Nearly one year before Sony was hacked, the FBI warned that U.S. companies were facing potentially crippling data destruction malware attacks, and predicted that such a hack could cause irreparable harm to a firm’s reputation, or even spell the end of the company entirely.  The FBI also detailed specific guidance for U.S. companies to follow to prepare and plan for such an attack.

But the FBI never sent Sony the report.

The Dec. 13, 2013 FBI Intelligence Assessment, “Potential Impacts of a Data-Destruction Malware Attack on a U.S. Critical Infrastructure Company’s Network,” warned that companies “must become prepared for the increasing possibility they could become victim to a data destruction cyber attack.”

The 16-page report includes details on previous malware attacks on South Korea banking and media companies—the same incidents and characteristics the FBI said Dec. 19th that it had used to conclude that North Korea was behind the Sony attack.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Intercept, was based on discussions with private industry representatives and was prepared after the 2012 cyber attack on Saudi Aramco.  The report was marked For Official Use Only, and has not been previously released.

In it, the FBI warned, “In the current cyber climate, the FBI speculates it is not a question of if a U.S. company will experience an attempted data-destruction attack, but when and which company will fall victim.”

The detailed warning raises new questions about how prepared Sony should have been for the December hack, which resulted in terabytes of commercial and personal data being stolen or released on the internet, including sensitive company emails and employee medical and personal data. Multiple sources told The Intercept that the December 2013 report raises new questions about what Sony—which is considered by the U.S. government as part of “critical infrastructure”—did or did not do to secure its systems in the year before the cyber attack.

Earlier this month, the FBI formally accused North Korea of being behind the Sony hack. “Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed,“ the Dec. 19th FBI press release said. “For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.”

The FBI also recently referred to specific evidence they say led them to determine North Korea’s involvement, including the use of the same infrastructure, IP addresses, and similarities between the Sony attack and last year’s attack against South Korean businesses and media.

North Korea has repeatedly denied involvement in the Sony cyber attack.

The FBI warning from December 2013 focuses on the same type of data destruction malware attack that Sony fell victim to nearly a year later.  The report questions whether industry was overly optimistic about recovering from such an attack and notes that some companies “wondered whether [a malware attack] could have a more significant destructive impact: the failure of the company.”

In fact, the 2013 report contains a nearly identical description of the attacks detailed in the recent FBI release. “The malware used deleted just enough data to make the machines unusable; the malware was specifically written for Korean targets, and checked for Korean antivirus products to disable,” the Dec. 2013 report said. “The malware attack on South Korean companies defaced the machine with a message from the ‘WhoIs Team.’”

Sony did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about whether they had received the report, but the FBI  confirmed that Sony was not on the distribution list. “The FBI did not provide it directly to them,” FBI spokesman Paul Bresson told The Intercept. “It was provided to several of our outreach components for dissemination as appropriate.”

Multiple sources familiar with the report and FBI channels for distribution said only if members of their IT department were members of the voluntary organization Infragard, which also received the report, would they have even seen it at all.

The report obtained by The Intercept includes pages of check-lists and step-by step guidance for U.S. companies on how to prepare for, mitigate and recover from the same exact type of hack that hit Sony.  Those sorts of “best practices” are critical for companies trying to fend off cases like the Sony attack, Kurt Baumgartner, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky Lab, told The Intercept.

Sony was “not adequately following best practices for a company of its size and sector,” Baumgartner said. “The most obvious, had they followed netflow monitoring recommendations, they would have noticed the outbound exfiltration of terabytes of data.”

Had Sony gotten the FBI report, they also would have received specific guidance prepared by the Department of Homeland Security Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team for preparation and planning for a successful destructive malware attack.  Sources familiar with the 2013 report believe if Sony had followed these guidelines the effects of the cyber attack would have been far less severe.

The real question, then, is whether more could have been done to prevent the Sony hack, and if so, what. “Korean data was available since then—nobody really paid any attention to it,” a source within the information security industry told The Intercept. “

“The question is, who dropped the ball?” the source said. “Was the information in this report not shared or was information ignored?”

Photo: Nick Ut/AP