“Freedom Edition”: Considering Sony Pictures and ‘The Interview’


Josh Braun
Assistant Professor of Film, Video, and Interactive Media, Quinnipiac University

The panelists in this dialogue are among the best qualified I can imagine to discuss the recent security breach at Sony Pictures Entertainment and the ensuing cultural moment surrounding The Interview. Hugh Gusterson is an anthropologist who has spent several decades studying national security, including how the United States’ policymakers, security establishment, and media frame security issues involving “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea. Chuck Tryon is an accomplished media studies scholar whose recent book, On-Demand Culture, is one of the first major texts on digital distribution of Hollywood films. And Aynne Kokas is a media scholar with a background in Chinese and Korean Studies, who has written on international cybersecurity issues and whose dissertation recently won the ICA Global Studies Division’s top prize. I will leave much of the explication of the Sony Pictures case in the very capable hands of these individuals. In introducing the dialogue I thought it better to say a few words about the challenges of considering the topic and what they augur for future considerations of media and culture.

Even as news of the Sony Pictures security breach became a media sensation, some of the core facts of the case remained contested, unknowable, even hidden. For example, a good number of reputable independent security firms and analysts have publicly and persistently challenged the claim that North Korea orchestrated the attack on Sony. Meanwhile the White House and FBI, which fingered North Korea in the first place, have kept much of their evidence under wraps, citing the need to “show the bad guys as little as possible about the how“—that is, how the U.S. cyber intelligence community identifies perpetrators.

My point in raising these issues is not to question or condone any particular account or narrative of the attack, but rather to highlight that we cannot for the moment—and may never be able to—verify with any certainty some of the most widely publicized and accepted claims surrounding the Sony Pictures case. The reasons for this range from the strategies of those in power as to who should know what about America’s cybersecurity infrastructure to the inherent difficulty in determining agency when dealing with a series of technologies that are networked and highly dispersed.

This presents an interesting challenge to academic critics, one that brings to mind Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger’s (2008) notion of agnotology—the study, not of how knowledge is constructed, but rather of how the lack of knowledge is equally a social construct. Of particular relevance is Proctor’s admonition that in many circumstances, we must consider “ignorance—or doubt or uncertainty—as something that is made, maintained, and manipulated … [it] should not be viewed as a simple omission or gap, but rather as an active production” (pp. 8–9).

Meanwhile, as Chuck describes below, even the more publicly accessible and less contentious facts of the case—such as official revenue figures from The Interview—can be marshalled in support of widely divergent narratives about whether the movie’s non-traditional release will ultimately prove commercially successful, as well as whether such a result would be predictive for future film releases.

The narratives, framings, and policy discourses surrounding this episode ultimately seem more fascinating—and more challenging—when we recognize that many of the factual claims underlying them are ultimately murky, contestable, and subjective. To consider the Sony Pictures breach, as a scholar or a member of the public at large, inevitably requires holding one assumption still long enough to analyze another. To say nearly anything about it involves dealing with both freedom of expression and control of information, and grappling simultaneously with the social construction of knowledge and of uncertainty. All of which is the case even before stepping outside the U.S.-centric rhetoric about The Interview.

It’s doubtful that many cultural events will meld all these concerns and challenges in exactly the same way The Interview has, but each of these issues will certainly persist individually, both in scholarship and in the public imagination, as digital networks become ever more deeply ingrained aspects of our lives, our workplaces, our politics, and our media culture. Each of the following scholars, in dialogue, has navigated these issues in an insightful way and it is my sincere pleasure to introduce their conversation here today.

The Interview as Weaponized Culture

Hugh Gusterson
Professor of Anthropology & International Affairs, George Washington University

The sophomoric comedy thriller, The Interview, directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, features a bottom-feeding American TV talk show host who is, improbably, invited by North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to interview him live on global television. The CIA persuades the talk show host to assassinate Kim Jong-un with ricin during his visit. When the assassination plot goes awry, there is a mutiny in Kim’s inner circle that culminates in the dictator’s death—when the American talk show host shoots down Kim’s helicopter as he is in the midst of ordering a nuclear attack on the U.S..

