spy agency drilled into the Chinese networks that connect North Korea to the outside world, picked through connections in Malaysia favored by North Korean hackers and penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other American allies, according to former United States and foreign officials, computer experts later briefed on the operations and a newly disclosed N.S.A. document.

A classified security agency program expanded into an ambitious effort, officials said, to place malware that could track the internal workings of many of the computers and networks used by the North’s hackers, a force that South Korea’s military recently said numbers roughly 6,000 people. Most are commanded by the country’s main intelligence service, called the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and Bureau 121, its secretive hacking unit, with a large outpost in China.

The Times rightly wonders why, if the NSA was so deeply embedded in the North Korean network, the agency didn’t do the studio a solid and give it a heads up it was about to be electronically eviscerated? There could, of course, be security reasons as the NSA is for obvious reasons loathe to disclose information that would reveal what exactly it knows and where it’s getting its information. NBC News, however, reports “U.S. intelligence agencies did not have any warning of the Sony hacking through its monitoring of North Korean computers, and that the first the government learned of the Sony attack was on Nov. 24, when the company alerted the FBI’s cyber unit.”