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By Cam Sivesind
Mon | May 15, 2023 | 2:36 PM PDT

Billy Corgan, founder and frontman for alt-rock band Smashing Pumpkins, paid ransom to a hacker to avoid a leak of music from its three-part rock opera that was released earlier this month.

The news appears to have first been covered by Security Affairs in this post, in which it is revealed the FBI investigated the case, saying the hacker also stole similar material from other unnamed artists.

Corgan was quoted on the Klein/Ally Show:

"So a fan contacted me and said nine of the songs have leaked. And they were all probably the most catchy, single-y type songs. So not only is it six months too early, you're pretty much giving away the album before you even have a chance to set your feet into the ground.

Somehow, some hacker was offering the files for money, and we were able to trace it and pay off and keep it from leaking. The FBI got involved. I don't know how they got what they got. It was a mercenary person who had hacked somebody, I don't want to say who, and they had other stuff from other artists. It wasn't like some Pumpkins fan who was hellbent on breaking it on Reddit. Somehow, they gave some information that allowed the FBI to track them."

Corgan revealed the hack on the Klein/Ally Show on May 5th, the same day Smashing Pumpkins released Atum: Act Three, the third installment of the band's 12th studio album, Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts.

The amounts of the original ransom demand and the ransom payment are not known.   

SecureWorld News reached out to several cybersecurity vendors for their thoughts on the incident.

Craig Jones, Vice President of Security Operations at Ontinue:

"This situation is an unfortunate example of how cybercrime can affect artists and the music industry. The malicious act of stealing unreleased music and threatening to leak it forces artists and their teams into complex situations.

This is extortion in its purest form, attacking a creator at a vulnerable period during content release. In this age, where content can be copied and distributed with ease, we must prioritize cybersecurity to protect the rights of artists and creators. When these rights are violated, it's not only an attack on the artists, but also on the integrity of music industry as a whole.

In this case, the band chose to pay the ransom to protect their work, likely considering the potential negative impact on album sales and promotion—this is against advice from the security industry in which we recommend that not to pay any ransom. Unreleased music being leaked would disrupt carefully crafted marketing strategies, undercutting the anticipation and momentum built around an album's launch. It's worth noting that paying the ransom doesn't guarantee the stolen data won't be leaked or sold in the future. Hackers generally don't always act in good faith, and once digital data has been copied, it's impossible to ensure it's completely deleted.

This incident is reminiscent of what happened to Radiohead in 2019. In their case, the band took a different approach when faced with a similar threat—they chose to release the stolen material quickly themselves for a nominal fee, with proceeds going to charity. This move effectively rendered the hacker's stolen goods worthless and reduced the impact of the attack.

It's clear that the music industry, like many others, needs to prioritize cybersecurity. Artists and their teams should take steps to secure their work, including regularly updating and patching systems, using strong, unique passwords, and employing multi-factor authentication where possible. In addition, industry bodies and law enforcement agencies need to continue to work together to deter this type of crime and bring those responsible to justice.

In the digital age, where content can be copied and distributed so easily, it's crucial to respect and protect the rights of artists and creators. This includes both taking action against those who infringe upon these rights and raising awareness about the importance of cybersecurity."

Dave Gerry, CEO at Bugcrowd:

"Criminals are always looking for new ways to make money. Whether by stealing sensitive customer data, financial information, or in this case, media IP, attackers understand the business impact their crime has and take advantage of this. This is, unfortunately, yet another example of cybercriminals moving from traditional 'large-enterprise' attacks to impacting small business, and, now individual artists."

Shawn Surber, Senior Director of Technical Account Management at Tanium:

"We spend a lot of time talking about the impact of ransomware to businesses and the theft of personal, health, and/or financial data. Those all have real value to sell for hackers and a somewhat definable business impact on the victims. The theft and sale or leak of intellectual property is much more of a case by case basis situation. Each organization—or band, in this case—has to determine what is the value of their intellectual property and what is the impact of having it leaked, whether sold or distributed for free. As an example, a new car design that's about to be released within a few weeks or even months may not have much of an impact on the car manufacturer because there's not much that competitors could do to get the jump on them in that short time period. In fact, having design details leaked like that might even generate buzz and more interest. But having artistic property like music that can be duplicated digitally an infinite number of times leaked in advance of official release could significantly impact the band's profitability for themselves and their record label."

Melissa Bischoping, Director, Endpoint Security Research at Tanium:

"This isn't just a threat with traditional criminal operations—this kind of thing is why insider threat risk/intellectual property theft is so important to consider in your overall security program.

Does the average content creator/artist have insurance that covers theft of stolen artwork pre-release? Is that the purview of the record company or other type of industry-specific insurer? Are those groups even thinking about this kind of threat in their actuarial science?

I'd be curious what kind of contract stipulations might be in place in the industry to say 'you have to protect your content as you create it' as part of your record deal because the producer/label have vested interest in it. Since artists aren't 'employees' with managed devices, how do you know their laptops where they're writing lyrics are patched and secured and they're using good passwords for their own personal email? For the label, do they have requirements around how/where new material is stored? How do you enforce that in the creative process?"

Darren Guccione, CEO and Co-Founder at Keeper Security:

"While industry experts and government agencies advise against paying out in a ransomware attack, the decision-making process is always case-specific. In this case, the producers were put in a tough financial position and made what they believed was the best business decision. However, now that bad actors know they're willing to pay, the team in charge of safeguarding this digital data needs to immediately take precautions to protect against more attacks.

As we see here, ransomware attacks can have devastating financial and reputational consequences for an organization or, as in the present case, a brand. The most cost-effective method to deal with a cyberattack is to invest in prevention with a zero-trust and zero-knowledge cybersecurity architecture that will limit, if not altogether prevent, a bad actor’s access.

A comprehensive communications security strategy will look different for individual businesses but should cover a few key areas. The strategy should account for regular threat assessments to identify potential security risks and vulnerabilities, formal written security policies for the organization, monitoring and detection, incident response and training and awareness programs to educate employees on security best practices. Many businesses will also need to consider third-party risk management for any providers, partners or vendors they work with. Another key component of any comprehensive security strategy is access control to ensure that only authorized users have access to highly sensitive systems and data."