North Korean officials were, understandably, unhappy about the planned release of a Hollywood movie that culminated in the violent death of their leader. Five months before the release date for The Interview, North Korea’s UN ambassador said “the production and distribution of such a film on the assassination of an incumbent head of a sovereign state should be regarded as the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.” Sony Pictures had been planning to release the movie on Christmas Day, 2014, until a group called “Guardians of Peace” hacked Sony’s computers, releasing employee records and embarrassing emails among top executives, following which anonymous hackers threatened violence against theaters showing the film. Their message stated, “Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.  We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)” The FBI said its analysts had determined that the hackers were North Korean, though this claim has been challenged by some independent security firms and experts, as well as by critics in the alternative press.

The decision to cancel the movie’s release was not well received in the U.S.  President Obama echoed a widespread reaction when he criticized Sony at a press conference, saying “we cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States. I wish they’d spoken to me first. I would have told them: do not get into the pattern in which you are intimidated.” This framing of the incident as a clash between American freedom of speech and expression versus cyber attacks and threats of violence from a dictatorial foreign regime became the dominant frame in mainstream media coverage.  This coverage, which was powerful enough to induce Sony Pictures to partially backtrack on its cancellation of the film’s release, focused on Kim Jong-un’s violent death as the main provocation to North Korea while celebrating the toilet humor thriller as a raucous example of American free expression. In the end the film had a limited release at independent theaters, and was simultaneously released online where it became Sony’s highest grossing online release ever, earning $15 million in just four days. In other words, while the jury is still out, the controversy may not have hurt the film commercially.

In my comments on this episode I want to trouble the dominant frame in the mainstream media that constructs this incident in terms of freedom of expression—a frame that only became more resonant after the terrorist attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, shortly after the threats against American theaters screening The Interview. Instead of playing up the free speech issue, I want to look at the movie as a calculated example of weaponized culture—weaponized in the formal sense that elements of the U.S. national security apparatus had input into the film and saw it as a tool in their ongoing military / economic / diplomatic / ideological campaign against the North Korean regime.  Seen in this light, the North Korean perception of the film (though not threats against theaters showing it), may seem a little less unreasonable.

This weaponization of Hollywood and of popular culture by the national security state is hardly new. In his fine book, Operation Hollywood, David Robb shows how the Pentagon has insisted on script rewrites as a condition for cooperating in the production of Hollywood movies with military themes. This tradition goes back at least to an alliance between Hollywood and the military forged in World War II, as Thomas Doherty, Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black narrate in their own books. Tricia Jenkins makes a similar argument with reference to the CIA in her book The CIA in Hollywood, and we also know from Frances Stonor Connor’s book, Who Paid the Piper, that the CIA was secretly underwriting higher end cultural outlets such as Encounter magazine during the cold war.

As for The Interview, on December 18 Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday (picking up on coverage by the Daily Beast) reported that the film is not just a matter of Hollywood moguls with their heads in the toilet bowl making a infantile comedy about North Korea. It turns out that Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton also sits on the Board of Trustees of the RAND Corporation—a military think tank originally established by the military contractor McDonnell Douglas to help develop nuclear strategy during the cold war arms race.  Two years earlier, just as the Sony movie Zero Dark Thirty was hitting theaters, he had participated in a panel at RAND called How Hollywood Affects Global Policy.

A few months before the release of The Interview, as the North Korean government was protesting the movie’s plotline, Lynton had shown a rough cut of the movie to the RAND Corporation’s North Korea expert, Bruce Bennett. In an email later publicized by the Daily Beast, the defense expert wrote to Sony Pictures’ chief executive:

I have to admit that the only resolution I can see to the North Korean nuclear and other threats is for the North Korean regime to eventually go away…. In fact, when I have briefed my book on ‘preparing for the possibility of a North Korean collapse’, I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong-Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will). So from a personal perspective, I would personally prefer to leave the ending alone.


