Sony Pictures Pulls ‘The Interview’ After Cyber Attacks, Threats; North Korea Suspected
With major theater chains having pulled out, Sony bowed to the inevitable, but now there appears to be proof that a foreign power is behind the Sony hacking attacks and threats of violence.
This morning, I noted that the hacking attacks on Sony Pictures that had to date resulted in the release of personal and proprietary business information belonging to the company as well as communications between top executives that has proven to be at least somewhat embarrassing inside Hollywood and elsewhere had morphed into some kind of threat of terrorism as hackers had threatened that they would unleash attacks if the company when ahead with the planned December 25th release of a movie depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. As the day went on, most of the top theater chains in the country had one by one announced that they were cancelling their contracts to show the movie based on the threats, as well apparently on concerns that they too would become targets for hacking. Now, Sony Pictures has announced that they are canceling the premier altogether, and reporting breaking late is saying that American authorities have confirmed that the hacking attacks have indeed originated from North Korea:
LOS ANGELES — Sony Pictures Entertainment has dropped its plans for a Dec. 25 release of “The Interview,” a crude comedy that prompted a threat of terror against theaters.
The cancellation Wednesday afternoon came as the largest United States and Canadian film exhibitors said they would not show the movie.
In a statement, Sony said: “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”
On Wednesday afternoon, AMC Theaters, citing “the overall confusion and uncertainty” around the film, joined Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment in dropping the film. Together, those exhibitors control more than 19,200 screens across the United States. Smaller American chains and Canada’s Cineplex Entertainment also canceled the film.
Spokesmen for AMC, Cinemark and Carmike either declined to comment or could not immediately be reached. John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theater Owners, did not respond to queries. Sony had no immediate comment.
Regal said in a statement: “Due to the wavering support of the film ‘The Interview’ by Sony Pictures, as well as the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats, Regal Entertainment Group has decided to delay the opening of the film.”
Several smaller chains, including Bow Tie Cinemas, with 350 screens, also decided on Wednesday not to show “The Interview,” which depicts the assassination of the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, and was co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. To depict the killing of a sitting world leader, comically or otherwise, is virtually without precedent in major studio movies, film historians say.
On Tuesday a threat of terrorism against theaters that show “The Interview” was made in rambling emails sent to various news outlets. The threat read in part, “Remember the 11th of September 2001.” The emails aimed the threat at “the very times and places” at which “The Interview” was to play in its early showings.
Once the hackers threatened physical violence, the film’s cancellation became almost inevitable, even though Sony had spent a day maintaining its plans for the release and premiere. Since the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in 2012, Cinemark had fought lawsuits with a defense that said the incident was not foreseeable — a stance that would have been virtually impossible with “The Interview.”
The film’s collapse stirred considerable animosity among Hollywood companies and players. Theater owners were angry that they had been boxed into leading the pullback. Executives at competing studios privately complained that Sony should have acted sooner or avoided making the film altogether.
And Sony employees and producers bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of Mr. Rogen and Mr. Goldberg.
The multiplex operators made their decision in the face of pressure from shopping malls, which worried that a terror threat could affect the end of holiday shopping. Similarly, studios that compete with Sony were scrambling behind the scenes to protect releases that include the latest “Hobbit” extravaganza and Disney’s “Into the Woods.”
Given the fact that every major film distributor and theater chain had made the decision to pull the film from their rotations, Sony’s decision was in some sense a foregone conclusion at this point. There may have been some independent theaters and smaller chains that still intended to run the film, although it was becoming less and less likely that this would be the case as the day went on and the large companies started pulling out of their deals one by one, and given this Sony really did not have a lot of options at this point. Nonetheless, regardless of the source of the hacking or the threats — whether it is North Korea itself, a group being paid by North Korea, or a group of hackers that have their own agenda using the controversy over this movie as an opportunity to stoke fear and show their own power to break into supposedly security computer systems — it strikes me that we’re setting a bad precedent here by giving into these threats. If all it takes to shut down content that someone doesn’t like is a hacking attack followed by terrorist threats, then what’s to stop another group from doing that about virtually any other movie or television program out there? If someone in the Middle East finds Beyonce’s music offensive and threatens to unleash terror attacks at the next concert, do we cancel all future concerts in response? Where do we draw the line? Even if this is a legitimate threat of some kind, giving in to it would only seem to guarantee that similar threats will be made in the future, and that a combination of hacking and terrorist threats will become the ‘new normal’ that we will all have to deal with by even further restricting our activities and our personal liberty. Asking Sony and the theater chains to expose themselves to the risk is asking a lot, of course, and I fully understand why they’ve made the choice that they have. At the same time, I wonder if they realize that this may just be the beginning of what they’ll have to deal with and that by giving in they are guaranteeing that it will happen again.
