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Senior Staff Writer

No, Netflix is not a victim of Ransomware

May 01, 20175 mins
CybercrimeData BreachDisaster Recovery

Claims that online extortion is equal to Ransomware are not true

Credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake

A security firm has claimed the recent issues facing Netflix and their series “Orange is the New Black” are Ransomware, and a recent report from NBC News states the same. While no company wants to be held under the threat of ransom demands, Ransomware and extortion are two different types of problems.

Over the weekend, a hacker known as TheDarkOverlord resurfaced and released the first episode of season five for “Orange is the New Black” a popular show on Netflix that isn’t slated to air until June.

A short time later, TheDarkOverlord released episodes 2 though 10, along with a warning to other Hollywood studios - you’re next.

The media jumped on the story. Netflix wouldn’t confirm or deny the leaked episodes were legitimate, stating that proper law enforcement had been notified, and that a company used by several TV studios “had its security compromised.”

The company in question, Larson Studios, does audio post-production work for a number of shows and films, including NCIS Los Angeles, Designated Survivor, and Arrested Development. According to Larson Studios, they’ve done work for FOX, Netflix, ABC, NBC, IFC, Showtime, and more.

As word of Netflix’s security problem started to spread, news outlets starting comparing the incident to the Sony Pictures hack and the medical hacks over the last few years. While there are some comparisons to be made, they’re not the same type of threat.

NBC News, in a video attached to their coverage of the Netflix situation, states:

“...A classic Ransomware attack, cyber experts say. Malware that seizes control of a computer, threatening to delete or release files if demands are not met...”

The phrasing used by NBC News sounded oddly familiar. After checking our weekend email, Salted Hash located a story pitch from security firm Comodo. While it’s unknown if NBC News received the same pitch we did, the tone of Comodo’s messaging is certainly similar:

“Ransomware is online extortion, which will rise in the future, in both number and complexity. Hackers often lock your computer, or encrypt its files, but this case is closer to doxing, or threatening to release stolen and potentially embarrassing information.” – Comodo PR, April 29, 2017


Just no.

Netflix didn’t have a Ransomware incident, and neither did Larson Studios. Their files were stolen, not encrypted.

Ransomware encrypts the files on a computer and renders them useless. Victims can recover the files if they pay a fee (ransom), or they can try and recover the files from backups.

The mention of doxing by Comodo, or the release of personal information, feels as if they are talking about the Jigsaw family of Ransomware. But the “doxware” in Jigsaw was only development code. The security firm linked to its mentions in the media couldn’t confirm if the feature actually worked, or if it was even used [1] [2].

Ransomware is something a victim must be tricked into downloading. In the case of Larson Studios and Netflix (based on comments by TheDarkOverlord), the attack was likely a mix of server side hacking or perhaps Phishing - Ransomware wasn’t involved.

According to TheDarkOverlord, Larson Studios was targeted because they were a post-production company.

Late last year, TheDarkOverlord hacked Larson Studios and downloaded an unknown number of files. Plenty of reporters knew TheDarkOverlord had targeted Hollywood, but until this weekend there was never any proof.

Fast forward a few months. When Larson Studios didn’t comply with the extortion demands, TheDarkOverlord turned their attention to Netflix. When Netflix refused to pay, season five (minus three episodes) of “Orange is the New Black” was released for download.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Netflix. You’re going to lose a lot more money in all of this than what our modest offer was. We’re quite ashamed to breathe the same air as you. We figured a pragmatic business such as yourselves would see and understand the benefits of cooperating with a reasonable and merciful entity like ourselves,” TheDarkOverlord wrote in a statement.

Netflix surpassed $2.5 billion in quarterly streaming revenue in Q1 2017, and added five million members to their subscriber base. While having one of their popular series leaked to the web isn’t exactly helpful, it isn’t clear if there will be any financial impact from this incident.

Once again, extortion and Ransomware are two separate things.

Netflix and Larson Studios are (were) being extorted, they were not infected with Ransomware and have complete access to their files.

However, there is a lesson to be learned. Third-parties are always going to pose a risk to any organization, and this is certainly the case in Hollywood where secrecy and suspense are key to their business model.

Extortion is a valid risk, but payments (as seen with Ransomware) only encourage attackers to keep going. Is extortion something your company is concerned about? Do you have a plan to deal with such situations?

More importantly, is that plan current?