Anonymous hacks Sony again, except no they didn't

Widely-reported disinformation highlights hacktivist risk to corporate reputation.

For maybe 72 hours this week slabs of the online world, and gamers in particular, were under the impression that Sony's PlayStation Network had been hacked again, with the theft of a 50GB database leaving 10 million user accounts exposed.

Was it another hack like the series in April this year, the ones that compromised maybe 100 million user accounts and cost Sony maybe $200 million?

No.

In fact, nothing happened. At least not at Sony.

So what did happen?

A tweet was sent from the Twitter account @YourAnonNews that read "@Sony Hacked, @PlayStation Network Pwned | http://pastebin.com/HUjZPaF3 | # PSN | # Anonymous". And a poorly-written document was posted at that Pastebin URL .

It's all a bit thin. But still, this was enough to have gaming writers issuing warnings and advising people to change their passwords. A post even appeared under the respected Forbes business masthead -- though at least that one pointed out that it was just a rumour at that stage.

It didn't take long for more patient folks to note that the sample of hashed passwords supposedly hacked from Sony PSN was the same as that posted in April. Sony soon issued a denial too.

This morning Australian time CSO Online received a denial from Anonymous as well -- or at least an email from AnonymousGlobal@riseup.net. It read, in part:

Note: The attacker claims he is the leader of Anonymous. This is simply a blatant lie.

Note: Anybody with the ability to again, "hack", Sony, would at least have the decency to use spell-check.

Note: "Contact me at anon@prvt.org for the full database" -- How can we do this when your domain is officially parked? http://prvt.org/

That last point was curious, though. The domain prvt.org has perfectly valid DNS MX records, and there's an SMTP server on the IP address, which means that it can receive email.

Confusing the parking of a domain's website with the ability to receive email is a basic technical error. Not the sort of thing usually associated with Anonymous' operations, even the politically inept ones.

So where did this email come from?

"These 'we didn't do this' proclamations have been done at least three or four times before," Barrett Brown, a former journalist who has previously written media releases for Anonymous, told CSO Online via email.

"They usually mean that the people don't know the people involved via IRC or whatever else (or just don't know they did it), or they don't like it."

Anonymous' media releases are sometimes written by ten people or more via services like typewith.me, Brown said -- but this wasn't one of them. Indeed, to me it looks more like some random dispute between kids, both wanting a free ride on Anonymous' street cred. But I could be wrong.

That's the risk when trying to understand Anonymous, of course. Despite the media shorthand of describing them as a "hacking group", anyone on the planet can claim to be working under the Anonymous brand -- including people working to actively discredit them, or hackers playing a completely different game throwing a red herring into the trail.

While hacks by the non-organisation Anonymous highlight the risk of misattribution, that risk exists with every political hack. It's easy to plant false leads, to replicate a hacktivist group's hacking methods and public announcements. And the media is, generally, too busy to care about details that interrupt their comfortable narrative.

But even the rumour of a hack can damage an organisation's reputation.

In this particular instance the hoax was so ham-fisted in execution and Sony so quick to respond, that the damage was minimal. Sony has learned the hard way.

But imagine it done with more finesse, on a Friday night before a long weekend, to a company that had never faced the reality of a large-scale data breach.

It might take days for the truth to be known, leaving plenty of time to plant a negative propaganda message in people's minds, or even play games with the share price.

Welcome to infowar through pseudo-hacktivism.

Contact Stilgherrian at Stil@stilgherrian.com or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian

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