The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has maintained that North Korea was behind the Sony hack in retaliation against the movie “The Interview” depicting the fictional assassination of the country’s high leader Kim Jong-un. But if they’re wrong, the Obama Administration’s swift and public blame could make it harder for them to bring charges against anyone else, legal experts told the Associated Press.
If the government ultimately determines the hack came from a non-North Korean agent, the accused could challenge the charges, pointing the finger right back at initial U.S. statements implicating North Korea.
“Once the government says it has good reason to believe North Korea did it, then that is good reason to believe that the defendant did not do it unless the defendant was an agent of North Korea,” Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director for the Stanford Center for Internet and Society told the AP.
Despite skepticism, the FBI has doubled down on claims that North Korea is responsible for what President Obama called a “serious national security matter.” On Wednesday, FBI director James Comey told attendants at a Fordham Law School cybersecurity conference that he had “very high confidence” in North Korea’s guiltiness.
“In nearly every case, [the Sony hackers called the Guardians of Peace] used proxy servers to disguise where they were coming from in sending these emails and posting these statements. But several times they got sloppy,” Comey said, pointing to times the hackers left their IP addresses exposed, allowing the FBI to trace their location.
But critics say the FBI was too quick to single out North Korea. Other reports signal the attack could have been an inside job because the hacker or hackers initially released employees’ private emails and salaries, which is more indicative of a personal connection. Through its own investigation, a private cybersecurity firm found the North Korean angle to be a dead end.
Moreover, the government has given conflicting reports with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security saying there wasn’t enough credible intelligence, while the FBI issued terror alert warnings to movie theaters that chose to show the controversial film.
Those contradictions, coupled with the government’s vocality on the matter, work more in the hackers’ favor and will make it difficult to pursue suspects outside of the original North Korea profile. But the FBI could be holding out on a key piece of evidence that, if revealed, would expose key intelligence-gathering methods.
Comey said the skeptics “don’t have the facts that I have. They don’t see what I see.”