BOSTON — Hackers this week released an email from HBO in which the company expressed willingness to pay them $250,000 as part of a negotiation over data swiped from HBO’s servers.
The July 27 email was sent by John Beyler, an HBO executive who thanked the hackers for “making us aware” of previously unknown security vulnerabilities. The executive asked for a one-week delay and said HBO was willing to make a “good faith” payment of $250,000, calling it a “bug bounty” reward for IT professionals rather than a ransom.
HBO declined to comment. A person close to the investigation confirmed the authenticity of the email but said it was an attempt to buy time and assess the situation. The same hackers have subsequently released two dumps of HBO material and demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom.
Whether or not HBO ever intended to follow through with its $250,000 offer, the email raised questions among security professionals about the importance of the data and whether HBO’s reaction might encourage future attacks.
“It’s interesting that they’re spinning it as a bug bounty program,” said Pablo Garcia, CEO of FFRI North America. “They’re being extorted. If it was a bug bounty, it’d be on the up-and-up.”
Beyler’s email to the hackers said the company was working “very hard” to review all the material they provided, and also trying to figure out a way to make a large transaction in bitcoin, the hackers’ preferred payment method.
“You have the advantage of having surprised us,” Beyler wrote. “In the spirit of professional cooperation, we are asking you to extend your deadline for one week.”
The first HBO hack became publicly known on July 31. Beyler’s email, sent several days earlier, might have been an attempt to avoid bad publicity, said Sanjay Goel, a professor at the University at Albany.
“Hackers are not in this game for $250,000; this probably took them a lot of time and effort,” Goel said. “That’s a very, very small amount in these kinds of negotiations.”
Then, on Monday, hackers using the name “Mr. Smith” posted a fresh cache of stolen HBO files online, and demanded that the network pay several million dollars to prevent further releases.
The leaks included scripts from Game of Thrones episodes and emails from the account of a company vice president.
HBO has said that it is working with law enforcement and cybersecurity firms to investigate the attack.