Sony Embarrases America

So in case you’re one of the three people on the planet who don’t know about this yet ….

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed a little film called The Interview, starring Rogen and James Franco. In the film Franco is a TV news guy, Rogen his producer, and they get a call to go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-Un. The CIA then convinces them that during the interview, they should assassinate Kim. And, as we now know, in the film, they’re successful. The film was to be distributed by Sony Pictures.

When word of the film got out, North Korea called this film an act of war. As the release date got closer, Sony Pictures got hacked – big time. The first sign of this hack was when perfect quality DVD screeners of 5 other Sony films, some not yet released in theaters, appeared online. These included Fury with Brad Pitt, the new remake of Annie, and the very well reviewed new bio-pic Mr. Turner.

That was quickly followed by massive releases of internal Sony information – including salary information on Sony executives as well as huge numbers of internal emails containing all sorts of embarrasing information.

A group called the GOP – the Guardians of Peace – took credit for the massive hack and public release.

As the release date for the film got closer, the GOP started threatening violence. They announced that any theater screening the film would be the victim of an attack reminiscent of 9/11. Following this threat, 5 major theater chains in the US that had previously booked the film announced that they would no longer show it. And following that, Sony announced that they were canceling the film altogether – no release to theatrical, home video, cable, nothing. Sony would be writing off somewhere in the neighborhood of US$100 million.

Here’s the red band trailer for the film.

In the wake of all of this, Sony declared that North Korea was the source of the hack. The United States goverment has gone along with this, and now the FBI has said they believe it was North Korea. There have been newspaper headlines about the U.S. government considering what new sanctions they might apply against North Korea in retaliation.

Some theaters were going to substitute screenings of 2004’s Team America: World Police, from the South Park guys. And then Paramount got scared and wouldn’t release prints for screening.

So ….

The first thing is: It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Seth Rogen or not. It doesn’t matter if you were anxiously awaiting this film, if you thought it was going to turn out to be a piece of crap or if you never heard of it or couldn’t care less.

You might ask, why risk the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people over a movie? It’s just a movie.

But what has really happened is that major U.S. corporations have allowed themselves to be blackmailed and controlled by anonymous hackers, who may not even be a government organization, they might just be a bunch of kids. This is a first amendment issue. Even if you feel the theaters were justified, Sony had many, many other ways to release this film and give a big middle finger to North Korea and try to recoup some of their investment. Hell, given that they’re prepared to kiss $100 million goodbye, they could have just torrented the film.

Instead, expect plenty of others to try similar stunts in the future now that the precedent has been set. This year it’s a movie. Next year another movie, or a TV show, or a book, or just some expression of some minor idea that upsets the Grand Poobah of Absurdistan or some 14 year old kid spending too much time in his bedroom because he didn’t eat all his vegetables at dinner.

Marc Rogers, one of the world’s leading hackers and security experts, provides some analysis and comes to the conclusion that the hack was not the work of the North Korean government. He thinks it’s an inside job.

One thing I read that Rogers doesn’t mention in his article. Earlier this year Sony hired PricewaterhouseCooper to conduct an IT security audit. This audit, delivered to Sony in September, identified major security holes. It would have been impossible for a large corporation (or even most small or mid-sized ones) to fill in these holes in such a short period of time.  The hack, just two months later, went after some of these holes.

Meanwhile, everyone from George Clooney to Alan Dershowitz is weighing in on this. (Dershowitz: “This is Pearl Harbor on the First Amendment.”) (Michael Moore: “Dear Sony Hackers: now that u run Hollywood, I’d also like less romantic comedies, fewer Michael Bay movies and no more Transformers.”)(Bill Maher: “Is that all it takes – an anonymous threat and the numbers 911 – to throw free expression under the bus? #PussyNation“)(Neil Gaiman: “So SONY fight back by canceling The Interview, thus proving to the hackers that hacking & threats work very well? That may prove an error.”)

If you’d like to read a very geeky breakdown of the events, along with all sorts of relevant links, then check out this long article at Risk Based Security.

One thing is for sure – this is a big mess that will only get messier.

UPDATE: Sony ended up releasing the film on December 25th – but instead of thousands of screens in multiplexes, it went to 300 independent cinemas. They also released it online via Youtube and Google Play, which means it is now available via the “usual sources” worldwide. I watched about half of it last night – it’s okay, certainly not one of Rogen’s best and I found Franco’s character a bit tiresome pretty quickly, but it’s okay.

3 thoughts on “Sony Embarrases America”

  1. But the reality is that the media lost this battle a long time ago. Unless, somewhere, I have missed all the media satirising Islam without fear of retribution. North Korea has simply copied the Islamic stance – the media companies are bullies that will back down against a bigger bully.

    1. I think Korea (if it is indeed Korea) has taken this to a new level. Studios have made edits to scripts and films in the past but I can’t recall a finished film being shelved for a reason like this before.

  2. There is quite a good commentary on Comedy Central’s censorship of a South Park episode at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/201_%28South_Park%29. The episode has never been re-shown and is only commercially available on DVD in censored form. The difference is that the SP episode could be transmitted in censored form as there were other targets who did not frighten Comedy Central, but The Interview has only one subject so has to be tranmitted or pulled.

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