Delay announcing Sony PlayStation Network breach may be linked to criminal investigation

It's still unclear why it took Sony so long to admit it lost customers' personally identifiable information in the wake of the PlayStation Network attack, but the real reason may have more to do with legal considerations than how long it took the company to discover the losses, experts say.

The official line from Sony's daily blog updates about the attack that has knocked out its PS3 gaming site for a week now is that it took days to perform the forensic investigation that revealed the scope of the breach.

But part of that investigation may have been criminal as opposed to technical, says John Pironti, president of IP Architects, a security consulting firm. "You can delay disclosure if you're in the midst of criminal investigations and doing forensics," he says.

LOOMING THREAT: The Sony PlayStation Network breach: An identity-theft bonanza

A company can also delay disclosure if it is notifying organizations that can mitigate the effects of the breach, such as credit card companies. "First you get to all the people who can stop the badness before you disclose to the public," Pironti says. So while Sony may have known what was taken earlier, it might have spent some time trying to offset damage to customers.

The attacker -- and Sony's blog speaks of "an unauthorized person" -- apparently found a way to gain access to the network and then discovered an exposed system to exploit, Pironti say.

Sony is saying that credit card numbers may have been compromised, but it's not certain. It's not necessary for companies to store credit card data; it's just a convenience so customers don't have to re-enter their numbers each time they make a purchase, says Derek Manky, a threat researcher for Fortinet, speaking in a Network World podcast. "Should they be storing information like this?" he says. "It's a convenience factor."

The damage to the network must be devastating, Pironti says, for the company to announce that it is rebuilding the network and indicating its gaming site still won't be up and running fully for another week. "We have a clear path to have PlayStation Network and Qriocity systems back online, and expect to restore some services within a week," the PlayStation blog said April 26.

"Our efforts to resolve this matter involve re-building our system to further strengthen our network infrastructure," the blog said three days earlier. "Though this task is time-consuming, we decided it was worth the time necessary to provide the system with additional security."

That is a strong indication of fundamental problems with the network, not just cleaning up after a breach, Pironti says. "I wouldn't tell my clients to say that even if it's what they're going to do," Pironti says.

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When the site does come back up, it will likely be a Band-Aided version of its old network to keep players gaming until it can complete its rebuild. "To me that means there's a flagrant design flaw in what they had," he says. "This means the network was designed with performance concepts in mind and not security concepts."

What is the likelihood of finding the person who stole the data? "They probably have somebody in mind, but if they're good enough to carry this out, they're good enough to hide themselves," Pironti says.

The difficult part about assessing what really happened is that the information is being meted out so carefully, says Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer for F-Secure. "We don't know anything beyond what Sony tells us, and that isn't much," he says.

But from what has been said, he thinks there are three different types of possible attacker.

First, an individual affiliated with the hacker group Anonymous could have discovered a vulnerability while the group was probing the network in preparation for a protest against a Sony lawsuit versus a customer it said violated conditions of use for his PlayStation 3. The group called off its DDoS attack against Sony, but an individual might have continued alone. "While poking around all Sony services, someone affiliated with Anonymous found a way in and stole the PSN user database," Hypponen speculates.

Second, it's possible that game files being run on PS3s somehow enabled access to the PlayStation network, but that would likely not have been initiated with criminal intent. "Some features enabled by users running homebrew PS3 roms allowed them to access some PSN back-end system," he theorizes. "In this case the breach would have been more about curiosity than maliciousness or money."

The third possibility is that professional criminals hacked the system seeking valuable data they could sell. "The attacker was a group fueled by financial gain and they just happened to go after the PSN customer database at this time," Hypponen says.

Even with the embarrassment of being taken down an extended period, Sony may come out all right in the end, says Pironti. PlayStation gamers just want to get back to playing. "Look at this at the end of the year and see how much impact it has," he says. "This is the network where you play, so you've got a captive audience."

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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Tim Greene

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