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Very impressive piece about how the hack preceding the Russian meddling in the US election was dealt with
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[size=68]THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE SONY HACK: HOW NORTH KOREA’S BATTLE WITH SETH ROGEN AND GEORGE CLOONEY FORESHADOWED RUSSIAN ELECTION MEDDLING IN 2016
The message from North Korean hackers read like the opening of a bad script for a cyber-thriller. In fact, it was the direct predicate for Russia’s cyberterrorists hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign. If only America had been paying closer attention. Richard Stengel’s new book, Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It, will publish on October 8, available wherever books are sold.
OCTOBER 6, 2019
Diana Bang, Seth Rogen, James Franco in The Interview.:copyright: COLUMBIA PICTURES/EVERETT COLLECTION.
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Sony employees who logged on to their desktops early on Monday morning, November 24, 2014, were greeted with the sound of digital gunfire and the image of an ominous red skeleton under the title “Hacked By #GOP,” which stood not for the Grand Old Party, but for a shadowy organization called Guardians of Peace. Below was a message that read, in not very good English, “We’ve already warned you, and this is just a beginning. We continue till our request be met. We’ve obtained all your Internal data Including your secrets and top secrets. If you don’t obey us, we’ll release [that] data.” It read like the opening of a bad script for a cyber-thriller.
But for Sony, the horror movie was just the beginning. Before the entire system went dark, the malware wiped out half of Sony’s global digital network. It junked 3,262 of Sony’s 6,797 personal computers and 837 of its 1,555 servers. Within hours, the global media giant was back in the 1980s, its employees using fax machines and pens and paper. The studio shop would only accept cash.
And it got worse. The hackers had actually been inside Sony’s system for weeks, and stolen all of Sony’s data before deleting it. Over the next month, they released nine batches of confidential files onto the public internet: everything from executives’ salaries to embarrassing emails about “no-talent” movie stars, to unfinished film scripts to actual unreleased films like Annie and Fury. Eventually all of the hacked emails were published by WikiLeaks.
Does that sound familiar? Two years later, in 2016, after we learned of Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and their dark bargain with WikiLeaks to release that stolen information, it’s clear that the Sony hack foreshadowed not only the Russian attack on our election, but provided a panoramic vista of the modern, global information war. It’s all there. The vulnerability of major American institutions, the late and inept response of government, the press’s obsession with gossip that blinded them to a national-security threat, and a trampling of the First Amendment. Well, we were certainly unready when it happened in 2014. We were unready in 2016. And we seem barely more ready for 2020. Once again we have a candidate for president encouraging a foreign power to help him in his election campaign. Only now he’s president. The story of the Sony hack is worth reexamining as a model of modern information war, how we got it so wrong, and what we might do to prevent it from happening again.
Within weeks, U.S. intelligence agencies were pointing the finger at North Korea. Their motivation seemed to be a dark comedy called The Interview. The movie starred Seth Rogen and James Franco as a pair of bumbling journalists who go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong Un and eventually assassinate him. For months, North Korea had complained about the pending film. In June, a government spokesperson warned that the movie was “the most blatant act of terrorism and war” and threatened “a merciless countermeasure.” A couple of months earlier, North Korea had sent a letter to the secretary-general of the U.N., saying that unless the U.S. government banned the film, “it [would] be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism.” (That same day, Rogen tweeted: “People don’t usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they’ve paid 12 bucks for it.”)
Ten days after the initial hack, the “Guardians of Peace” released a message saying that Sony had “refused to accept” its terms and must “stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism.” A week later, they released another message saying that anyone who went to The Interview would suffer a “bitter fate.”
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.)
Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
All the world will denounce the SONY.
