Federal officials say they are close to making a determination on the source of the hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.
A federal law enforcement officer, who was not authorized to discuss the case on the record, could not say when the determination might come.
The statement Tuesday night came as Sony and the movie industry as a whole considered the possible consequences of an Internet message threatening thousands of movie theaters that will being showing The Interview on Christmas Day.
A message from the Guardians of Peace group posted online on Tuesday warned of a 9/11-like attack on movie theaters that screen the comedy about an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The federal officer also said officials did not believe there was a capacity to pull off such a threat.
Merely the fact that the hackers–whoever they turn out to be–made the threat totally changes the nature of the event, said security expert Philip Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software Corporation.
“Up to now it was about money, revenge, etc. With this posting, the U.S. government can now get involved in a major way,” he said.
The threat of physical violence against theaters also triggers mutual cooperation with other governments. “Frankly, I am surprised that the attackers pulled the trigger on what is a well-known draconian response scenario that pits them now against government assets,” Lieberman said.
Long-time film critic and historian Leonard Maltin was at a loss for words over the latest turn of events in the saga, now entering its fourth week.
“There have been protests over films,” he said. “But I cannot think of threats from an anonymous group like this.”
The hackers’ message warned potential viewers, “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”
“The world will be full of fear,” the message said, adding, “Remember the 11th of September 2001.”
It’s unclear whether there is any actual danger, given the lack of information about who originally hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment or who is behind the threats.
In a statement Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said there is currently no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.
The FBI is actively involved in the case, is aware of the threats and “continues to work collaboratively with our partners to investigate this matter,” spokeswoman Jennifer Shearer said.
Sony has not responded to the new threat.
It was at first suspected that North Korea was responsible for the hacking in retaliation for The Interview’s depiction of an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un. The country has denied involvement, but praised the attacks.
Peter Bart, former editor of Variety and a longtime executive at Paramount Pictures, says it’s unclear how Sony should proceed.
“There are so many levels to this, it’s hard to deal with any kind of intelligent answer on what to do next,” he said. “I have had actors and stars die in the middle of productions. I have had the federal government threaten to do nasty things to me if I released a picture. I have seen a number of phenomena. But I have never anything coming even close to this sort of thing on any level.”
Should Sony pull the movie from distribution, there’s no insurance that would cover withdrawing a film so close to its release date, said Brian Kingman, managing director of Gallagher Entertainment Services in Glendale, California.
“This is uncharted waters.” Kingman said.
Kingman handles insurance for movie productions, but stressed that he is not working with Sony Pictures nor is he fully aware of their insurance situation.
The exact number of theaters a movie will be shown in is not released until several days before it opens, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Rentrak, which does box office tracking and analysis.
However The Interview is scheduled for a wide release, which would put it in somewhere between 2,000 to 4,000 theaters. Given that it’s an R-rated comedy, it will probably open in the neighborhood of between 2,000 to 3,000 theaters, Dergarabedian said.
The National Association of Theatre Owners, is “not commenting at this time,” said spokesman Jackie Brenneman.
Actor Seth Rogen, one of the movie’s co-stars, suspended media appearances on Tuesday and Wednesday in the wake of the threats, said Matt Labov, his representative.
Before he suspended his appearances, he spoke with USA TODAY’s Donna Freydkin on Tuesday. “It’s a little crazy,” he said about the association of his film, The Interview, with a cyber-attack on Sony. .
Calls to Franco’s representative were not immediately returned.
On Monday, Sony CEO Michael Lynton apologized to employees in two town hall meetings for the “criminal attack” they were enduring, saying, “I am incredibly sorry that you had to go through this.”
At the same time, lawyers representing two former Sony Pictures employees filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles. The complaint charged that the studio was negligent by ignoring early warnings that its computer system was prone to attack.
Tuesday’s threatening message was posted to Pastebin, a popular file-sharing site.
Below it were five links leading to caches of Sony files stolen in the original hack attack, which became public Nov. 24. They were titled “The 1st day of Christmas gift: This is the beginning.”
Previous file caches the group has released included lists of Sony employees, passport information for stars, highly embarrassing emails between Sony executives, medical information, an outline of the company’s entire computer network and a wide variety of data
The sheer scope of the hacking is difficult to grasp, say computer experts.
When the hackers made their first postings in late November, they released two text files which they said listed all the files they had stolen.
“Total, it was just shy of 38 million files,” said Michael Sutton, a security researcher with Zscaler, a San Jose, Calif.-based company. The hackers claim to have close to 12 terabytes of data. “That’s about 12,000 DVD’s worth of data,” Sutton said.
Since Nov. 24, they have been slowly doling out caches of stolen files, posting them on peer-to-peer sharing sites.
This makes them impossible to delete or destroy. Peer-to-peer systems are similar to the old Napster in that the files don’t live on any one, central file hosting site. Instead, they are hosted on the desktop and laptop computers of users all over the world..
The links that allow users to find the stored files are called “torrents,” after BitTorrent, a popular sharing site. On Tuesday the hackers posted five new torrents.
Once a file or files are put out into the network of torrent sites, it’s impossible for Sony or anyone to delete all of them. “There’s no way to take it down,” said Sutton. “If you take one down, it’s no big deal because there’s a million more.”
Here’s the full text of Tuesday’s message from the Guardians of Peace:
We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.
Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.
The world will be full of fear.
Remember the 11th of September 2001.
We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.
(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)
Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
All the world will denounce the SONY.
Contributing: Bryan Alexander in Los Angeles, Claudia Puig in McLean, Va.
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