The Interview – Cyberterrorists and cowardice

This week capped off a terrible month for Sony, as the movie giant cancelled the release of the Seth Rogan & James Franco movie The Interview. The movie about two journalists recruited to kill Kim Jong Un had already enraged the North Korean leadership, and certain hackers followed this up by releasing huge amounts of data stolen from Sony, and threatening attacks on cinemas showing The Interview. So what did the hackers actually steal? Were they North Koreans? And how could Sony cancel an entire movie?

Sony’s misery began back in November, when hackers released private emails, scripts and even entire unreleased movies. More importantly for Sony’s employees though, private financial data of employees was also stolen. This received less coverage in the media then the often embarrassing emails, such as Sony executives discussing which ‘black’ movie President Obama might enjoy, or the fact that Channing Tatum communicates exactly like his character in 21/22 Jump Street.

The hacks were followed up later in December with threats of a “9/11 style attack” on cinemas that showed The Interview, saying that Sony was breaching human rights by making a movie about the assassination of the North Korean leader. Cinema chains took this seriously, and most of the biggest chains in the country indicated to Sony that they would not show the movie, leaving the company with no choice but to cancel its cinematic release. This  led to huge criticism, even from President Obama, who said that he wished Sony had talked to him first.

So is North Korea behind this? The FBI certainly thinks so, announcing yesterday that the attack originated in the country. The US government has also said that it will take steps to retalitate against what Obama described as an act of “cyber-vandalism”. Others have said they’re not so sure, pointing to the fact that the movie was only mentioned by hackers weeks after the initial hack, and even suggesting that the media encouraged the hackers to launch an attack on the film’s release. Some also doubt the country’s capabilities. Not knowing much about hacking, it’s hard for me to say. However, it would not surprise me if North Korea was responsible. The country regularly provokes South Korea and the West – to get attention, to distract, or simply due to its own unfathomable internal politics. While unbelievably petty, this cyberattack would be part of that pattern.

What is certain though is that the response of the cinema chains was extremely cowardly. To some extent Sony was forced to cancel the film, as they rely on the cinemas to show it. But to refuse to show a movie because mysterious hackers – or even North Korea – tell you not is ridiculous. For one, the chance that the threats can be carried out is extremely small. These are hackers we’re talking about, not Al-Qaeda. No matter who they are, pulling a movie in the face of threats gives the hackers a huge win, and provides enormous incentive to try actions like this again. Fear of getting attacked (or worse, sued), won out over reason. The sight of the most powerful country on earth not showing a movie because someone on the internet told them not to is just embarrassing.  And if North Korea is behind it, US companies are letting a foreign dictator tell them what they can watch.

The whole thing is so crazy that it seems almost like a publicity stunt for The Interview. America prides itself on its strength and refusal to back down. A truly American response to this would be to go ahead with the release, and hold the premiere – of what is by all accounts not a fantastic movie – right in the middle of Times Square.

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