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Head to Head: Implications of the Sony Hack

The_Interview_2014_posterThe Interview, a new movie starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, has been getting a lot of buzz – but not for the right reasons. The premise of the comedy – that the two actors have been hired to assassinate Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea – did not sit well with the notoriously reclusive nation. In response, a group calling themselves the Guardians of Peace hacked Sony Pictures last month, crippling Sony’s computer systems and leaking nearly 38 million files, including emails, salary details, social security numbers and healthcare information for thousands of Sony employees and celebrities. The group also threatened a 9/11-type attack on theaters that showed the movie, causing Sony to cancel plans to release the film on Christmas Day.

U.S. authorities confirmed this week that North Korea was behind the attacks, leading many to wonder about the implications of this unprecedented cyber attack for national security, internet safety and the future of the film industry. Drexel experts in areas ranging from cybersecurity to popular culture and film production weighed in.

Does this go beyond the cyber attacks that have become common in recent years?

“The actions here are more in line of what terrorists do than what is done by the typical hackers or the hacktivist who marries hacking and social activism to impact policy or for political gain,” said cybersecurity expert Rob D’Ovidio, PhD, an associate professor of criminal justice in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Thus, I see this as more of a case of cyberterrorism than as a case of hacking/network intrusion. The motivation of the offenders is a direct threat to freedom of speech. The act has caused significant economic harm when you look at lost revenue from Sony pulling the movie due to the ensuing threats by the group responsible for the act has causing caused fear among the theater owners and movie executives (to the point where they think people would actually be harmed and that they think people would be fearful to go to the movies). “

“The actions of Sony and theater owners is likely to result in future attacks of a similar nature when people do not like our message being sent in movies,” he said. “The actions show that cyberterrorsism like this certainly achieves results.”

“This is certainly a test for the Obama administration in terms of how it responds to acts of cyberterrorism,” said D’Ovidio. “I think that cyberterrorism should be met with the same level of response as any other type of terrorism.”

Should a movie like this have been made in the first place?

“Yes, the movie should have been made,” said Ron Bishop, PhD, a professor and interim director of the Department of Communication in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Absolutely. Without question. Despite our collective chest-thumping, the U.S. does not live up to the copy in the free speech brochure we trot out whenever another country pulls a draconian stunt like this. Plenty is off-limits when it comes to entertainment, although we’ve come a long way since the days of the Hays Code. Although now all it takes is a fretting advertiser to have a news story pulled – and that doesn’t even count the self-censorship so many media professionals engage in.”

“The movie absolutely should not have been pulled – it does mean that in a symbolic way that the terrorists, or more precisely, the ability of certain people to gin up threats of terrorism, have won,” he said. “In the time since 9/11, our leaders, with the help of the media, have turned us into a nation of scaredy cats. America runs on demonization, after all.”

“Does this mean that every book, every movie, every news story, will have to be vetted so that an acceptable level of fear, or controversy, is achieved? America talks a great game when it comes to free speech, but it’s a wonder that we’re free to speak at all,” Bishop said.

How will this impact on the future of the film industry?

“My first thought is that this will catastrophically affect the movie industry going forward,” said Ian Abrams, an associate professor of screenwriting in Westphal College who’s had a long career as a producer, screenwriter and publicist for film and television. “Anybody who can make a credible-sounding threat is going to be able to impact production and distribution.”

“Sadly, this sort of thing has happened in the past. To cite three occasions: fearing government censorship or the intrusion of groups like the Legion of Decency, the studios caved and set up their own censorship apparatus in the early 1930s.  Fearing the loss of distribution rights in Germany, the studios caved and let Nazi government officials review and make ‘suggestions’ on films in development, also in the early 1930s.  And, in the late 1940s, fearing Congressional investigation into the politics of industry figures, the studios caved and instituted a blacklist that would last for more than a decade. The key words here are ‘fearing’ and ‘caved.'”

News media interested in speaking with these experts should contact Britt Faulstick at or 215-895-2617 or Alex McKechnie at or 215-895-2705.

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