Sony Pictures Cancels Release of The Interview

The interview scene

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Sony Pictures Cancels Release of The Interview
| published December 17, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

It may be a first in Hollywood history: threats of extreme violence against movie theaters which agree to premier a movie which hasn’t even been seen yet outside of a few screenings. And what is definitely a first: cancellations by theater chains over fears of security, with a major motion picture company finally pulling the plug on a new release altogether.

And now, the FBI and other U.S. investigative bodies have come to the conclusion that the cyber-attack was indeed the work of hackers inside North Korea, possibly member of the elite cyber military group called Unit 121, and possibly also with help from more sophisticated outside hackers in China, Thailand, or Russia.

Despite comments by law enforcement and U.S. Homeland Security spokespersons suggesting that there is no credible evidence of an attack, threats have been made against companies which own theaters—and the source of those threats is the organized hackers who weeks ago trashed the computer networks of Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City, California.

The group calling itself Guardians of Peace, have issued warnings of a 9/11 style attack on movie theaters which choose to run The Interview, an action-satire-comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco in which the two are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea has called the film’s production as act of war, and—after getting little help from the United Nations and other international forums—has called upon the people of the world to rise up against what the isolated, rogue country considers an abomination and an insult.

Though neither Sony Pictures nor the FBI have confirmed the link between North Korea and the Sony Pictures hack, almost everyone with knowledge of the data breach say that the focus of the investigation remains on North Korea and its elite military unit specially-trained for cyber-attacks and computer espionage. However, some news sources are reporting that the FBI and the U.S. State Department may make separate announcements as early as Thursday confirming that the cyber—attack was the work of North Korea—possibly in league with mercenary computer experts in China or Thailand.

The whole thing started weeks ago when Sony employees came to work one day to find their computer system shut down, email platforms not working, and all internal computer peripherals non-functioning. Some computers screens displayed a red and green skull adorned with the logo of Guardians of Peace. So severe was the network shutdown that Sony Pictures employees were forced to—horrors—land line phone and cell phones to conduct business.

Overnight, the hackers has unlocked the computer network, and stolen nearly everything of value they could find—spreadsheets, Word files and PDFs, financial information, personnel files, accounts payable records, and literally tens of thousands of emails. The hackers also helped themselves to digital copies of entire motion pictures, including two unreleased films, Annie and Mr. Turner, and copies of movies already showing at the theaters, such as Fury, starring Brad Pitt and Shia LeBouf.

Within hours, copies of those stolen movies were available all over the world, and the contents of emails and personnel files were being made available to the press in dozens of countries. Earlier this week, Sony legal representative David Boies sent a form letter to hundreds of media outlets, newspapers, and television networks, requesting that the press immediately cease and desist with any further examination, dissemination or reprinting of information stolen from the massive cyber- attack, one of the worst in U.S. history and perhaps the most intrusive ever to hit a major media company. In his letter, Boies said that Sony Pictures would take legal action against media outlets who reprint or rebroadcast any of the material obtained from the data breach.

But no sooner had Boies’ now-widely publicized letter become front page news, than the hackers raised the stakes—employing dark parallels to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and threatening movie theater chains and moviegoers with violence. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are taking the threats seriously, though both agencies have repeatedly stressed that there is “no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters.” Still, police departments in some major cities, working with theater owners, have decided to increase security as a standard precaution. In New York and Los Angeles, where some showing premier showings are scheduled for this week (the film officially opens across the United States and Canada on Christmas Day), law enforcement officials plan to add an additional, beefed-up presence. And in Los Angeles, there are reports that some theaters will undergo and careful on site advance check for bombs or weapons.

Despite assurances by law enforcement, however, several major theater chains, including Carmike Cinemas, Regal Cinemas, Cineplex-Odeon, Cinemark Entertainment, and AMC, have already decided to cancel showing of The Interview amidst concerns for the safety of its guests and employees.

