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Hackers stole personal data from PlayStation Network


UPDATED: 10:30 p.m. PST

Sony has admitted that hackers have stolen the personal information of customers who use the company's online PlayStation Network.

In a post to the official PlayStation blog Tuesday afternoon, Sony of America's director of communications said that "an illegal intrusion" in their system has caused a "compromise of personal information." And while Sony officials don't believe credit card information was taken, they say that hackers may have taken names, addresses, email addresses, birthdates and passwords among other things.

There are some 77 million user accounts with the PlayStation Network and Qriocity service, which allow gamers to play games online together as well as purchase and play movies and music.

As we previously reported, the PlayStation Network abruptly went offline last Wednesday, April 20. On Tuesday gamers grew increasingly irate as news of the data theft spread, wondering why it had taken Sony six days to reveal that personal information had been taken. Sony responded Tuesday evening by issuing a follow-up statement insisting that they did not know that personal data had been taken until Monday.

Sony said it does not believe credit card data was stolen, but the company did issue this warning: "While there is no evidence at this time that credit card data was taken, we cannot rule out the possibility. If you have provided your credit card data through PlayStation Network or Qriocity, out of an abundance of caution we are advising you that your credit card number (excluding security code) and expiration date may have been obtained."

A long pause 
The Tuesday afternoon revelation is the most Sony had disclosed since the unexpected PlayStation Network outage occurred six days ago. In a letter Sony issued to its customers, the company said it has "engaged an outside, recognized security firm to conduct a full and complete investigation," and further explains:

Although we are still investigating the details of this incident, we believe that an unauthorized person has obtained the following information that you provided: name, address (city, state, zip), country, email address, birthdate, PlayStation Network/Qriocity password and login, and handle/PSN online ID. It is also possible that your profile data, including purchase history and billing address (city, state, zip), and your PlayStation Network/Qriocity password security answers may have been obtained.

And after much speculation from anxious gamers, Sony is now explaining to customers that the following happened:

We have discovered that between April 17 and April 19, 2011, certain PlayStation Network and Qriocity service user account information was compromised in connection with an illegal and unauthorized intrusion into our network. In response to this intrusion, we have: Temporarily turned off PlayStation Network and Qriocity services;Engaged an outside, recognized security firm to conduct a full and complete investigation into what happened; andQuickly taken steps to enhance security and strengthen our network infrastructure by re-building our system to provide you with greater protection of your personal information.

Sony confirmed Tuesday that there are 77 million PlayStation Network user accounts worldwide but has not said how many individuals that represents. Some gamers have told us they have multiple accounts on the network. Still, tens of millions of people are sure to have been affected.

"This is a huge data breach," Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter told Reuters. "The bigger issue with Sony is how will the hacker use the info that has been illegally obtained?"

Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, told Reuters this was the largest-ever breach of its type. He said he suspected the hackers entered the network by taking over the PC of a system administrator, who had rights to access sensitive information about Sony's customers. They likely did that by sending the administrator an email message that contained a piece of malicious software that got downloaded onto his or her PC.

Sony officials said they expect to restore some of the network's services within a week.

Angry gamers
Not surprisingly, many PlayStation 3 owners are furious at the news and the long wait for the above announcement.

"You waited a WEEK to tell us our personal information was compromised? That should have been said last Thursday," wrote one angry gamer in a comment under the PlayStation blog post.

Another agreed: "This update is about 6 days LATE. I think it is time to move to the other network, no regard for customers here."

And they weren't the only ones outraged. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to Sony of America CEO Jack Tretton demanding answers about the company’s failure to notify millions of customers about the data breach in a timely manner.

"When a data breach occurs, it is essential that customers be immediately notified about whether and to what extent their personal and financial information has been compromised," he wrote, calling for Sony to provide PlayStation Network users with financial data security services free of charge and arguing that affected customers should be provided with "sufficient insurance to protect them from the possible financial consequences of identity theft."

In response to the growing criticism, Sony issued a follow-up statement on Tuesday evening clarifying that they did not know that personal data had been taken until Monday:

There's a difference in timing between when we identified there was an intrusion and when we learned of consumers' data being compromised.  We learned there was an intrusion April 19th and subsequently shut the services down.  We then brought in outside experts to help us learn how the intrusion occurred and to conduct an investigation to determine the nature and scope of the incident.  It was necessary to conduct several days of forensic analysis, and it took our experts until yesterday to understand the scope of the breach. We then shared that information with our consumers and announced it publicly this afternoon.

Sony on Tuesday also posted a Frequently Asked Questions page vaguely addressing reader questions such as who might be behind the hack attack, whether PSN users would be getting any money back and addressing a related attack at Sony Online Entertainment. It reads in part:

Did Sony Online Entertainment experience an attack due to the same reason?SOE’s services are currently available, but they did experience a service interruption due to an external attack. An investigation is ongoing. I want my money back (subscription fee, content) since the PSN/Qriocity was not available.While we are still assessing the impact of this incident, we recognize that this may have had financial impact on our loyal customers. We are currently reviewing options and will update you when the service is restored. There seems to be some games that cannot be played even offline?Some games may require access to PSN for trophy sync, security checks or other network functionality and therefore cannot be played offline. Is the attack by "Anonymous" or another party?We are currently conducting a thorough investigation of the situation. Since this is an overall security related issue, we cannot comment further at this time.

Many gamers have suspected the hacker collective Anonymous is behind the PSN intrusion, though the group has denied responsibility. In a recent post on their official news site, they insisted: "For once, it wasn't us." 

That claim has been greeted with much skepticism. After all the group did admit to attacking and taking down the PlayStation Network as well as several Sony PlayStation websites in March as a response to Sony's lawsuit against hacker George "GeoHot" Hotz.

What now?
Certainly Sony isn't the only company to be hit recently by hackers bent on grabbing personal information.

The data theft is reminiscent of the recent hacking-related thefts of email addresses, passwords and other personal information from the Texas-based marketing firm Epsilon Data Management as well as Gawker Media. In the case of Epsilon, more than 250 million worldwide consumers were potentially affected.

But the PlayStation Network hack is potentially more critical considering that this initial information from Sony suggests that even more personal information was possibly pilfered. (For more on that, see Wilson Rothman's related story here.)

But what if you own a PS3 and have a PlayStation Network account? What should you do next?

To start with, if you used your PlayStation Network password on any other accounts, it's time to change it ASAP. And though Sony doesn't think credit card data has been stolen, you should keep a very close eye on the credit card account you associated with the Sony network.

Sony has also provided the contact information for the three major U.S. credit bureaus in its blog post about the incident and points out that, "At no charge, U.S. residents can have these credit bureaus place a 'fraud alert' on your file that alerts creditors to take additional steps to verify your identity prior to granting credit in your name."

Sony is also warning customers to be cautious of potentially sketchy contact:

For your security, we encourage you to be especially aware of email, telephone, and postal mail scams that ask for personal or sensitive information. Sony will not contact you in any way, including by email, asking for your credit card number, social security number or other personally identifiable information. If you are asked for this information, you can be confident Sony is not the entity asking.

This report contains information from Reuters.

For more related news, please see:

Winda Benedetti  writes about games  for You can follow her tweets about games and other things right here on Twitter.