The FBI had now formally attributed the attack to North Korea and declared it one of the largest cyberattacks ever perpetrated in the U.S. I was then the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department, and my job was in part to worry about how America’s image around the world was affected by communications issues like this one. But this was more than a communications issue. From the moment that North Korea was identified as the source of the attack, I considered this an example of information warfare. An American media company had been attacked by a hostile foreign power. How was this different than Russia cyber-hacking the Ukrainian government? Or ISIS hacking Iraq’s government servers? It was also, I thought, a free speech issue. A despotic foreign state had attacked a company on U.S. soil and was trying to prevent it from releasing a silly comedy.
I brought this up in our weekly public-diplomacy meeting at the State Department. I brought it up at the assistant secretaries’ meeting that happened every Tuesday. I mentioned it at the small daily 8:30 a.m. meeting hosted by the secretary of State. I talked to the public affairs department about it. I said we needed to make a statement defending Sony, criticizing the attacks, and supporting the release of the film. The collective reaction by everyone at the State Department was a yawn. Responses ranged from, It’s not our problem, to Sony was stupid to use Kim’s actual name, to What do you expect when you insult a head of state and threaten another country? Really? I was dumbfounded. We’re always on the side of protecting free speech in every country where we have a post—how about protecting free speech here at home from the predations of a foreign power? Calm down, I was told; it’s a comedy starring Seth Rogen, for Chrissake.
Folks outside the government weren’t much more receptive. I called my friend Jeff Shell, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and, more importantly, the head of Universal Pictures. Jeff agreed with me, but wasn’t yet ready to speak up. Almost no one in Hollywood was. Even the Motion Picture Association of America kept mum.
The press was completely suckered and abdicated its real responsibility. As the Guardians of Peace had released the hacked emails of Sony executives, a scrum of journalists gleefully reported on the embarrassing, and sometimes salacious, emails of Sony execs, big-time producers, and actual movie stars. In particular, an exchange between Sony’s co-chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin about President Barack Obama’s taste in movies seemed to get more attention than the whole act of cyberterrorism. Pascal had emailed Rudin asking for advice before going to an Obama fundraiser hosed by Jeffrey Katzenberg. What should she ask President Obama “at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?”
Rudin: Would he like to finance some movies?
Pascal: I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO
Rudin: 12 YEARS.
Pascal: Or the butler. Or think like a man?
Rudin: Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.
Both Pascal and Rudin were Democratic and Obama donors, and the stories focused on their contemptible interchange about Obama and a range of African American–centric films.
Now that I was in government, I saw things from the other side: Why was the press publishing what was in effect stolen property—that is, emails hacked and leaked by a hostile foreign power? Why was that acceptable behavior? Shouldn’t you consider the origin of the information before deciding to use it? If you don’t, aren’t you incentivizing other attacks? You could still report on the hack, but without using the poisoned fruit of the hack. By publishing the emails, the press was making itself complicit not only in North Korea’s crime, but in its goal of censoring Sony. What exactly was the public interest in Scott Rudin speculating that President Obama likes Kevin Hart movies compared to a foreign power assaulting free expression in America?
I also had a personal interest. Michael Lynton, the chairman of Sony, was a good friend of mine, and, while I was in office, I had asked him to help me with what had become the focus of my job: countering ISIS messaging and countering Russian disinformation and propaganda. Sony, it turned out, was one of the largest sellers of content for the Russian periphery. A few days into the attack, I had reached out to Michael to see if there was anything I could do at State to help him. He was frustrated. The press, he said, was focused on “a movie studio’s dirty laundry being exposed to the world, with no discussion of the damage itself and the larger threat.” He added, “They think because a movie star is involved, it’s less serious.” Michael told me that he had been in touch with Valerie Jarrett at the White House, but that was mainly to allow Amy and Scott to apologize to President Obama. He said, “Just speak out about it.”
There was one profile in courage during this whole story, one person in Hollywood and Washington who stood up for freedom of speech and expression, though he was not a senator, or the head of a studio, or the publisher of a newspaper: George Clooney. Clooney had immediately recognized the threat of the hack against Hollywood and the media business, and had drawn up a letter that he and his agent, Bryan Lourd, sent to all the heads of all the studios and big Hollywood production companies, asking them to support Sony. “We know that to give in to these criminals now,” they wrote, “will open the door for any group that would threaten freedom of expression, privacy and personal liberty.”
