The FBI made it official Friday, announcing that it now has "enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible" for the destructive hacking attack on Sony Pictures last month. That brings us to the moment that Sony partisans have been waiting for since the attack began: the point at which the U.S. government does something in response.
President Obama echoed the FBI's message later on Friday at his end-of-year Q&A with the White House press corps. Referring to the North Korean government's involvement in the Sony attack, he said, "They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionately, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It’s not something that I will announce here today at this press conference."
His statement was greeted by the sound of photographers' camera shutters snapping open and closed, which bore a certain resemblance to crickets.
The fact is, the feds don't have a lot of good options. If the individuals involved could be identified, they could be indicted for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, among other federal statutes. The Department of Justice did just that in May when it brought federal charges against five members of the Chinese military suspected of hacking into several U.S. companies' networks. But the chances of the case ever going to trial are precious close to infinitesimal.
Alternatively, the United States could impose more economic sanctions against North Korea. But the sanctions already imposed are so severe, new limits might not have any bite.
Then there's the idea of repaying the North Korean government in kind, unleashing some kind of electronic countermeasures on its networks. As in the case of the alleged Chinese hackers, however, that would mean tangling with the North Korean military. Is that a blow worth striking on behalf of a Hollywood studio, considering what's likely to ensue afterward?
Obama alluded to two of the main problems here, which are the lack of established international law governing these disputes and the vulnerability of U.S. networks to cyberattack. Not only does the federal government have to work out "rules of the road" for cybersecurity internationally, Obama said, but it also has to do a better job of spreading information domestically about attacks and defenses. Congress has been working on a major cybersecurity information-sharing bill for several years, but it hasn't been able to resolve the significant privacy issues raised by the proposal.
"If we don’t put in place the kind of architecture that can prevent these attacks from taking place," Obama warned, "this is not just going to be just affecting movies. This is going to be affecting our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily significant."
One response to the hack that Obama clearly wished had happened already: He wanted Sony to release "The Interview," the comedy that appears to have triggered the attack. After a threat by the hackers caused the five largest U.S. distributors to drop the movie, Sony announced Wednesday that it wouldn't release the film in any format.
"I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced," he said of Sony. "Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.... We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like.
"Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about."
Fine sentiments all. But if Obama really wants to foil the hackers' efforts to bottle up the movie, the feds will have to come up with a clever way to insulate Sony from further damage and liability.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial board suggested one possible approach Friday: that the government buy the distribution rights to "The Interview" from Sony, then make it available online for free. Even if that spared Sony from further attacks, though, there's still the issue of how to shield the servers that distribute the movie online from attack.
BitTorrent Inc. suggested Friday that Sony distribute "The Interview" online as a BitTorrent Bundle, which would allow Sony to set the price for the film, collect a higher percentage of the revenue than other video-on-demand services pay and keep the delivery cost low. The distributed architecture of BitTorrent also means that there wouldn't be any good targets for hackers to attack, nor would there be any practical way to stop the movie from reaching anyone who wants to buy it.
Of course, doing so would require Sony to endorse a technology -- the BitTorrent protocol -- that's wildly popular among those who download movies illegally. But then, the Motion Picture Assn. of America made its peace with BitTorrent years ago.
The FBI didn't reveal much about its reasoning, other than to say there were telling similarities between the Sony hack and previous intrusions linked to the dictatorship. But it's safe to assume the feds were privy to more information than the security consultants, analysts and journalists who speculated that the attack was more likely the work of an insider than a denizen of the Land Without Milk Or Honey.
The government's findings should also squelch the speculation that the studio or the filmmakers behind "The Interview" had arranged the hack as a publicity ploy or as an excuse for abandoning the movie. Not that such comments could be taken seriously, considering how much harm the hack inflicted on the studio, its employees and everyone involved in the film.
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