The biggest question overriding all of this, of course, is who might be behind the hacking attacks and the threats. The hacking attacks have claimed to be connected to the alleged insult to North Korea that the film represents, but Kim Zetter at Wired seems skeptical that North Korea is actually the source and presents a long argument that must be read in full to be understood since it defies being sufficiently excerpted, but concludes thusly:
This is likely a group of various actors who coalesce and disperse, as the Anonymous hackers did, based on their common interests. But even with that said, there is another possibility with regard to the Sony hack: that the studio’s networks weren’t invaded by a single group but by many, some with political interests at heart and others bent on extortion. Therefor, we can’t rule out the possibility that nation-state attackers were also in Sony’s network. An interesting scenario was recently posited by Deadline, suggesting that China may have initiated a breach at Sony during business negotiations with the studio last year, before handing off control to freelance hackers.
Notwithstanding Zetter’s theory, late reporting today is suggesting that Federal investigators are ready to report as early as tomorrow that they have determined that North Korea is indeed behind the hacking attacks against Sony. ABC News, for example, is reporting that a North Korean Army group is the primary suspect behind the attack:
Federal cyber-security sources close to the investigation have confirmed to ABC News that there is evidence to indicate the Sony intrusion was routed through a number of infected computers in various locations overseas, including computers in Singapore, Thailand, Italy, Bolivia, Poland and Cyprus.
The primary suspects are members of an elite North Korean cyber-security unit known as “Bureau 121,” the sources also confirmed today. But authorities have not ruled out that it could be an insider cooperating with some groups with a grudge against Sony, or an insider who helped the North Koreans.
However, the theory that the North Koreans are not involved and are just being used as cover is running far behind, one source said, because the tactics being used here are so “over the top.” Authorities have yet to see such a far-reaching and punishing hack — including the destruction of files, making public not only corporate but personal medical files, and now the threat of violence against theaters. The thinking is that even rivals or enemies of Sony would not go quite that far, sources said.
Law enforcement officials believe that group was also responsible for a malicious gaming app that infected thousands of smartphones in South Korea last fall, and an earlier attack on broadcasters and banks in that same country.
Some of the techniques and language used in the Sony hacking are similar to those used in these previous attacks in South Korea, sources said.
NBC News and CNN are reporting the same thing:
NBC News: US officials say the hacking attack on SONY originated outside North Korea, but on orders from the North Koreans
— Jesse Rodriguez (@JesseRodriguez) December 17, 2014
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) December 17, 2014
And The New York Times is reporting the North Korea link as well:
WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy, which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.
Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.
Officials said it was not clear how the White House would decide to respond to NorthKorea. Some within the Obama administration argue that the government of Mr. Kim must be directly confronted, but that raises the question of what consequences the administration would threaten — or how much of its evidence it could make public without revealing details of how the United States was able to penetrate North Korean computer networks to trace the source of the hacking.
Others argue that a direct confrontation with the North over the threats to Sony and moviegoers might result in escalation, and give North Korea the kind of confrontation it often covets. Japan, for which Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations underway for the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped years ago.
The sudden urgency inside the administration over the Sony issue came after a new threat was delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.” It continued: “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”
While intelligence officials have concluded that the cyberattack on Sony was both state sponsored and far more destructive than any seen before on American soil, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with an intimate knowledge of the company’s computer systems.
“This is of a different nature than past attacks,” one senior official said. A cyberattack that began by wiping out data on corporate computers — something that had previously been seen in attacks in South Korea and Saudi Arabia, but not the United States — has turned “into a threat to the safety of Americans” if the movie was shown. However, the official, echoing a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, said there was “no specific, credible threat information” that would suggest that any attack was imminent.
Assuming that this is accurate, it would certainly seem to enhance the seriousness of what, just w week ago, seemed like a hacking attack that was revealing embarrassing emails from a few Sony executives.