TIME foreign affairs

The Government Must Show Us the Evidence That North Korea Attacked Sony

President Obama Holds News Conference At The White House
Leigh Vogel—WireImage President Barack Obama holds a press conference during which he discussed Sony Pictures' decision not to release "The Interview" in wake of the alleged North Korean hacking scandal at The White House on December 19, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

American history is littered with examples of classified information pointing us towards aggression against other countries—think WMDs—only to later learn that the evidence was wrong

When you’re attacked by a missile, you can follow its trajectory back to where it was launched from. When you’re attacked in cyberspace, figuring out who did it is much harder. The reality of international aggression in cyberspace will change how we approach defense.

Many of us in the computer-security field are skeptical of the U.S. government’s claim that it has positively identified North Korea as the perpetrator of the massive Sony hack in November 2014. The FBI’s evidence is circumstantial and not very convincing. The attackers never mentioned the movie that became the centerpiece of the hack until the press did. More likely, the culprits are random hackers who have loved to hate Sony for over a decade, or possibly a disgruntled insider.

On the other hand, most people believe that the FBI would not sound so sure unless it was convinced. And President Obama would not have imposed sanctions against North Korea if he weren’t convinced. This implies that there’s classified evidence as well. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote for the Atlantic, “The NSA has been trying to eavesdrop on North Korea’s government communications since the Korean War, and it’s reasonable to assume that its analysts are in pretty deep. The agency might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack. It might, say, have phone calls discussing the project, weekly PowerPoint status reports, or even Kim Jong Un’s sign-off on the plan. On the other hand, maybe not. I could have written the same thing about Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of that country, and we all know how wrong the government was about that.”

The NSA is extremely reluctant to reveal its intelligence capabilities — or what it refers to as “sources and methods” — against North Korea simply to convince all of us of its conclusion, because by revealing them, it tips North Korea off to its insecurities. At the same time, we rightly have reason to be skeptical of the government’s unequivocal attribution of the attack without seeing the evidence. Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction is only the most recent example of a major intelligence failure. American history is littered with examples of claimed secret intelligence pointing us toward aggression against other countries, only for us to learn later that the evidence was wrong.

Cyberspace exacerbates this in two ways. First, it is very difficult to attribute attacks in cyberspace. Packets don’t come with return addresses, and you can never be sure that what you think is the originating computer hasn’t itself been hacked. Even worse, it’s hard to tell the difference between attacks carried out by a couple of lone hackers and ones where a nation-state military is responsible. When we do know who did it, it’s usually because a lone hacker admitted it or because there was a months-long forensic investigation.

Second, in cyberspace, it is much easier to attack than to defend. The primary defense we have against military attacks in cyberspace is counterattack and the threat of counterattack that leads to deterrence.

What this all means is that it’s in the U.S.’s best interest to claim omniscient powers of attribution. More than anything else, those in charge want to signal to other countries that they cannot get away with attacking the U.S.: If they try something, we will know. And we will retaliate, swiftly and effectively. This is also why the U.S. has been cagey about whether it caused North Korea’s Internet outage in late December.

It can be an effective bluff, but only if you get away with it. Otherwise, you lose credibility. The FBI is already starting to equivocate, saying others might have been involved in the attack, possibly hired by North Korea. If the real attackers surface and can demonstrate that they acted independently, it will be obvious that the FBI and NSA were overconfident in their attribution. Already, the FBI has lost significant credibility.

The only way out of this, with respect to the Sony hack and any other incident of cyber-aggression in which we’re expected to support retaliatory action, is for the government to be much more forthcoming about its evidence. The secrecy of the NSA’s sources and methods is going to have to take a backseat to the public’s right to know. And in cyberspace, we’re going to have to accept the uncomfortable fact that there’s a lot we don’t know.

