Regardless of the HBO hackers’ motives, the attack has highlighted that Hollywood is now an attractive target for cybercriminals iStock

The recent HBO hack made headlines after hackers leaked previously unreleased content of the network's popular shows, including Game of Thrones. Despite several successive leaks of HBO's proprietary content, mystery surrounds the attack. Although HBO has confirmed the hack, adding that the FBI is now investigating the attack, the network is yet to disclose the scale of the attack and whether the hackers made any ransom demands.

In the wake of the attacks, some reports began comparing the HBO hack with the massive Sony hack, some even claiming that the attack on HBO may be worse than that sustained by Sony. To put things in perspective, the cyberattack on Sony saw hackers steal around 200GB of data, including sensitive information of Sony staffers. In comparison, the HBO hackers claim that they are in possession of around 1.5TB data, including emails and files belonging to HBO staffers, which they've threatened to leak in the coming weeks. However, HBO is yet to confirm or deny these claims.

HBO hack vs Sony hack

Security experts have also noted that the scale of the attack and motivation of the hackers in the two cyberattacks have several differences. For instance, the Sony hack was tied to North Korean hackers and is believed to have been retaliation for the movie The Interview. However, in comparison, the HBO hack appears to have been seemingly unprovoked.

"The current comparison to Sony is a false corollary. The primary motivation of the attackers in that case had to do with damaging the company," Ross Rustici, senior director of intelligence services, at Cybereason, told IBTimes UK. "The data exfiltration and subsequent release seemed to have more to do with the smoke screen of trying to create a new "hacktivist" group to throw off attribution than to actually steal the data. The fact that the data happened to be significantly damaging to the brand's reputation was likely an added, happy happenstance from the attacker's perspective."

"This is not another Sony-style attack, there appears to be no malicious nation state actor attempting to cause direct harm to the company," Rustici added." Furthermore, this does not appear to be a financially motivated attack due to the lack of a ransom note."

The HBO hackers, according to a report by Hollywood Reporter, have claimed that their motive is purely financial, adding that they were planning on "negotiating" with HBO. However, the network has yet to reveal whether they received a ransom demand.

"It is possible that the same group that went after previous distribution companies is at work here and they just gave up on trying to get the companies to pay. But it is unlikely that the intruder in this case is expecting to gain monetarily from the theft and threat of distribution of content," Rusici said.

What's the motive?

The HBO hackers' alleged lack of a ransom demand leads to the question – what are the attackers' motives? According to Rustici, there are several possibilities. The attack may have been "an exercise in pure ego", with hackers attempting to make a name for themselves. "The lack of existing presence for the group claiming responsibility, and the piecemeal release of data to maximise news coverage point towards this," Rustici said.

Another possible motive of the attack could be a sort of revenge hack. Rustici said the attack may have been "an act of retaliation against HBO, potentially as a statement against the company's crackdown on the piracy of Game of Thrones.

"The recent controversy on the new show Confederate is another potential motivator for a retaliatory attack. The targeting of other sensitive files aside from episodes and scripts may indicate this."

Yet another possibility is that of industrial espionage. The data stolen from HBO, which may also likely include pre-production and financial information, could be a potential treasure trove for the network's rivals.

"Given the potential merger between AT&T and Time Warner this has some plausibility to the theory. The lack of sensitive company information being leaked has the potential to support this as a motivation, but the lack of a compromise of the mail server would be a large oversight if this was the main motivation. However, proving this as a motivation is also significantly difficult without knowing where the stolen data was routed to," Rustici added.

Regardless of the HBO hackers' motives, the attack has highlighted that Hollywood is now an attractive target for cybercriminals.