By Karthik Shankar:
What an utterly bizarre mess! Sony’s holiday comedy The Interview, which has a producer and journalist take part in a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, hardly raised eyebrows during production. Starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, it promised to be a reliable affair. What no one anticipated was that the deliberately silly political satire would become the year’s most controversial film.
Over the past few weeks, cyber hackers giving themselves the ironic moniker of Guardians of Peace have wreaked havoc on Sony servers. Sony has received threatening messages mocking the company and warning of dire consequences if The Interview is released. Computer systems have been rendered completely useless, payroll lists have been wiped clean and incriminating emails have been leaked that are embarrassing for all involved. The emails make top Sony execs look like petty and petulant teenagers with an added dash of racism to boot; qualities we all expect from Hollywood but till now were not privy to. The PR nightmare has dovetailed to the point where people expect Sony Studios co-head Amy Pascal to lose her job.
What followed is a death knell for freedom of speech. Sony backed down by cancelling the Christmas release of the film. That is a cowardly move, considering that there is actual chance of physical terrorism on American soil at least. The move rightfully unleashed a stream of outrage from the public and politicians. As a show of solidarity, more than 20,000 people, myself included, have given the movie a 10 on IMDB. Obama himself, a pacifist if there was one, criticised Sony for caving in to terrorists’ demands.
The scariest part is that no one knows who is behind the attacks. Jong-un has obviously railed against the film for a while and so the media ran with the assumption that it was carried out by cyberterrorists aided by the North Korean government. However, Pyongyang has never possessed the kind of technical sophistication that such attacks require. Moreover, in a country where movie screens are non-existent and Jong-un has cultivated a mythical image (think Rajnikanth jokes if actually taken seriously), few would expect such a film to weaken his hold on power.
The more likely suspects behind this debacle are ‘hacktivists’. Over the past few years, groups of hackers have doubled up as political activists by defacing websites or interrupting web services of corporations for some political end. Anonymous is the most popular umbrella of hacktivists. Some of its targets have included the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, Israeli websites during the 2014 Gaza attack and US government agencies after Edward Snowden’s revelations. These were forms of political expression that the public could get behind.
In this case, when the only aim as in this Sony case is to intimidate people or just create chaos, what purpose does it achieve? The line between activism and cybercrime is a thin one and the Sony attack has all the markings of online terrorism. It also reveals how unprepared we are for a cyberattack of a large scale. Sony is not some small company with poor computer security, it’s a large conglomerate. Most large corporates likely have the same levels of cyber protection. What happens when a bank’s data is wiped clean? Does that mean your hard earned savings no longer exist? Such an instance did occur in 2013 when two South Korean banks had their user data wiped out by a malware. Even then, North Korea was suspected to be behind the attacks. Clearly, the isolated nation-state is a perfect cover for any bored hacker.
Such incidents highlight the ever-transmogrifying nature of the internet. In an age where the internet reigns supreme for almost all purposes, such incidents have the potential to send us back to the Stone Age. Now, that would truly put us in the shoes of a North Korean.
Those who want to lighten the mood keep replaying this pièce de résistance from The Interview and imagine a world where Jong-un is actually eliminated.