Bruce Schneier is a security technologist, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and the CTO of Co3 Systems Inc. He blogs at schneier.com and tweets at @schneierblog.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

The U.S.’s Hypocritical Stance Against Chinese Hackers

A Virtual Conversation With Edward Snowden - 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival
Michael Buckner—2014 Getty Images Edward Snowden speaks at the "Virtual Conversation With Edward Snowden" during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at the Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

The problem with taking a stand against China is that we've also been stealing secret data from them, a longstanding practice on both sides as old as the Cold War.

Chinese hacking of American computer networks is old news. For years we’ve known about their attacks against U.S. government and corporate targets. We’ve seen detailed reports of how they hacked The New York Times. Google has detected them going after Gmail accounts of dissidents. They’ve built sophisticated worldwide eavesdropping networks. These hacks target both military secrets and corporate intellectual property. They’re perpetrated by a combination of state, state-sponsored and state-tolerated hackers. It’s been going on for years.

On Monday, the Justice Department indicted five Chinese hackers in absentia, all associated with the Chinese military, for stealing corporate secrets from U.S. energy, metals and manufacturing companies. It’s entirely for show; the odds that the Chinese are going to send these people to the U.S. to stand trial is zero. But it does move what had been mostly a technical security problem into the world of diplomacy and foreign policy. By doing this, the U.S. government is taking a very public stand and saying “enough.”

The problem with that stand is that we’ve been doing much the same thing to China. Documents revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden show that the NSA has penetrated Chinese government and commercial networks, and is exfiltrating — that’s NSA talk for stealing — an enormous amount of secret data. We’ve hacked the networking hardware of one of their own companies, Huawei. We’ve intercepted networking equipment being sent there and installed monitoring devices. We’ve been listening in on their private communications channels.

The only difference between the U.S. and China’s actions is that the U.S. doesn’t engage in direct industrial espionage. That is, we don’t steal secrets from Chinese companies and pass them directly to U.S. competitors. But we do engage in economic espionage; we steal secrets from Chinese companies for an advantage in government trade negotiations, which directly benefits U.S. competitors. We might think this difference is important, but other countries are not as as impressed with our nuance.

Already the Chinese are retaliating against the U.S. actions with rhetoric of their own. I don’t know the Chinese expression for “pot calling the kettle black,” but it certainly fits in this case.

Again, none of this is new. The U.S. and the Chinese have been conducting electronic espionage on each other throughout the Cold War, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to change anytime soon. What’s different now is the ease with which the two countries can do this safely and remotely, over the Internet, as well as the massive amount of information that can be stolen with a few computer commands.

On the Internet today, it is much easier to attack systems and break into them than it is to defend those systems against attack, so the advantage is to the attacker. This is true for a combination of reasons: the ability of an attacker to concentrate his attack, the nature of vulnerabilities in computer systems, poor software quality and the enormous complexity of computer systems.

The computer security industry is used to coping with criminal attacks. In general, such attacks are untargeted. Criminals might have broken into Target’s network last year and stolen 40 million credit and debit card numbers, but they would have been happy with any retailer’s large credit card database. If Target’s security had been better than its competitors, the criminals would have gone elsewhere. In this way, security is relative.

The Chinese attacks are different. For whatever reason, the government hackers wanted certain information inside the networks of Alcoa World Alumina, Westinghouse Electric, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, United Steelworkers Union and SolarWorld. It wouldn’t have mattered how those companies’ security compared with other companies; all that mattered was whether it was better than the ability of the attackers.

This is a fundamentally different security model — often called APT or Advanced Persistent Threat — and one that is much more difficult to defend against.

In a sense, American corporations are collateral damage in this battle of espionage between the U.S. and China. Taking the battle from the technical sphere into the foreign policy sphere might be a good idea, but it will work only if we have some moral high ground from which to demand that others not spy on us. As long as we run the largest surveillance network in the world and hack computer networks in foreign countries, we’re going to have trouble convincing others not to attempt the same on us.

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist. He is the author of 12 books – including Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive — as well as hundreds of articles, essays and academic papers. Schneier is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Chief Technology Officer of Co3 Systems, Inc.

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