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Opinion: Sony has capitulated to terrorist demands – it will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech

Pretty much any nefarious tin-pot dictator can pay hackers to go do a job for them. Will the people of the free world just throw their hands up in surrender?

Aaron McKenna

IT HAS BEEN a long week for terrorists. In the highest profile events, fundamentalist Islamic murderers killed 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan and one of their ideological brethren brought fear to Sydney and ended the lives of two innocents there.

It can therefore feel trite to throw the word “terrorism” around when discussing the Sony hack and its corresponding fallout. Though there have been threats made against human life, nothing credible has happened there to put it in the ballpark of outrages we regularly see from those who are enemies of the free world and civilised peoples.

Nevertheless when we consider the aims of terrorism – to change behaviour through fear – the Sony hack, an act of cyber terrorism that has been linked to North Korea, has been wildly successful. Without actually having to fire a shot, the bellicose regime in Pyongyang has managed to puff itself up and send a shiver of fear through the entertainment industry in the west, and also the hearts of pretty much any organisation with an internet connection.

Not alone has Sony decided to pull a movie from cinemas, but rival Paramount Pictures has banned cinemas from showing “Team America: World Police” in its place for fears of a reprisal. A Steve Carell film to feature North Korea that was in pre-production has been cancelled. The chilling effect of the hack on the entertainment industry, which is one of our key cultural institutions and a bastion of free speech for good or bad, has been immediate and drastic.

In effect, it seems the world’s most repressive and vile government has managed to export censorship and fear beyond its own closed borders through an act of cyber terrorism.

What exactly happened?

In the hack, a group calling themselves “The Guardians of Peace” (GOP) took out Sony’s internal computer network for several days, and pilfered a treasure trove of materials. They stole several previously unreleased movies and stuck them up on the internet. They released thousands of emails and documents that have either revealed trade secrets at Sony Entertainment or embarrassing details of behind-the-scenes conversations between executives, producers and actors.

The group also released quite sensitive personal information about Sony employees, including medical records of individuals and their families. Sony workers have received direct and personal threats from the group or its affiliates.

The GOP then became quite obsessed with the Seth Rogen film “The Interview”, which was scheduled for release over Christmas. The comedy centres around two journalists granted an interview with Kim Jong-Un, the paunchy leader of North Korea, who are tasked by the CIA with assassinating him. This Interview had previously attracted the ire of the regime, who promised a “resolute and merciless” response if the film was released (though, to be fair, they promise merciless responses to most things.)

The GOP invoked the 9/11 attacks in a public threat telling moviegoers not to see the movie. Responding to this pressure, cinema chains and eventually Sony themselves pulled the film from its planned release.

Do we know for sure who’s behind the hack?

It’s difficult to say for sure if the Sony hack was directly carried out by the North Korean regime. It is believed that they have the capabilities and they have launched several high profile cyber-attacks in the past, so this fits their modus. In one rather fiendish attack on South Korea, the hermit kingdom hackers released an Angry Birds type game that made its way onto tens of thousands of smart phones. The North then activated malware code in the game and gained access to over 20,000 phones and the data on them.

It is possible that the attack was carried out by an independent group who then sold the data on to North Korea, but it is difficult not to see their fingerprints all over this event. Some of the code found to have attacked Sony’s systems was written in Korean, for example.

The North Koreans like to make hay out of posturing. Be it firing missiles over Japan, running underground nuclear tests or sinking South Korean ships; the North Korean regime likes to ramp up pressure just far enough that they score a victory without tipping into a war they would quite obviously lose.

Cyber warfare is an evolving area and government sponsored hackers have scored some audacious wins. Perhaps most famously up until now was the Stuxnet worm that was used to set back the Iranian nuclear program by several years. These kinds of attacks are a lot more accessible and likely to score success than the old methods, like Libya’s support for terrorists who would blow up the odd airplane back in the day. Certainly cyber-attacks are a lot less suicidal than trying to take on the conventional armed forces of a country like the United States.

Coordinated defences over cyber attacks are vital 

Sony might take some heat for having poor cyber security, but in an attack from government sponsored agents I believe there is a wider national security question at play for nations of the civilised world. We wouldn’t expect Sony to put up an effective missile defence shield if they had a factory in range of conventional North Korean attack. So too I believe nations need to consider their defences against cyber-attack in a coordinated fashion, rather than leaving every company and individual to sink or swim by themselves.

What Sony and others do bear responsibility for is their response to acts of terrorism. The company and the wider industry seem to have folded like a deck of cards. George Clooney told Deadline that not a single person in the entertainment industry would sign his petition calling for a firm and resolute response to the North Korean sponsored attack. Clooney speculates that nobody wants to stick their head above the parapet and get smacked by the same troubles as Sony, as the hackers are probably looking for a follow on success to build upon what they’ve already achieved.

This will have a potential chilling effect on industries beyond entertainment. What of journalists or politicians thinking of criticising the regime? The spectre of having some hacker come and try to prise open your personal email or company or party records might make you think twice. Beyond North Korea, we could see the likes of Russia – which has been suspected of perpetrating cyber-attacks against the likes of Lithuanian newspapers – taking action against countries and companies involved in sanctions against the country.

Letting the terrorists win

Pretty much any nefarious tin-pot dictator can pay hackers to go do a job for them, and every indication now is that the people of the free world will throw their hands up in surrender pretty quickly.

This is unacceptable. We cannot allow the repressive, murderous and vile regimes of this world change one bit our behaviour, our freedom to speak and to express ourselves. Bad enough they keep their own peoples under thumb; I will not live here in the free world according to the rules set down by an overweight dictator in a land of starving peasants.

More attacks may come. We’ll just have to suck them up and not provide oxygen to them by leering over every leaked detail. Films like “The Interview” should be broadcast far and wide, just the same as folks should pile back into Lindt cafés in Sydney and children should be schooled in Pakistan. We must never give in to vile people.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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