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Editorial: Beef up cybersecurity

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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In a usual year for Hollywood, big blockbusters make up the summer movie season, while on the other side of the calendar, comedies and family movies come to theaters around the holidays. But the ramifications of a cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment have made 2014 anything but a usual year.

The breach of Sony’s data made for an embarrassing week for the movie giant, whose parent company is based in Japan. Personal emails, petty vendettas, and celebrity badmouthing were all put on display. The culprits weren’t after just a very public airing of dirty laundry, however. They hoped to strong-arm the company into canceling The Interview, a movie about two American journalists who are recruited by the CIA to kill North Korean leader Kim Jung-un.

And in a twist that sounds ripped straight off the silver screen, they were successful. On Wednesday, Sony canceled the Christmas Day release of the film after the hackers left threats promising a “bitter fate” for those going to see the movie, adding, “Remember the 11 of September 2001.”

Though suspicions has arisen that the hackers, calling themselves the “Guardians of Peace” without a trace of irony, hailed from North Korea, those fears were confirmed when the New York Times reported that intelligence officials believe the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the cyber-attacks.

It’s a showcase of the incredible shift in the balance of power that the Internet has enabled. For rogue governments, this is a godsend. For a relatively low cost,  (compared with nuclear-weapon programs and building up militaries) these states can strike meaningful blows against Western targets. The web’s greatest strength, worldwide connectivity, is also its greatest weakness.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. The United States has long suspected China of conducting cyber-attacks, though whether the government is directly involved or merely offers tacit support isn’t quite clear. In October, security researchers unveiled a state-sponsored Chinese cyber-espionage group called Axiom. According to their report, Axiom aims to steal intelligence that could benefit Chinese interests, primarily through commercial hacking in order to steal trade secrets. 

But the potential impact of a cyber-attack goes well beyond canceling a movie or aggressive economic competition. Testifying in front of Congress in November, Adm. Michael Rogers, the head of the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command, contended that China and other nations had “the ability to launch a cyber attack that could shut down the entire U.S. power grid and other critical infrastructure.”

Citing vulnerable computer systems in power utilities, aviation networks, and financial companies, Rogers said cyber attacks have punched through these networks for the purpose of “reconnaissance.” That these groups now have this information available should startle us into change.

As far as repercussions go for these brazen attacks? They are few and far between. North Korea has been slapped with every sanction in the book, and it operates in its own closed, destitute system. It has so far proven difficult to find specific government ties in these cyber attacks. They are evidently funded well enough to cover their tracks.

The only recourse left for the U.S. is a stronger emphasis on cyber security. We must be careful in treading down this road; as in the war on terror, an overbearing surveillance apparatus could come hand in hand with beefing up our national defense. Yet the alternative, in which our safety is at whim to any rogue hacker group with an ax to grind, is too grim to comprehend. 


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