Even if you’re not an avid viewer of HBO’s Game of Thrones, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to be aware that the carefully spoiler-guarded new series was currently being broadcast. However, being a major cable television network hasn’t made HBO immune from attack – recently, hackers have made off with approximately 1.5TB of data from their servers, including unaired episodes of the hit drama.
And the ransom? A cool $7.5 million. In Bitcoin. Or they’ll release HBO’s stored catalogue of yet to be aired content, bit by bit. That content doesn’t just include ready to air shows; it also comprises scripts, emails (some of which are highly confidential), contact lists, and pilots for content which may or may not make it to air. The hackers – a group calling themselves Mr. Smith – claim to earn $15 million per year stealing and ransoming intellectual property, and clearly think that HBO is good for half their annual ‘salary’.
Mr. Smith has already released some of this content online – your social media feed is probably as excited as ours about leaked Game of Thrones episodes and where to watch them (although be very wary of watching any such content online, as you never know what you’re downloading alongside your favourite show). HBO has asked for a delay in the ransom deadline and has also made an initial offer to the hackers of $250,000 to keep the lines of negotiation open, and hopefully buy them time to regain their content without further payments.
HBO has also been careful to refer to this payment as a ‘bug bounty’, and not a ransom, indicating that they aren’t necessarily planning to pay the full sum. However, at the time of writing, negotiations would appear to have fallen through, with a white text on black background message from the hackers just asking for their Bitcoin salary ‘soon’. Since the stolen data also reputedly contains a contact list with phone numbers, emails, and home addresses for the entire Game of Thrones cast, the legal implications of that joining the data leak of episodes online is something that HBO must be extremely nervous about.
This latest hack with ransom demanded in Bitcoin, particularly following on from the recent attack on the UK NHS services database, firmly places cryptocurrencies as the ransom method of choice of the online criminal. However, it’s worth noting that this is nothing more than a sign of the times; paper money has long since been the desired payment by criminals all over the world, so judging Bitcoin by its famous – or infamous – publicity in crimes like these is unfair.
What is clear is that as with cash, it might be necessary for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to have at least a line of traceability in future, if only to discourage ransom-based cyber crime. HBO may have no choice but to put up and pay up here if only to protect personal data for their stars. But to quote from the show, there’s only one message for hackers here – Winter is Coming.