Sony Attack a Sobering Peek at the Dangers of Cyberspace

Whether it is in retaliation for a movie or an effort to gain military or commercial advantage, cyberspace is a modern battleground and we’re on it.

(TNS) -- Sony Pictures’ decision to halt the release of The Interview reminds us of just how vulnerable private corporate computer networks are to cyberattacks and the lengths to which despots will go to curb dissent.

The movie, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, involves a TV host and his producer being recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. As absurd as this plot line is, North Korea called a gruesome assassination scene in the movie “an act of war,” as if somehow the United States had sponsored an actual attack on North Korea and its leader.

Then came the embarrassing drip, drip, drip of leaked internal emails disclosing studio salaries and unflattering comments about its stars and employees. Soon after that came the threats of a 9/11-style attack if the movie reached theaters. Several major theater chains decided not to show the movie, prompting Sony to shelve its release. North Korea, or whomever they contracted to attack Sony, has chilled speech and delivered a message that corporate computer networks aren’t invulnerable to global hacking. We need to heed the implications of both.

Sony clearly is in a tough spot, caught between protecting its right to make a bad, low-brow comedy and the potential real-world geopolitical consequences. It is not as though we’ve never seen angry despots seek reprisal for writings and images. Despots fear criticism, even if it is as ridiculous as The Interview, and often go to great extremes to strike back.

Writer Salman Rushdie was marked for death over written words deemed offensive to Islam. Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed for a film critical of the treatment of women. Danish cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad touched off international incidents, several of which escalated into violence and deaths. A video contributed to violent protests before the terrorist attack that claimed the lives of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Today, it is a movie studio under attack, but tomorrow it easily could be the electricity grid, financial networks or telecommunication companies, the backbone of an Internet-connected global economy. This is more than an affront to a single company. It is a sobering peek at cyberspace combat that includes countries seeking military and corporate secrets, sophisticated criminal networks that steal and sell credit cards and identities, and now one ticked-off despot.

Whether it is in retaliation for a tasteless depiction or an effort to gain military or commercial advantage, cyberspace is a modern battleground and we’re on it. Potentially, anyone in private industry could be drawn into this conflict, if not now, then at some point in the future, over a commercial dispute or affront. That’s why this is a particularly chilling incident that can’t be taken lightly.

©2014 The Dallas Morning News