Clooney was appealing to values all of the studios stood for: freedom of expression and personal liberty. Let’s all resist this collective threat to what we stand for.
No one signed. Not one Hollywood executive was willing to lend his or her name to Clooney’s letter.
Here’s what Clooney said to Deadline Hollywood, who interviewed him a few weeks later, after the letter had gone nowhere.
We have a new paradigm, a new reality, and we’re going to have to come to real terms with it all the way down the line. This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this. That’s not just Sony, but all of us, including my good friends in the press who have the responsibility to be asking themselves: What was important? What was the important story to be covering here?…. I understand that someone looks at a story with famous people in it and you want to put it out. The problem is that what happened was, while all of that was going on, there was a huge news story that no one was really tracking. They were just enjoying all the salacious sh*t instead of saying, “Wait a minute, is this really North Korea? And if it is, are we really going to bow to that?”
Within hours of North Korea’s last threat, America’s four largest theater chains, as well as several smaller ones, told Sony that they would not show the movie in their theaters. Sony then had basically little choice but to cancel the Christmas release of the movie. Even the video-on-demand distributors had turned Sony down. Sony then suspended all of its promotion, advertising, screening, and digital ads on Facebook and Twitter.
On the day that Sony basically scrapped the movie, I got this email from Jeff Shell:
Subject: Fwd: It’s Official: Sony Scraps ‘The Interview’
To: Richard Stengel
It was only then, after the theaters refused to show the film and Sony paused the release, that the White House seemed to get engaged—and not in a terribly helpful way. At a press conference, when President Obama was asked about Sony, he criticized the studio, saying it had “made a mistake.” He added: “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” Lynton was upset about this and decided he needed to fire back. He was scheduled to talk to Fareed Zakaria on CNN, and the White House asked him to pull the interview. He did it anyway. “I think, actually, the unfortunate part is, in this instance, the president, the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened. We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters.” Lynton said when theaters say they will not show the movie, they had no alternative but to halt the theatrical release. “We have persevered, and we have not backed down.” In fact, after the chains refused to show it, Sony worked behind the scenes to have other platforms get the movie out. Almost everybody refused—Netflix, Facebook, Apple, Comcast—all of whom were concerned about getting hacked. Only Google and Stripe were willing to help to get the movie out.
But there was another shoe to drop, and it affected me and what I was trying to do at State: the leaking of emails between myself and Lynton. In the early months of my job, I had reached out to Lynton for help in the counter-ISIS fight and countering Russian disinformation. The WikiLeaks release contained a number of emails between Lynton and me.
This was the email that got the most attention:
Date: October 15, 2014 at 11:44:44 AM EDT
To: Michael Lynton
Subject: Thanks and Moving Forward
Michael: It was great to see you yesterday. As you could see, we have plenty of challenges in countering ISIL narratives in the Middle East and Russian narratives in central and eastern Europe. In both cases, there are millions and millions of people in those regions who are getting a skewed version of reality. And it’s not something that the State Department can do on its own ny [sic] any means. Following up on our conversation, I’d love to convene a group of media executives who can help us think about better ways to respond to both of these large challenges. This is a conversation about ideas, about content and production, about commercial possibilities. I promise you it will be interesting, fun, and rewarding.
Many publications in their story about the Sony hack made passing references to the email and our dialogue, including New York magazine and Gawker. But the one publication that did the most with it was Russia Today. It was as though they were practicing for 2016. They were particularly exercised that a “senior State Department official” was enlisting help “countering...Russian narratives.”
