The Sony hacking scandal in the wake of the comedy The Interview is alarming, not because it has caused the demise of a single movie, but because it suggests that, unless we get a dose of perspective quickly, we could be looking to silence anything that is the least bit controversial.
Sony is freaking out over what has been disclosed through the latest hacking effort to befall the company. Indeed, a lot has been revealed that puts Sony’s intellectual property at risk. Future movies, release dates, casts, crews, and related projects have been revealed. A lot of Sony’s future movie plans are now on display for the world to see.
This is not the first time Sony has been threatened by a cyber security problem. Their Playstation network was hacked two years ago in an event that caused millions of gamers much consternation. User accounts were exposed to the outside world, although much of the personal identifiable information was encrypted and could not be deciphered. Sony emerged from that with a lot of egg-on-face embarrassment, but the long-range impact was small. This one seems different, however, both because it compromises Sony’s competitiveness, and it has been leveraged to threaten physical violence to theaters that even dare to show the movie The Interview. The popular conclusion is that Sony would be foolish to release the movie now despite the tens of millions it has spent developing it.
What concerns me is not the damage done to Sony, or the amount of information released by the hack, or the fact that the cause of the hack has not yet been determined even though it might very likely be an adversarial national government. No. What concerns me is how we are so ready and willing to have our decisions made for us by the politics of fear, and that cyber weakness is a particularly effective fertilizer for such fear.
Cyber breaches represent the easiest sort of attack vector. No vast, sophisticated, or expensive physical infrastructure of armaments needs to be established to wreak havoc. That havoc is amplified purposefully and masterfully by the chorus of “they”: the cable news experts who fan the flames of fear and make us all look fearfully and longingly for the next shoe to drop, just so they can push more product.
Is the logical response to a threat of terrorism to give the terrorists lurking pantsless and anonymous behind keyboards precisely what they want and pull a movie they haven’t seen but somehow find offensive nonetheless? Sadly, the politics of fear answers with an emphatic “Yes.”
What if Christian protestors had a cyber means of hacking into Universal Studios to protest The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, and had revealed Universal’s intellectual property and promised bombings and killings at theaters that showed the film? Then the movie would never have been released, and empty promises to cause physical harm would have remained unfulfilled. Was the crisis averted because the non-believers surrendered, or was there never a threat in the first place?
Nothing ventured, nothing risked, nothing gained, nothing consumed, nothing accomplished. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Fear fuels futility, and the mystery and intrigue and hysteria and ignorance over cyber weakness makes cyberattack a particularly effective means of fueling fear. As if we didn’t have enough fear-mongering in our world already, now we have anonymous cyber thugs adding cunningly to the crisis of uncontrollable bed-wetting. Heck, they’ve managed to shut down a movie that hundreds of people helped develop that was supposed to be a freaking comedy. What’s next? Will a socialist hacker group protest the excesses of capitalism and force all of us out of using money to purchase things so that we end up bartering chickens again? Sure. Why not? What else could be the logical conclusion if we let cyber-driven fears control us?
We’re readying ourselves to sample a steady diet of a noxious recipe. The concoction is simple and elegantly distasteful, like brussel sprouts in castor oil. Here is what’s cooking: there is already too much fear; it is impossible to secure systems perfectly against cyber attack without unplugging them from the rest of the world; the risk of cyber attack is a particularly effective fear-mongering tool; the only surefire means to prevent a cyberattack is to unplug; if we don’t unplug, fear will spread even more capriciously; but we’re too dependent on the damned Internet tubes to disconnect. Dinner is served. Eat up.
What’s the antidote? Unplugging everything is not an option. The computer scientist in me is anxious to call for more research and development to improve our cyber readiness, to up our game so that the next cyber attack can’t happen. But it will happen, no matter what we do. All we can do is move the goal posts. There is no way to make the goal posts disappear without paving over the field.
Sure, we need to continue fortifying cyber space. We need to do a better job of thwarting the attackers. And yet, the best medicine, the one we need right now while the active cyber antibodies work to stop the infection, is good old-fashioned perspective, and a lot less hysteria.
The reaction to The Interview and the cyber attack that happened in its wake have been entirely overblown. As a society, we need to get a grip. or we’ll be sentenced to a lifetime of Jay Leno reruns.