The Washington Post reported that Lynton emailed back: “Spoke to someone very senior in State (confidentially). He agreed with everything you have been saying. Everything.”

Meanwhile Rolling Stone quoted one of the film’s two co-stars, Seth Rogen, as saying of the North Koreans that “we were told one of the reasons they’re so against the movie is that they’re afraid it’ll actually get into North Korea. They do have bootlegs and stuff. Maybe the tapes will make their way to North Korea and cause a fucking revolution.”

To help ensure that The Interview did find its way to North Korea, the wealthy North Korean defector, Park Sang Hak, has been air-dropping 100,000 copies of the movie on North Korea with the aid of a U.S. organization called the Human Rights Foundation. Copies of the film with Korean sub-titles have been put on DVDs and USB memory sticks to be carried aloft by air balloons launched from South Korea.  Usually, corporate entertainment empires take a dim view of third parties putting copies of their new movies on DVDs and giving them away for free, but the Human Rights Foundation issued this statement about its plans:

As one of the human rights organizations that considers property rights to be a fundamental and key component of a free society, HRF does not engage in nor does it encourage the violation of copyright or intellectual property rights. In the specific case of The Interview, we were approached by an executive from the company involved in the electronic distribution of this film and are currently in useful communications to explore the options available to make distributing this film in North Korea a reality.


Meanwhile, invoking the pretext of copyright law, authorities in Myanmar have, at the behest of the North Korean government, been seizing bootleg copies of The Interview from black market vendors in order to depress its circulation in the region.

Thus it is clear that not only is the film perceived by the North Korean regime as a security threat, but it was in some sense intended by its makers to be one, albeit one that can be shrugged off as good fun to which those humorless North Koreans are overreacting. The film may be primarily an entertainment vehicle, but it also carries ideological messages directed at both Korean and American audiences. In other words the film was crafted to entertain domestic audiences in the United States, while also acting as a sort of culture virus designed to undermine the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s regime if it circulated in North Korea. (In this regard there is a strange mimesis between the internal plot structure of the film and the circumstances of the film’s construction: the film revolves around two media personalities ostensibly going to North Korea to make an entertainment show, but who are secretly on a mission to undermine the North Korean regime for the U.S. national security state).

While U.S. media coverage has focused on Kim Jong-un’s death at the end of The Interview, this is but the icing on the cake in terms of the ideological damage the film could do if it circulated widely inside North Korea. Audiences learn in the movie that 200,000 North Koreans are in prison camps and 16 million are malnourished, while the regime spends $800 million a year on nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a vain, weak, insecure man with a secret penchant for Katy Perry living a life of orgiastic luxury while his people starve. That may be more damaging than a fantasy sequence in which his helicopter is shot out of the sky.

One might add that, as an instrument of national security ideology, delegitimating Kim Jong-un and legitimating U.S. policy toward North Korea, the film is aimed at American as well as Korean audiences. While the film does, intriguingly, also inform us that the U.S. incarcerates more of its population per capita than North Korea does, and it does ask whether the U.S. is being hypocritical in insisting that North Korea have no nuclear weapons when the U.S. has so many of its own, nevertheless, in keeping with the tropes of mainstream news reporting, it portrays North Korea as a dangerous and impoverished hermit state run by a dictatorial nutball with nuclear weapons.  (For my analysis elsewhere of that news reportage, see here and here).

By the end of the movie, when Kim Jong-un orders a nuclear attack on the U.S. in a fit of pique, killing him seems like the only rational course of action. The plot, however, turns on an entirely false premise that the movie naturalizes: that North Korea could easily attack the U.S. with nuclear-tipped missiles. While North Korea has tested nuclear weapons, many analysts believe the tests were only partial successes given their low yields (a quarter and a half the yield of the Hiroshima bomb). Furthermore, it is an enormous technical challenge to miniaturize a warhead and install it on a missile capable of reaching the United States. There is no evidence that North Korea has succeeded in doing this, and good reason to be skeptical that they have. Thus, at a foundational level, the film is constructed around a stark misrepresentation of the strategic relationship between the U.S. and North Korea—a misrepresentation that legitimates the cinematic killing of North Korea’s leader.  Even as, in some respects, the movie tells the concealed truth about North Korea to putative North Korean audiences, it deepens a lie—or at least a profound exaggeration—that our media, ever scaremongering about North Korea, incessantly repeat to the American people.

