Sony Pictures Entertainment had a rough holiday week. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, reports emerged that the company suffered a computer breach -- knocking down its internal computer systems and potentially compromising internal company documents. Perhaps related to the issue, DVD-quality copies of five of its recent films showed up on file-sharing sites over the weekend.
But the details of the alleged hack and the mysterious group claiming responsibility for the attack remain murky. Here's what we know so far:
According to Deadline Hollywood, on Monday Sony employees who tried to log into the company's computer system were greeted with a bizarre image that appeared to have sprung out of a late-'90s crime procedural television show's hacker episode: A fluorescent red skeleton overlaid with the words "Hacked by #GOP." The image also included a threat to release data hosted at other Web sites at 11 p.m. GMT that day unless an unspecified request was met.
A handful of Twitter accounts associated with Sony Pictures films also appeared to be compromised, according to Ars Technica. The account for the movie "Starship Troopers" tweeted out a hokey image featuring a digitally altered version of Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton's head along with the same "Hacked by #GOP" slogan. There was also this charming note: "You, the criminals including [Sony Pictures CEO] Michael Lynton will surely go to hell. Nobody can help you."
So, uh, what is #GOP? Sony Pictures wasn't hacked by rogue Republican operatives, was it?
Nope -- GOP in this context likely stands for "Guardians of Peace" An e-mail from an account associated with the group told the Verge it was seeking "equality" and implied it had help from employees inside the company. But it was sent from an e-mail account that doesn't require users to login with a password, so its authenticity is unclear.
What's the damage?
According to the Los Angeles Times, Sony Pictures employees around the world were reduced to doing their jobs with the help of pen, paper, and landline telephones -- and reports suggest their systems were down throughout the week.
There's also a list of documents that "Guardians of Peace" claims to have stolen from the company floating around online. The list appears to include everything from random promotional materials to travel documents of stars who work with the company -- although it doesn't look like the actual files have been leaked at this point.
Sony has been tight-lipped about the situation -- not even confirming that there was a hack last week, instead referring to the issue as "disruption" in comments to media. (The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.)
However, over the weekend copies of DVD screeners for several recent Sony Pictures films started showing up on online piracy hubs -- including war film "Fury," which is still in theaters, and a remake of the musical "Annie," which hasn't even been released yet. It remains unclear if the two incidents are linked, but the timing sure does seem suspect.
So do we have any idea why people are going after Sony Pictures Entertainment?
Pretty much everyone seems to be a target for hackers these days -- be it for commercial gain or for the proverbial "lulz." In August, Sony's Playstation Network suffered outages, apparently due to an attack that made the service unavailable for North American users -- although the company said at the time that no user data was compromised.
It's still really unclear who exactly the "Guardians of Peace" are and what their mysterious demands were. But one of the most prominent theories is that they're somehow connected to North Korea.
Wait, what does North Korea have to do with this?
Maybe nothing. But Friday, tech news site Re/code cited anonymous sources claiming that Sony is "exploring the possibility" that the attack was the result of hackers working on behalf of North Korea -- perhaps operating out of China. The theory is that the secretive nation was angry about "The Interview," an upcoming action-comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco about celebrity journalists who land an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un -- and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him.
In June, the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted an unnamed spokesman for the country's Foreign Ministry threatening "merciless counter measures" if the U.S. didn't somehow stop the release of the film.
But this might be a red herring. The Los Angeles Times cites an anonymous source that calls the connection "far-fetched."
North Korea, which blocks nearly all citizens from Internet access, does have a bit of a reputation for cyber warfare. Last year, it was suspected to be behind attacks against South Korean broadcasters and financial institutions -- although the South Korea's Communications Commission said the disruptions originated from an Internet address in China.
Sony has declined to comment on the potential North Korea connection.
What happens next?
Presumably, Sony is trying to right its IT ship -- and pursue those who wronged it. When it comes to the leak of pirated films, it appears the company has brought in the government to help go after the perpetrators. "The theft of Sony Pictures Entertainment content is a criminal matter, and we are working closely with law enforcement to address it," a company spokesperson said.
The company is working with the FBI and cybersecurity company FireEye's Mandiant forensics unit, according to Reuters. This is actually one of the points in favor of the North Korea theory -- Mandiant is well known for cleaning up after suspected Chinese hackers. If nothing else, perhaps "The Interview" will benefit from the swirl of attention brought on by the incident when it hits the box office on Christmas Day.