The Scary Truth About the Sony Hack

Even as U.S. officials appeared to confirm longstanding rumors that North Korea was behind the hack on Sony Entertainment and even subsequent terrorist threats against movie theaters showing its new film The Interview, pundits have argued whether the action constitutes an act of war or not, and how America should respond if at all.

The question is more profound than it at first seems. Those who dismiss this incident as an overblown kerfuffle over a low-brow Hollywood comedy mistake the seriousness of the precedent being set. If North Korea was indeed behind both the hack itself and the terrorist threats, it will mean that a nation-state has taken an action against a multinational corporation that would certainly be deemed an act of war if it were perpetrated against another nation-state. That sovereign nation will also have engaged in terroristic threats not just against a single enemy nation, but against all private companies anywhere in the world that sell a specific creative work produced by Sony, with chilling implications on free speech for people of all nationalities around the world.

It's an unprecedented situation, but one that will become increasingly common as the world grows more connected digitally, as multinational corporations continue to grow in power over nation-states, and as actions in any one corner of the globe have increasingly strong reverberations everywhere. Cyberattacks themselves are not new: the United States launched arguably the first major cyberattack with the Stuxnet virus, which was simply a new, digital version of the sort of sabotage that sovereign nations have commited against one another for centuries--and it can easily be argued that the United States had moral and legal legitimacy in hobbling Iran's nuclear program. Still, the escape of the Stuxnet virus and the economic damage it caused worldwide demonstrates again how digital conflicts between two parties can have disastrous implications globally. The alleged North Korean hack on Sony only increases the stakes.

How concerned should we be over this latest incident? Certainly, the world did not trivialize the threats made by the government of Iran against Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses. That The Interview is perhaps not of the same caliber of art is a matter of taste: ethically, the world's reaction should be same. Moreover, the perpetrators did not only threaten violence in an attempt to quell free speech--they also exposed the private information of thousands of Sony employees, including social security numbers and other sensitive information, in an attack that will likely cause hundreds of millions of dollars in economic damage.

Even so, many people will find the idea of rattling sabers over a Seth Rogen comedy to be absurd on its face. But consider a similar scenario with slightly higher stakes: a hacker group sponsored with plausible deniability by a former Soviet republic hacks the satellite of a private Russian corporate cell phone company, and threatens to collide it with a private French corporation's communications satellite, to get revenge on a Putin crony oligarch. If the satellites collide, it would create such a mess of space junk that it would seriously threaten global communications and GPS systems dependent on other satellites in orbit. Would that be an act of war? Against whom? It would a global threat, but the theoretical hack would be on a private Russian corporation. What level of responsibility would the government of the former Soviet republic have? How would NATO deal with it? How would Russia and China deal with it? Right now the United States official policy is that we would literally threaten the hypothetical offending nation-state with a nuclear attack in response. If that sounds like overreach, it's worth considering what the official response should be, not only from the United States but also the rest of the world. The North Korean case isn't actually that different from the above scenario--only a matter of degree, not of kind. 

The global community must have an institutionalized way of dealing with this sort of situation that is both credible and effective. The limitations of our existing sovereignty-based legal structures have already been laid bare for years by the international "War on Terror." The United States has asserted that because Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups do not fight under a sovereign banner, they don't qualify for protection under the Geneva Convention and other international codes of conduct. Petty dictatorships have used the American example to justify a variety of horrors in the name of "fighting terror." But despite over a decade of legal wrangling and disagreements, there is still no accepted international protocol for dealing with non-state combatants. There is even less international protocol for nation-states that commit acts of war against multinational corporations with global implications for digital and free speech rights.

Ultimately, no individual nation-state or alliances alone can cope with these disturbing new geopolitical realities. Terrorism is not the only issue for which 20th century Westphalian structures are failing. Climate change is a clear and present danger to human civilization itself--but sovereign nations appear unable to muster the political will to take the necessary steps to combat it, either due to corruption from corporate fossil-fuel interests or fears that other nations might not keep up their end of the sustainability bargain. Rising wealth and income inequality is also a global phenomenon that developed democracies seem increasingly unable to keep in check regardless of their social safety nets or progressive tax structures due to the power of global wealth mobility that allows rich individuals and corporations to play nations off one another in search of tax advantages. The wealth mobility problem is so great that Thomas Piketty in his groundbreaking work Capital in the Twenty-First Century advocated for the seemingly radical step of a global wealth tax to prevent international cherry-picking by the jet-setting elite. Other global challenges also abound, including mass extinction crises, nuclear proliferation, water shortages, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and even eventual potential threats to the concept of employment itself due to artificial intelligence, 3D printing and mechanization of production. The convergence of all these issues points to the need for a much more potent international organization capable of dealing with global crises that fall beyond the reach or power of any one nation-state to rectify.

Obviously, that seems somewhat far-fetched given the comparative ineffectiveness of the United Nations. But history suggests that human beings do eventually adapt their political structures to meet the challenges of their day, and invent new ones if necessary. Civilization collapse is the only alternative. Our legal and economic systems are straining under the weight of outdated assumptions about power and the entities that wield it. International corporations now fight in the same weight class as sovereign nations, small non-state actors can deliver punches that can bring both of them to their knees, fights between competitors now invariably spill out of the ring and threaten everyone in the arena, and global challenges make the idea of pitting two combatants against one another almost an archaic sport.

Most of our non-dystopian science fiction about the future of our planet assumes some sort of supranational global federation, loosely based or otherwise. It only makes sense as the next step on the path of human political complexification, particularly once mankind begins to colonize other worlds.

Recent events show that it may be that for our own survival's sake, we may need to advance toward that reality faster than some had thought. When the history is finally written, children could one day learn that the world's reaction to North Korea's seemingly silly threat against the creators of an innocuous comedy helped precipitate significant advances in how we think about international law and political organization.


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