Dave Lee, North America technology reporter
Who was behind the huge global cyber-attack? One prominent theory right now is North Korea – but what we know is far from conclusive.
You may not have heard of the Lazarus Group, but you may be aware of its work. The devastating hack on Sony Pictures in 2014, and another on a Bangladeshi bank in 2016, have both been attributed to the highly sophisticated group.
It is widely believed that the Lazarus Group worked out of China, but on behalf of the North Koreans.
Security experts are now cautiously linking the Lazarus Group to this latest attack after a discovery by Google security researcher Neel Mehta. He found similarities between code found within WannaCry – the software used in the hack – and other tools believed to have been created by the Lazarus Group in the past.
It’s a mere sliver of evidence, but there are other clues to consider too.
Picking apart the code
Prof Alan Woodward, a security expert, pointed out to me that the text demanding the ransom uses what reads like machine-translated English, with a Chinese segment apparently written by a native speaker.
“As you can see it’s pretty thin and all circumstantial,” Prof Woodward said.
“However, it’s worth further investigation.”
“Neel Mehta’s discovery is the most significant clue to date regarding the origins of WannaCry,” said Russian security firm Kaspersky, but noted a lot more information is needed about earlier versions of WannaCry before any firm conclusion can be reached.
“We believe it’s important that other researchers around the world investigate these similarities and attempt to discover more facts about the origin of WannaCry,” the company added.
“Looking back to the Bangladesh attack, in the early days, there were very few facts linking them to the Lazarus Group.
“In time, more evidence appeared and allowed us, and others, to link them together with high confidence. Further research can be crucial to connecting the dots.”
Attributing cyber-attacks can be notoriously difficult – often relying on consensus rather than confirmation.
For example, North Korea has never admitted any involvement in the Sony Pictures hack – and while security researchers, and the US government, have confidence in the theory, neither can rule out the possibility of a false flag.
Skilled hackers may have simply made it look like it had origins in North Korea by using similar techniques.
‘Wouldn’t stand up in court’
In the case of WannaCry, it is possible that hackers simply copied code from earlier attacks by the Lazarus Group.
But Kaspersky said false flags within WannaCry were “possible” but “improbable”, as the shared code was removed from later versions.
“There’s a lot of ifs in there,” added Prof Woodward.
“It wouldn’t stand up in court as it is. But it’s worth looking deeper, being conscious of confirmation bias now that North Korea has been identified as a possibility.”
It’s the strongest theory yet as to the origin of WannaCry, but there are also details that arguably point away from it being the work of North Korea.
First, China was among the countries worst hit, and not accidentally – the hackers made sure there was a version of the ransom note written in Chinese. It seems unlikely North Korea would want to antagonise its strongest ally. Russia too was badly affected.
Second, North Korean cyber-attacks have typically been far more targeted, often with a political goal in mind.
In the case of Sony Pictures, hackers sought to prevent the release of The Interview, a film that mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. WannaCry, in contrast, was wildly indiscriminate – it would infect anything and everything it could.
Finally, if the plan was simply to make money, it’s been pretty unsuccessful on that front too – only around $60,000 (£46,500) has been paid in ransoms, according to analysis of Bitcoin accounts being used by the criminals.
With more than 200,000 machines infected, it’s a terrible return. But then of course, maybe the ransom was a distraction for some other political goal not yet clear.
Another possibility is that the Lazarus Group worked alone, without instruction from North Korea. Indeed, it could be that the Lazarus Group isn’t even linked to North Korea.
More questions than answers – and in cyber-war, facts are extremely hard to come by.