Even before the print article was published, the correspondent for RT, who was a regular attendee at the State Department’s daily briefings, began to pester the State Department spokesperson about the emails. The RT correspondents were well-known for haranguing the State Department spokespeople and trying to trip them up on policies regarding Russia. RT’s Gayane Chichakyan, who had already accused me of being a propagandist, had asked State spokesperson Marie Harf about the significance of me trying to “counter” Russian narratives.
Conventional Russian media outlets, particularly Russia Today and Sputnik, were always on top of what they invariably criticized as anti-Russian bias. They then responded in the characteristic Russian way: They accused you of what they were doing. They always accused America and the West of being hypocrites, propagandists, and treating Russia like a junior partner. I had started watching RT in my State office and found it to be a low-rent version of Fox News featuring “experts” without expertise, pundits and academics from organizations and universities you’ve never heard of spouting conspiracy theories that you only expected to see on the dark web.
The references in my emails to Russian disinformation and propaganda had obviously gotten their attention. Their strategy was always to try to punch back harder. In addition to their online story, RT also did an on-air story that was broadcast the same day as the digital one posted. It was done by the correspondent cited in the online piece, who, after a dramatic on-air reading of the emails, says, “So the State Department response to allegations that the government is in talks with entertainment giants to promote U.S. foreign policy could be summarized in two words: So what? We reached out to Sony, and they refused to comment.”
Then the RT anchor came back on air and introduced a middle-aged fellow with rimless glasses who was chyroned as a representative of the “anti-war Answer coalition.” He asserted that “this is really a revival of whatever was allowed to die after the Cold War…. This collaboration was intensified exponentially to turn the big corporations into arms of the government,” adding that all of this “propaganda” was “deeply controlled by the White House and the Pentagon.”
The Russians were trying to shape the story to their master narrative of anti-Russia bias by the U.S. They didn’t have any special sympathy for Kim Jong Un, but they liked showing corporate America and the American government at the mercy of a tin-pot dictator. Going back to the Cold War days, there is nothing the Russian media likes more than exposing what it considers to be American hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, in this case the U.S. government not standing up for the values of free speech.
This also proved to be RT’s strategy during the 2016 election: to focus on American disunity and hypocrisy, to exaggerate the dangers of immigration, and play up the grievances of Trump voters, in general to show the U.S. as something akin to a failed state.
In the end, in addition to a digital release, Sony managed to cobble together a limited number of independent theaters and show the movie around the time they had originally planned. Some months after the whole episode had receded from the news, I spoke to Michael. He told me that President Obama had reached out to apologize. Michael was grateful for that. Reflecting on the whole episode, he said, “Cyber can be as destructive as anything physical, but because it’s invisible, people who haven’t experienced it don’t seem to understand it. There still isn’t a way to combat this.”
He also recalled that in the middle of the crisis, Sony’s general counsel, Nicole Seligman, said she wanted to bring in outside counsel to help navigate the legal and national-security terrain in Washington. After all, they were in California. She retained a partner from the Washington law firm WilmerHale, a former director of the FBI named Robert Mueller. Michael said Mueller acted as a sounding board for them. He was familiar with state actors hacking into U.S. systems from his time at the bureau.
For me, the whole episode was frustrating and dispiriting. An American company had been attacked by a foreign adversary bent on suppressing free speech, and we had done almost nothing. The press had mostly missed the real story, focusing on Hollywood drivel. It was as though, because the attack was not physical or traditional, that it was somehow less real, less threatening, less dangerous. In actuality it was more insidious, and probably more dangerous. It was clear that for countries like Russia, China, and North Korea, and entities like ISIS, there was much less downside risk in this kind of asymmetric warfare. No missiles were fired; no soldiers were wounded; and it was a lot cheaper than an F-35.
The Sony hack proved to be an object lesson in how so many of us would either miss or mishandle the Russian attack in the 2016 election. That, too, began with a cyber-hacking, and was accompanied by a tsunami of disinformation. After watching our lackluster response to the Sony hack, Russia may well have concluded that there was a very little price to pay for attacking American institutions. And they were right.
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