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The Sony hack is way bigger than The Interview

We've seen nothing like this before.


Rob Price


Posted on Dec 19, 2014   Updated on May 29, 2021, 10:53 pm CDT

“THE HACKERS WON,” the headlines scream: The theatrical release of The Interview has been cancelled.

The Sony Pictures Entertainment film has found itself at the center of the colossal nightmare hackers known as Guardians of Peace demanded the studio pull the film or they would launch a terror attack on American soil.

This is a historic event: A cyberattack has had commercial consequences to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—but even this underestimates the true significance of the hack.

More than two weeks into the attack, Sony is hardening its stance on those reporting on the leaks, and (futilely) attempting to have the documents—ranging from private emails to employee social security numbers—destroyed.  First, Judd Apatow equated the publishing of stolen emails to “releasing nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence.” Then Aaron Sorkin took to the pages of the New York Times to admonish journalists for “giving material aid to criminals” for reporting on the leak. Sony’s lawyers have also been in touch with multiple media organizations demanding their copies of the stolen information be destroyed, while sites like Reddit are now policing their communities for infringing content.

Nonetheless, reporting on the leaks isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Sony’s legal threats have been (almost) universally condemned, and while the documents may become harder to find, trying to bury them is like trying put toothpaste back into the tube. Since the start of December, we’ve seen everything from executive racism and gender pay disparity to canned Spiderman characters; so long as newsworthy documents continue to be released, news organizations will report them.

While some discretion is of course necessary— every journalist I’ve spoken to agrees they wouldn’t publish the medical records and social security numbers found in the trove, for example, or provide instructions on how to find them—the fact is, these documents are historic.

And I mean that in the strictest sense of the word.

It is of course true that the release of the documents will have a historic effect—one that is already being felt. The cancellation of the theatrical release of The Interview is monumental, a capitulation to a naked threat of terrorism that has had commentators up in arms, and will be surely be remembered as a groundbreaking episode in our coming to terms with the power of cybercrime.

Some of these are less obvious: The visual effects (VFX)  industry is currently embroiled with lawsuits over wage-fixing and collusion, with pay rates historically a closely guarded secret. But no longer—the first batch of leaked files contains a copy of the Croner Animation and Visual Effects Survey, which has been referred to as “the holy grail of U.S. VFX wages.” Overnight, an entire industry and its ongoing legal wrangles have been transformed.

It’s all there, an immortal snapshot of how a billion-dollar company operates. 

“The game has changed as far as salary negotiation in the VFX industry starting today,” writes VFX Soldier. “Going forward nobody will go into negotiations without having reputable information concerning wages.”

The FBI has also warned the attack constitutes a “watershed” moment, and other companies should expect to see similar threats in future. While Sony’s security was laughably—perhaps even criminally—negligent, with passwords saved in plaintext and former employees claiming the security team had “no fucking clue,” it’s naive to expect that in the years ahead, this will be the only attack of this magnitude. Nonetheless, it was the first, and will be looked back upon as a defining moment in our New Digital Reality.

But the attack is also historic in its own right. It is a slice of history like nothing ever seen before. As of writing, a little under 300GB of data has been released; the hackers’ total trove is believed to number in the tens of terabytes, and it’s not inconceivable to suggest that it may all eventually be released. Even if it isn’t, the information is unlike anything ever seen before.

Frequent, high-profile hacks by the Free Syrian Army and their ilk are little more than momentary defacements, the modern equivalent of graffiti. The attacks on Target and Home Depot saw the theft of monumental amounts of customer and credit card information, but the inner workings of the companies remained as opaque as ever.

The Sony hack is something else entirely.

Even if not another byte is ever released, we’ve still been granted an unparalleled view inside the inner working of a vast corporation: Internship schemes, sexual harassment policies, the squabbling and fretting of executives—it’s all there, an immortal snapshot of how a billion-dollar company operates.

The closest comparison to the Sony hack isn’t the 2007 TJ Maxx attack, or the 2013 Adobe hack, it’s the WikiLeaks Cables.

It’s also intensely voyeuristic: Upon sifting through gigabyte upon gigabyte of private emails, one can begin to feel extremely uncomfortable. These aren’t impersonal pastebin dumps of credit card numbers, they’re private, unguarded messages never meant for public consumption. After emails related to a failed Snapchat deal were published, CEO Evan Spiegel expressed a sense of violation, writing that he was “angry,” “devastated,” and felt like he was going to cry. The Sony hack offers an unprecedented look at the human side of business, and that comes with a human cost.

Normally, when a company goes out of business—no matter how large—its internal records are destroyed. We have no idea how Pan Am hired its employees, how Circuit City dealt with executive expenses, how Enron planned for the upgrade of company hardware. These prosaic details are the lifeblood of a company: Discarded when no longer irrelevant or it goes bust, they show how an organization operates on a day-to-day basis—and for the first time, they’ve been laid bare for all to see.

It’s not all headline-grabbing stuff. Executive emails are ripe with salacious gossip; industrial tenders, less so. But collectively, the released documents show the inner workings of a powerful company struggling with digital transition at the dawn of the 21st century.

The closest comparison to the Sony hack isn’t the 2007 TJ Maxx attack, or the 2013 Adobe hack, it’s the WikiLeaks Cables—an explosive, unredacted look at a historically secretive industry, that will be still be read hundreds of years from now by historians and sociologists trying to understand the inner workings of power in our era.

This isn’t a defence of the hack itself, of course. It’s a terrible act, that has violated the privacy of not just a handful of high-profile executives but also tens of thousands of ordinary employees. But out of this tragedy, researchers  and historians have been offered an unprecedented opportunity.

In the years to come, there may well be other hacks of this magnitude. But Sony is the first, and its historic significance—for better or worse—should not be underestimated. 

Image / wikipedia (CC 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman  

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*First Published: Dec 19, 2014, 10:15 am CST