The data breach has been a disaster for Sony Pictures. Some emails now revealed in the press expose racially-charged comments by top executives as well as nasty internal office politics. Stolen financial data reveals a deep disparity in the pay of female leads and male leads, even when their screen time is approximately the same. And the premature release of several films in digital form could cut deeply into the bottom line for movies like Annie and Mr. Turner. And stolen financial documents have revealed insider talk about upcoming movies, mergers and acquisitions, and even the pay of some top executives.

Worse for Sony Pictures has been the lawsuits filed against it by former and current employees—lawsuits declaring that the studio was negligent in how it protected the personal data of its employees. Among the information stolen by the hackers: social security numbers, home addresses, medical and dental coverage, pay stubs, and employee cell phone numbers. The class-action lawsuit now filed in Federal court in California says that Sony Pictures knowingly maintained a computer system which was unsecured and outdated, which put employee information at risk.

A parallel lawsuit, filed in a separate court, accuses Sony Pictures of deliberately waiting too long to inform employees of the full extent of the data breach; salaries and medical records were already being posted and traded online by the time most employees were told that the data may have been extracted. And some websites were giving out the cell phone numbers and addresses of Sony employees at least two days before Sony revealed to its rank-and-file workforce that complete extent of the breach.

Legal analysts suggest that these lawsuits—and the many more which will surely follow—could inflict serious financial harm to Sony Pictures over the long haul. Both lawsuits allege that Sony Pictures Culver City headquarters and studios used computer systems and network protections which were not only out of date, but also well-known to be susceptible to cyber-attack, and that Sony executives chose to disregard or ignore warnings from networking staff—presumably to save money.

But some computer experts and some cyber security analysts suggest that this particular data breach would not have been thwarted by traditional security methods or by usual anti-virus, anti-intrusion measures. Such conclusions raise doubts and concerns for hundreds of other major companies who may also someday face a cyber-attack on the same scale as the one now creating problems for Sony Pictures.

Furthermore, as some cyber-security analysts have pointed out, this attack was much broader and much more penetrative than the traditional attacks of the recent past, such as the data breaches at Target, Michael’s, and Home Depot, where hackers merely wanted to generate quick-profits from stolen credit card and debit card information.

Last week, FBI director James Comey, while avoiding answering any questions directly about the Sony cyber-attack, did suggest that his agency was paying particularly close attention to the possibility that the hackers have links to North Korea. Among those familiar with the investigation, some of the code used to breach Sony Pictures network includes code previously used by North Korean hackers to attack banks and financial institutions in South Korea. And this week, the FBI and other investigative agencies have apparently come to the conclusion that the data breach was--as expected by some--linked directly to North Korea (though with possible outside help from hackers-for-hire in China, Thailand or Russia). The costs to Sony if an entire motion picture--fully edited and ready for release--fails to premier, would be incalculable, though it may be possible to release the film at some later date or in some other venue.

North Korea, which has been a largely isolated nation since the end of the Korean War, governs through a dictatorship based on the quasi-cult of the Kim family, which has ruled over the country for three generations. North Korea regards any parody of its supreme leader as a serious, nationwide insult, and it has said repeatedly this year that it regards the premise of The Interview to be an act of war. It has also promised “merciless retaliation” if the movie opens as scheduled on Christmas Day.

The Guardians of Peace had promised for weeks to deliver what it called “A Christmas Surprise,” a bombshell which arrived this week in the form of more than 30 thousand emails from the in-basket and outbox of Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton. Those emails have now been circulated throughout the media, though it is unclear—in light of the threat of legal action intimated by David Boies—which news services and news agencies will republish Lynton’s emails. Some previously released emails have caused embarrassment and consternation at the corporate level at Sony.

Meanwhile, actor-comedians Rogen and Franco have cancelled some upcoming appearances, including those scheduled for The Tonight Show in advance of the premier of The Interview.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Sony Pictures Attorney Strikes Back; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 16, 2014.

North Korea Cyber-Attack: Real, or Smokescreen?; Thursday Review; December 5, 2014.