Narratives of Patriotism and Mass Consumption

Chuck Tryon
Associate Professor of English, Fayetteville State University

Hugh, I think you’ve persuasively outlined the dominant media framing of The Interview as a test case for the freedom of expression. Even while most critics reviewed the film negatively, there was a clear sense that defending the film was an important precedent in debates over freedom of speech, how it intersected with fears of terrorist attacks on the one hand and the concerns of theater owners about possible lawsuits on the other. In fact, Obama’s criticism of Sony prompted at least one prominent film journalist, Eric Kohn, to describe the president as “the cinephile in chief”.

Further, once Sony agreed to distribute the film theatrically, primarily to art-house and independent theaters such as the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse chain, the very act of going to see The Interview in theaters was framed as a form of patriotism, one that was often self-ironizing but one that also cut across traditional left-right political boundaries. To emphasize this connection between moviegoing and patriotism, Atlanta’s Plaza Theater, one of the first U.S. cinemas to agree to screen the movie, changed their marquee to read, “Freedom prevails.” In other cases, film critics such as Slate’s Dana Stevens expressed that they felt obligated to see The Interview in a theater, even though they anticipated that the film itself would be bad. Seeing the movie in theaters became an act of defiance against the hackers, whether North Korean or otherwise, and a defense of the exchange of ideas, including the banal (or even “weaponized” to use Hugh’s term) ideas offered in a Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy.  With that in mind, I’m interested in exploring how the Interview phenomenon fit within wider narratives about digital distribution and the role of moviegoing in American life.


Freedom prevails: Theater marquee advertising a Christmas day screening of The Interview. Photo courtesy of the Plaza Theater, Atlanta, Georgia.

While Hugh’s comments focused on the culture of production surrounding the film, I’m interested in thinking about how the distribution and exhibition of the film fit into media industry debates about the circulation of media content. To some extent, Sony’s decision to release the film via a range of video-on-demand platforms turned The Interview into an unplanned test case for the profitability of digital delivery. Once the big movie theater chains—Regal, AMC, Carmike, and Cinemark—all announced that they would not be exhibiting the film, despite Department of Homeland Security statements that there was no “active threat,” Sony opted to make the film available via YouTube Movies, Google Play, Xbox Video, and the company’s own Playstation system, setting up what many industry observers saw as a test for “day-and-date distribution,” the practice of distributing a film simultaneously in theaters and on-demand. Sony made the film available for $5.99 for a 24-hour rental, significantly cheaper than the cost of a single movie ticket, and $14.99 for purchase as a digital download.

This decision violated an industry practice of maintaining a 90-day window between a film’s theatrical debut and it’s release on DVD or on-demand, a compromise between studios who want to make the film available on as many platforms as possible and theaters who benefit from the exclusive rights to exhibiting a film. And, just two weeks after the film was released on VOD, it was announced that the film would be made available on the subscription VOD service Netflix, as well as Sony’s own advertiser-supported streaming platform, Crackle. Just a few days later, Sony announced that they would release the DVD in both a standard and a special “Freedom Edition” on February 17, less than two months after it opened in theaters, once again blending patriotism with the cultures of media consumption. Once again, Sony sped up the normal distribution windows, perhaps in part to take advantage of the free publicity the film was receiving in cable news reports and in the entertainment press. In turn, The Interview’s unusual distribution pattern, it was suggested, might provide further evidence about whether or not VOD would cannibalize theatrical distribution.

