Isolated cyber-attacks between governments have been taking place for decades. The 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iran to disrupt that country's nuclear program is one stellar example. The multi-year Red October hack discovered in 2012 is another.
But we seem to be entering a new era of bona fide cyber-war, where two nations engage in frequent attacks that are claimed to be retaliation for previous attacks.
The recent attack on Sony Pictures, which probably involved the North Korean government and may have provoked a counter-attack by the U.S. government, appears to be the start of a sustained cyber-war between the two countries.
In this column, I'll review the facts of the Sony hack. Then I'll spell out what it is about this episode that serves as a harbinger of the endless cyber-war to come.
The Sony Pictures Hack and Its Aftermath
The whole Sony Pictures hack is rife with speculation and false claims of certainty. Let's start with the facts.
On Nov. 24, hackers downloaded copies of huge quantities of data from Sony Pictures computers, which included personnel data on employees (including executive salaries and employee performance reviews), emails and possibly creative content like screenplays and even movies.
The hackers then erased company computers, including boot records (making recovery difficult or impossible) and left behind graphic images claiming that a group called the Guardians of Peace, or GOP, were responsible.
The White House and FBI said that the government of North Korea was "centrally involved" in the attack and promised an "appropriate" response. The North Korean government denied involvement, but said it was a "righteous deed" that may have been carried out by its "supporters and sympathizers" in retaliation for the Sony Pictures comedy, "The Interview," which is set in North Korea, mocks the country's regime and depicts the assassination of its leader Kim Jong-un.
The GOP referred to North Korea and "The Interview" only after that nation and that motivation were publicly associated with the attack.
Last week, North Korea lost Internet access nationwide for more than nine hours. Then, another outage struck the country on Saturday. North Korea blamed the United States for the outages; president Obama had no comment.
There's much more collateral damage from this network breach, including scandalous content revealed in stolen documents posted online, Sony's initial decision to cancel the theatrical release of "The Interview," followed by its decision to reverse course and distribute the file online and in theaters. But these aspects are peripheral to the events as a harbinger of the cyber-wars to come.
Here's what we don't know. First and foremost, we don't know for certain whether the North Korean government actually had a role in the Sony Pictures hack. We don't know who Guardians of Peace are. We don't know if someone inside Sony Pictures helped with the attack. We don't know if GOP leaked five movies to torrent sites. We don't know if the United States was responsible for the North Korean Internet outage.
We may eventually learn some of this information, or we may not. But that hardly matters. The United States and North Korea blame each other, and each said they will retaliate.
It doesn't matter. This is the start not only of a cyber-war between the United States and North Korea that won't end as long as the North Korean regime exists—and it's also the start of an era in which cyber-war is the normal state of affairs on the Internet.