Cybercrime experts at some of the world’s largest security companies have today announced that coding in the devastating WannaCry ransomware attack, bears similarities to the work of North Korean cybergang the Lazarus Group.
Let’s assume that this assertion is true: that a virus infecting over 200,000 computers in 150 companies, is the work of a team from one of the world’s poorest and most isolated nations.
Technologically North Korea is in the dark ages: almost none of its 25 million people own computers, and units in public spaces, like universities and government offices, are equipped with Red Star 3, a domestic-made Mac OSX facsimile, that is cut off from the rest of the online world.
How is this a nation that has heisted banks, hacked Hollywood and now, potentially ransacked globally sensitive institutes? The keys are to be found in North Korea’s weaknesses in real life.
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s butterball leader, has thousands of hackers at his disposal–many of whom learn their trade at home or in China to be posted abroad to wreak havoc. No-one knows how many comprise the Lazarus Group, whose actions were first noted during the 2007 ‘Operation Flame’ attack on the South Korean government.
Unlike state-sanctioned cyber outfits in the US, South Korea or Europe, the budget these hackers are afforded are subject to no oversight nor democratic process. They often come from the sharp end of Songbun, North Korea’s rigid social hierarchy.
Second, thanks to efforts like Red Star 3–but mainly the North’s extreme poverty–the country’s own defences are naturally high. Developed nations have billions of entry points to sensitive and lucrative data, not to mention the digital weapons the NSA has allegedly been stockpiling, much to tech industry chagrin.
Imagine chasing a criminal who records information with pencil and paper, before destroying both. There aren’t too many weaknesses to exploit.North Korea isn’t even connected to what we consider to be the Internet. Its defenses are thus as good as any on earth. Hacking, therefore is the perfect way for North Korea to even a battlefield that is heavily weighted against it.
WannaCry’s perpetrators have only reaped $55,000 from their work to date. That is a tiny amount of money given the havoc it has wrought, and a fraction of the amount illicit labor deals have made North Korea worldwide.
But should it be confirmed that this is indeed the work of the world’s strangest state, it will only strengthen claims in the White House that something should be done about the ‘Supreme Leader’–and soon. Then, war online could easily become war ‘IRL’.