However, as might be expected, the data released about The Interview remained inconclusive. Although the film earned over $31 million during its first ten days in VOD rentals and purchases, a massive hit by comparison to most other movies released this way, this number was significantly lower than what Sony expected to earn during its theatrical run, and well below the $75-80 million reported budget for making and marketing the film, especially considering that it grossed only $5 million in theaters. Sony reportedly anticipated that The Interview would make approximately $100 million in box office alone prior to the hacking scandal, numbers that would have been consistent with other collaborations between Seth Rogen and James Franco, such as Pineapple Express and the (vastly underrated) apocalyptic comedy, This is the End.  So, while it’s tempting to look at the VOD numbers in isolation and to view the film’s distribution as a success, the overall picture is less clear. As a result, these numbers have been used to support competing arguments about how VOD is affecting the movie industry.

That being said, I’m less interested in how Sony’s approach to distributing The Interview worked (or even whether it worked) than I am in the narratives that framed these debates. Perhaps more than anything, The Interview placed renewed emphasis on moviegoing as an important social, cultural, and in this case at least, political activity. As Charles Acland notes in Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture, movie theaters, especially when they are playing host to cinematic events like a movie premiere, offer up an “impression of collectivity” (p. 243), a desire for a shared experience in which moviegoers can feel themselves to be part of a larger crowd—one that, in this case at least, was promoting shared cultural values. As the marquee in front of the Plaza Theatre indicated, purchasing tickets—and assembling publicly—to see The Interview was, in a sense, defined as a statement of support for freedom of expression. This overlap between collectivity and moviegoing was also on display at the Christmas day premiere at the Austin, Texas, Alamo Drafthouse theater, where one writer reported that customers were provided with miniature American flags and that theater workers led the audience in singing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” These gestures seem to celebrate the activity of moviegoing, even while self-consciously mocking the established narrative tying the film to stereotypical notions of patriotism.

Miniature American flags and themed mixed beverages from the Alamo Drafthouse's Christmas Day screening of The Interview. Courtesy of Lana Berry.

Miniature American flags and themed mixed beverages from the Alamo Drafthouse’s Christmas Day screening of The Interview. Courtesy of Lana Berry.

Still, depictions of movie theaters as spaces of public assembly also overlook the fact that most theaters are owned by corporations that seek to direct, organize, or regulate the behaviors, movements, and purchasing habits of their patrons–and to ensure that those moviegoers return often while purchasing mass quantities of soda and popcorn. In fact, the original plans to pull The Interview from theaters were based largely on fears that they would be held liable for putting customers at risk if they screened the film. There were also some concerns that a terrorist attack targeting theaters could further encourage movie fans to stay at home instead. Thus, while moviegoing is often treated as a public activity, it is worth remembering that it takes place in spaces that are, generally speaking, privately owned. Decisions about what movies to show, what kinds of security precautions to take, and how to respond to political opposition are often driven by concerns about protecting what is often perceived as an increasingly fragile industry in the face of an expanding array of entertainment options. In this sense, decisions about whether to screen the film likely intersected with a much larger (and frequently contested) narrative of decline, marked by a steady decrease in theatrical attendance over the last few years.

Public statements from Obama and George Clooney also responded directly to Sony’s decision to pull the film from theaters. In both cases, Obama and Clooney, in almost identical language, dismissed the film as a silly comedy but suggested that “censoring” the film would endanger more politically controversial films from receiving distribution, placing themselves as defenders of the First Amendment, albeit from two very different positions of authority. Similarly, Rob Lowe offered one of the more hyperbolic responses to Sony’s decision to pull the film, comparing it to the rise of Nazism. This emphasis on freedom certainly aligned with the film’s content, as well. As Hugh noted, audiences are reminded that thousands of North Koreans are in prison camps, while millions more are malnourished, while in the film Kim Jong-un maintains an elaborate façade to preserve the illusion that his citizens actually are prosperous. Franco and Rogen use their interview show to expose—to both North Korean and American audiences—the false world that Kim has constructed. Oddly enough, the attempts to align The Interview with the discourses of freedom actually led members of the film industry to tacitly support certain forms of piracy, as Rogen’s Rolling Stone comments imply.

