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HBO's 'GoT' attack shows hackers love preying on Hollywood

Cybersecurity for movie and television studios is a flop, and cybercriminals are cashing in.

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Hackers are starting to target Hollywood, thanks to the potential for a massive payday.

Hackers are starting to target Hollywood, thanks to the potential for a massive payday.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

"Game of Thrones" and HBO are facing a dragon they can't slay: hackers.

Hollywood has become the next major target for cybercriminals, with hackers going after its weak security and massive paydays. HBO is only the latest victim, as thieves leaked emails and scripts from "Game of Thrones" and other HBO shows onto the web, promising to release more unless the network pays a hefty fee.

A source close to the investigation said the hackers wanted $6 million to stop leaking "Game of Thrones" spoilers, episodes of "Ballers," and various internal documents.

The attack marks an escalation of online threats for Hollywood studios, which previously were on the lookout for piracy, and for fans who'd post movies or shows online for others to watch for free. HBO is well aware of those issues. It had to deal with more than 10 million Americans who were planning on watching "Game of Thrones" illegally. But now the network and the rest of Hollywood are at greater risk, with cybercriminals targeting not just their shows but their internal documents too.

These aren't fanboys looking for the latest scoop on Jon Snow or Daenerys; they're in it for the money. Netflix found that out when hackers reportedly released a new season of "Orange is the New Black" after the streaming giant refused to pony up a ransom.

Why is it happening? A lot of companies don't think they'll be targets, and they skip common security practices.

"Most people prefer the ease of use over security, until it bites them," said Ross Rustici, the head of intelligence research at security company Cybereason.

Quality vs. quantity

Cybercriminals are always looking for wealthy targets, and they've found a blockbuster hit with Hollywood. In 2015 and 2016, the main victims were hospitals and small businesses, who couldn't afford to have robust security. Hackers would steal data from a vast amount of computers, in the hope that smaller payouts from hundreds of thousands of victims would bring them a massive fortune. With movie studios, the job gets much easier.

"You're going to have to hit hundreds of thousands of people to make the same amount you would with one organization," said Rick Holland, vice president of strategy and a cybercrime researcher at cybersecurity company Digital Shadows.

The thieves are aiming for quality now, not quantity, and with Hollywood studios, especially those with massive fan bases, there's a lot of potential for payments.

Movie studios are taking note. Holland said several media companies hit by hackers in the last two years secretly paid a ransom to keep the hacks under wraps. It's become so prevalent that he's seen media companies set up bitcoin wallets in case they're the next victim.

As more movie studios opt to pay up, they increasingly become a target. That's why the FBI and most cybersecurity organizations recommend that you don't pay criminals, because it will only encourage future attacks.

Studios are inclined to pay hackers if it means saving them at the box office and saving their ratings. It's worse for movies than for TV shows. With a film, studios can pour millions of dollars into a single project only to see it get leaked.

As an example, Holland pointed to the 2014 Sylvester Stallone action flick "Expendables 3." Of the films in the Expendables trilogy, it earned the least money because it was leaked by hackers, he said. Hollywood executives pay attention to that hazard, he said, and make a decision on whether they should pay based on what they stand to lose.

Hackers have the same mentality, though. It's why they target shows with massive followings, like "Game of Thrones," HBO's most watched series. They know how much these shows are worth to the companies, and how much studios will pay to keep them safe.

"What if it's 'The Last Jedi,' or 'Avengers: Infinity War,' that are going to be billion dollar properties?" Holland said.

It's a very different story than when Steve Harvey's show "Funderdome" was leaked. Reportedly, no one paid the ransom, or even wanted to download it for free.

Easy money

Hacking Hollywood has become lucrative, and also easy for hackers.

When you watch the credits roll at the end of a movie or show, think about how massive these productions are. Each one of those names and titles, from the director to the concept artist to the sound engineer, is a vulnerability hackers can try to exploit.

As show business goes digital and online, companies look for more-convenient ways to transfer files and work globally, which only makes it easier for hackers. Netflix became a prime example of the problems with weak links when a hacker stole episodes of "Orange is the New Black" from a third-party sound engineering studio, instead of from the streaming giant itself.

Holland said all media companies are looking at third-party groups as their biggest risk now. Major companies like Sony, Netflix and HBO might be able to afford top-notch security for themselves, but they can't also protect the third-party studios they work with. With a global network to watch out for, protecting everything becomes far too burdensome for most Hollywood companies.

It's a common pitfall, one Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity strategy at Illumio, has seen for the last three years. He saw it happen with the Sony hacks in 2014, when he was the White House director of cybersecurity policy and investigating North Korea's alleged involvement.

Back then, he had hoped the cyberattack against Sony would be a wake-up call for the rest of Hollywood. But the vulnerabilities have only expanded since.

"The last decade has been a massive expansion," Gleicher said. "It's faster, it's easier, you get more efficiency. The side effect is that we understand our environments much less, and we have less control over them."

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