A couple of months ago an experienced and successful music industry figure said to me,
"I used to know who I was. I don't anymore. The Internet is changing everything so quickly. I just hope I can hold on until I retire."
It was a tragic lament for a world that is long gone, a world where jobs and businesses could be relied upon to endure for decades, if not generations. In this lost world, most change was incremental and slow, happening at a pace that would be alien to the generation that has grown up with the Internet. Now, the only rule is that there are no rules. The phrase that I hear most often from people in publishing, film, music and television is "Wild West." The Internet is a frontier where everything is up for grabs and anything goes, and, with the Sony Hack, we've seen a new bad guy come to town.
I'm currently working on a novel about the darker side of the Internet, and for the past few years have been following the rise of cyber warfare. From the now infamous Stuxnet attack, to the Home Depot Hack, our rapid migration to a digital world has left us vulnerable to entirely new forms of aggression. In the past, if someone wanted to disable a nation's energy infrastructure, they would have to physically bomb hundreds of locations. Now, it is theoretically possible to blackout an entire country with nothing more than a computer virus.
We've heard allegations of nations spying against corporations, but the Sony Hack is the first high profile example of a nation directly attacking a corporation. North Korea is widely believed to be behind the attack, and rather than engage the United States in military action, Kim Jong-un's regime seems to have come to the conclusion that it could achieve more by victimising Sony Pictures. This has troubling ramifications for the future. In the event of international tension, could we see similar attacks launched against our financial, healthcare or energy infrastructure? Will corporations need to ensure that they have NSA-grade security and counter-measures? Should governments consider an attack on a domestic corporation to be an attack on the nation?
The relentless reputational and economic damage suffered by Sony as a result of the recent hack would simply not have been possible twenty years ago. Even if spies could have infiltrated Sony's lot, there would have been a limit to the number of physical memos or film reels that could have been stolen. In a digital world absolutely everything can be stolen at the push of a button.
Sony's decision to halt the release of The Interview will cost tens of millions of dollars. This is in addition to the estimated $100M costs incurred as a result of the hack. Nobody has died in this skirmish, but the economic costs of this one attack are huge. There is also the tremendous emotional toll it has taken on Sony employees, past and present, who now have to defend themselves against fraudsters. We've also seen the destruction of reputations and relationships as a result of the public dissemination of emails that were purely intended for private consumption.
Some people have decried Sony's use of the word terrorism to describe what has happened. What is particularly disturbing about this attack is that the hackers moved on from the dissemination of stolen information to threats of violence against anyone who went to see The Interview, or happened to live near a movie theatre. Whatever one thinks of Sony's earlier categorisation, the moment threats of violence were made, the individuals behind this attack clearly crossed the line and became terrorists.
One can only hope that US law enforcement authorities are fully investigating the threats, because if a foreign terror cell really does have the capability to launch devastatingly violent attacks on American soil, it must be dismantled.
If on the other hand, these hackers were merely using fear and intimidation to get what they wanted and there never was a credible threat, people need to know. Without that knowledge, there is a real risk of this sort of thing happening again. If Federal authorities cannot give closure on the veracity of the threat, the next time someone says or does something a brutal regime does not like, we're likely to see an attempted repeat.
James Franco and Seth Rogen may not have been politically sensitive in deciding to make The Interview, but freedom of speech isn't about protecting people selectively. It's about people having the right to say whatever they like, however ridiculous or distasteful. Thanks to this attack, free speech has taken a dent. But it's not only public free speech that's been harmed; people now have to be wary of what they say in private. The free flow of ideas via email has been hampered because people all over the world are fearful of what might happen if their emails ever became public.
Whatever lies ahead in the ongoing cyberwar, I hope that Sony can recover from this painful and costly attack. No one deserves to be victimised for exercising their right to free speech. Leaving aside the economic damage and the emotional cost of this attack, whoever is behind it has succeeded in imposing new behaviours in public and private life. This is the sort of totalitarian control that previous generations sacrificed their lives to defeat. Thanks to the Internet, even if one does not live in a totalitarian state, one can still feel the ominous shadow of its reach.