Finally, media coverage of The Interview has reignited debates about digital delivery. Although the film was portrayed as an important “test case” for video-on-demand and day-and-date distribution, the circumstances of The Interview’s unusual distribution pattern (a massive marketing campaign followed by a limited theatrical release combined with VOD) make it difficult to evaluate whether VOD could work for other films. Like most industry publications, The Hollywood Reporter concluded that the film would have little effect on traditional distribution patterns, in part because the movie theater chains would refuse to support allowing day-and-date distribution. Thus, instead of evaluating the success of the strategy, it is worth considering what the debate about digital delivery says about a wider film and media culture. More than anything it illustrates the ongoing evolution of the everyday popular knowledge of the media industries. Conversations about the viability of digital delivery as a mode of distributing films spilled out into blogs and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and reddit, as well as in the comments sections of articles about the film and the security breach. Such discussions might seem like idle chatter, but they reflect wider cultural concerns about a range of issues surrounding media distribution. Discussions about the costs of renting or buying a digital download speak to other debates about the value of a film text, both as a consumer purchase and as a cultural product. In this sense, movie consumers are making ad hoc analyses of media policies and practices and in some cases, making choices to support freedom of speech or political satire or even corporate decision-makers by supporting a film financially. They are also, consciously or not, reflecting on the financial and cultural value of going to the movies, of being part of the crowd.

Although the exaggerated comedy of The Interview allowed many media pundits to frame it as “silly,” the film and the discourses that framed it are anything but. My discussion of the film’s distribution and reception has focused almost exclusively on the United States, but as Hugh’s section makes abundantly clear, the imagined audience for this film extended beyond U.S. borders in very specific ways, even if there will be very little legal circulation of the film outside of North America. While attending public screenings of The Interview became a way for American audiences to express their solidarity with political satire, the industry discourse surrounding the film also became a way to make sense of the changing role of movie distribution and consumption in everyday life.

The Sony Hack and the New Public-ness of Cybersecurity

Aynne Kokas
Assistant Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

I am inclined to agree with Chuck that The Interview served as a watershed moment for US digital culture. I also agree with Hugh that freedom of speech was not the most important consideration surrounding the events of the Sony hack.  However, I have an interest different than those you both so clearly outlined.  The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack surrounding the release of The Interview led a cyber-attack allegedly by a foreign power to become part of American popular discourse. I never thought I would say this, but we have Seth Rogen and James Franco to thank for publicly airing the problematic gaps in US government disclosures about global cyber-crime.  The Sony hack, and more importantly, the combined intelligence agency response to the Sony hack, set important new public standards for what type of evidence and justification American citizens can expect with regard to cyber attacks from allegedly foreign state actors.

The January 5, 2012 White House and Department policy document entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership:  Priorities for 21st Century Defense” [PDF] explicitly expands the field of engagement for US forces to include cybersecurity.  US cyber attacks are an area of active discussion among policy experts, and high profile corporate hacks like those on Target (2013) and the Sony PlayStation Network (2011) have raised consumer awareness of data security.  However, the combined political, economic, and cultural elements of the Sony hack made it a watershed moment for public awareness of, as well as public messaging about, cyber attacks on the US.  The U.S. government response to this media-driven hacking event highlighted several troubling, important gaps in US cyber policy.

As Hugh alluded, the claim that the hackers behind the Sony attack were North Koreans has been credibly challenged by the alternative press and independent security analysts.  In a December 19, 2014 press release, titled “Update on Sony Investigation,” the FBI shared the following evidence publicly to assert North Korean government responsibility for the attack:

  • Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.
  • The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.
  • Separately, the tools used in the [Sony Pictures Entertainment] attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea. (FBI, 2014)

The FBI update confirms that it is only describing, in part, the evidence used to determine that conclusion.  Internet security expert Bruce Schneier proposed four additional possibilities beyond direct action by the North Korean government that the FBI evidence would also support (Schneier, 2014). The alternative possibilities outlined by Schneier (and echoed by other commentators) included:

  • North Koreans (independent of the North Korean government) executed the Sony hack.
  • North Koreans (independent of the North Korean government) hacked Sony, but the North Korean government joined the attack following its success.
  • Non-North Korean hackers seized on the North Korea angle as a red herring to distract attention from their activities.
  • An ex-employee of Sony executed the attack, taking advantage of familiarity with the company’s internal security protocols.

