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Sony Data Breach Shows Hackers Raising the Stakes

10 December 2014 in Trading Ideas

Over the past 12 months, we’ve seen several high-profile examples of corporate data security breaches, most notably at Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus and SuperValu.

The newest notable victim is Sony, which said late last month that the computer system at its Sony Picture Entertainment division was broken into by hackers who later claimed to have obtained “top secrets” from the company.

This latest breach marked a shift from earlier episodes across the country this year, which were more typical grabs at customer data, such as bank account information.

The Sony hack targeted internal company documents, which, when they were posted on the Internet, contained employee healthcare files, actor salaries for movies, and annual compensation of senior Sony executives.1

Even more troubling was the concern that this kind of attack could become more common.

“In 2015 hackers will destroy systems not just for activism, but also for counter-incident response,” Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at Trend Micro, told the New York Times, suggesting that it would be more difficult for security firms and companies to investigate, respond and recover from cyber attacks.

The FBI issued a private bulletin last week to a wide range of companies about a malicious software threat that wipes data from computers beyond the point of recovery.

Ultimately, it means that cyber security for large companies is becoming increasingly about the need to back up computers securely and defend against data destruction. In the case of Sony, the attack was complicated by the fact that much of the data were deleted, while other data, from movies to pay documents, appear to have been leaked, posted on websites or emailed to reporters.

Ron Gula, chief executive of Tenable Security, a US-based cyber security company, told the Financial Times that this shows how hackers are moving from stealing data to destroying it.2

“It is really a view of what’s to come next year,” he warns. “I really believe the people doing these attacks will move from exfiltration to pure destruction of data. The vulnerabilities in these organizations are so bad, people who want to do this kind of harm can do this kind of harm and will do this kind of harm.”

According to the Financial Times, Sony has hired Mandiant, a forensic cybercrime group owned by FireEye, to investigate the incident. The FBI also began probing the attack.

As large corporate security breaches have multiplied this year, investors have been bidding up the shares of cyber security providers, under the probable assumption that increased demand will drive growth in revenues and profits.

They Cyber Security motif has gained 24% in the past six months. During that same time period, the S&P 500 has risen 6.7%.

Over the past month, the motif has increased 3.4%; the S&P 500 is up 1.3%.

1Brooks Barnes and Nicole Perlroth, “Sony Films Are Pirated, and Hacked Leak Studio Salaries,” nytimes.com, Dec. 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/03/business/media/sony-is-again-target-of-hackers.html, (accessed Dec. 8, 2014).

2Matthew Garrahan, Hannah Kuchler, and Kana Inagaki, “Sony cyber attack reveals hackers changing their stripes,” FT.com, Dec. 5, 2014.