The data released by the FBI is as revealing in its limitations as it is in its content.  The limitations of the evidence publicly released are clear—it supports multiple competing interpretations, and sets a troubling precedent for relying on incomplete government cyber-data to make accusations about an attack by a foreign state.  If cyber conflict is the warfare of the 21st century, as it is predicted to become, the public needs to hold the government to much higher standards of reporting, particularly in the context of claims made about incursions from foreign governments. The U.S. currently has a president who has been criticized for “leading from behind” and taking too little military action when it is necessary. We need not look back too far in history to think about what more hawkish commander-in-chief did with limited information on the potential for attacks from another member of the so-called “axis of evil.”

Moreover, North Korea, unlike other countries that have been accused of cyber attacks on the US, is neither a major trading partner, nor a holder (as Hugh pointed out) of nuclear stockpiles capable of reaching the US. In a New York Times article from January 18, 2015, David Sanger and Martin Fackler reported that the National Security Agency identified the North Korean government as the agent behind the hacking because of its own cyber monitoring of Chinese and Malaysian networks. With this many international players involved, with multiple agencies, both domestic and international coordinating with corporate security agents, more than anything, the Sony hack offers an important moment to observe the weaknesses in US cyber responses in what currently appears to be a comparatively low stakes environment.

Notably, according to news sources in both Hong Kong and the U.S., China blacked out all information about the Sony hacking.  The Chinese media’s official reticence about the attacks opens questions about whether or not Chinese parties were involved in the hacking. It also underscores the high level of sensitivity to containing not only cyber crime, but also allegations thereof.  The Sony hack provides Chinese cyber policy watchers with a useful template for understanding the Chinese official response to hacking allegations—avoidance of the issue to the degree possible.

By contrast, the FBI’s commentary on an ongoing investigation to the public and its identification of a perpetrator over an abnormally compressed timeline also reveals a particularly high level of disclosure in the context of cyber-crime investigation.  The linking of a cyber incursion and the potential for a kinetic, or physical, attack demanded a higher level of public response, as did the publicness of the attack itself—celebrity targets coupled with threats of “9/11-style attacks” on Christmas Day movie-goers.

The Sony hack has pushed forward a new era in US cyber policy, one which demands public awareness of 1) the pervasiveness of cyber attacks; and 2) the level of cyber-preparedness in the U.S. At the same time, the hack provided an important example of Chinese responses to a public cyber attack that will be useful for advancing our understanding of Sino-US cybersecurity relations.  By generating massive media attention, the Sony hack brought the importance of national cyber security into mainstream view in a way that no number of policy white papers could achieve.  The question now becomes whether it is possible to leverage this momentum for a more secure Internet.

The three perspectives of the commentators are unified in an important way—the Sony hack was a significant moment in the way we understand the role of media in the US. Hugh highlights the ways in which The Interview (the media centerpiece of the Sony hack) brings our attention to how culture can be “weaponized.” Chuck points out the ways in which the Sony hack may have changed the role of digital distribution. I assert that the publicness of the whole affair, driven by the controversies surrounding North Korea, film distribution, and the US government response to the hacking, has pushed forward a new era in which, thanks to the media publicity machine, cyber crimes will now finally be understood as international threats, not only by politicians, but by the much larger group of consumers of US popular media.  In an age defined by increased technological vulnerability ushered in by the Internet of Things, this awareness cannot come soon enough.

Editor’s Note: Pardon our dust. While we’re in the process of polishing our new blog design, the individual author profiles on co-authored posts are temporarily unavailable. But for now, you can click the following links to see author profiles for Hugh Gusterson, Chuck Tryon, Aynne Kokas, and Josh Braun.