The Cable

Obama Hammers Sony for Pulling ‘The Interview’

  This story has been updated. Hours after the FBI formally accused North Korea of carrying out a devastating cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, President Barack Obama publicly bashed the company for pulling a satirical movie that starred Seth Rogen and “James Flacco.” Of course, the president meant James Franco, Rogen’s co-star in The Interview, ...

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This story has been updated.

Hours after the FBI formally accused North Korea of carrying out a devastating cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, President Barack Obama publicly bashed the company for pulling a satirical movie that starred Seth Rogen and “James Flacco.”

Of course, the president meant James Franco, Rogen’s co-star in The Interview, not Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback. But the verbal misstep and his exasperated tone while making it underscored the president’s obvious disappointment with Sony’s decision to pull the movie after the nation’s largest cinema chains said they wouldn’t show it.

“I think they made a mistake,” Obama said this afternoon at his annual year-end press conference. “Imagine what [hackers] start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or a news report they don’t like.”

The president, who said the hack was a serious breach and called for new cyber legislation to provide order to what he called the digital “Wild West,” noted that sporting events like the Super Bowl and this year’s Boston Marathon have gone on despite terror concerns. He said Hollywood should be held to the same standard.

Filmmakers should not engage “in self censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities or someone whose sensibilities need to be offended,” Obama said. “I wish they wouldn’t have spoken to me first. I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern where you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.’”

In an interview on CNN Friday evening, Sony CEO Michael Lynton said Obama was “mistaken” in his criticism because the president failed to note that Sony doesn’t own movie theaters and couldn’t force companies to show the film on their screens.

“I think actually the unfortunate part is in this instance the president, the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened,” he told CNN. “We experienced the worst cyber attack in American history and persevered for three and a half weeks under enormous stress and enormous difficulty. All with the effort of trying to keep our business up and running and get the movie out to the public.”

Obama spoke a few hours after the FBI made its first formal cyber attack accusation against North Korea, marking a new front in the global war for government, personal and business information. It also is one of the first public battles of what until now has largely been a global cyberwar fought in the shadows.

In the past, there have been reports of Chinese hackers breaking into U.S. government computers and Russian hackers plundering the servers of American companies like Target. The North Korean attack is unique because the U.S. government is considering the attack on Sony — a private company with its own internal cyber security protections — an issue of national security. As the president indicated, nothing short of the freedom of speech in America is now at stake.

For weeks, there have been rumors that Pyongyang was behind the late November attacks that threatened employees, stole a script for the next James Bond film, leaked personal information of Sony employees, and ultimately led the studio to cancel the release of The Interview, a $44 million comedy that shows a fictional depiction of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who — spoiler alert — is gruesomely killed in the film. A group called Guardians of Peace claimed responsibility for the attack and North Korea has steadfastly denied a role in it. However, numerous reports this week indicated that officials in Washington believed North Korea was involved.

“As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. Government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions,” the FBI said in its statement Friday.

Ahead of today’s formal allegation, many in the tech community doubted North Korea, widely considered a second-tier cyberpower, was responsible for it. Some argued the hacker’s familiarity with Sony’s internal tech systems pointed to an inside job.

According to the FBI, the malware used in the attack had links to malware previously developed by “North Korean actors. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks,” the bureau’s statement read.

The FBI also found overlap between the Sony attack and other known North Korean attacks on the U.S. government. Finally, the attack had similarities to North Korean cyber attacks against South Korean media outlets and banks.

“North Korea’s attack on [Sony] reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States,” the bureau said. “Though the FBI has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyber intrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart.”

It remains to be seen if and how the United States will respond to create an effective deterrent to future cyberattacks of this nature. Some lawmakers have suggested financial sanctions, but it’s not known what form a counter-cyberattack would take. Obama said he would retaliate against North Korea, but refused to provide any details on how, when, or against what.

“We are working up a range of options,” Obama said today.

A statement from Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson after the FBI’s announcement said it was the responsibility of private companies, not the federal government, to improve protections against similar hacks.

“Every CEO should take this opportunity to assess their company’s cybersecurity,” Johnson said. “The Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies are here to help. We seek to raise the level of cybersecurity in both the private sector and civilian government, and provide timely information to protect all our systems against cyber threats.”

The cancellation of The Interview could cost Sony Pictures up to $200 million because the studio spent $80 million to make and market the film, and is expected to lose more than a hundred million because of the legal, technical, and public relations fallout from the hack. The company’s decision to cancel the movie has also touched off controversy in Hollywood, where some actors and directors are concerned that future movies could be canceled after similar breaches. They seem to have good reason to worry: on Thursday, New Regency said it would cease production of a new Steve Carell thriller set in North Korea. Carell later tweeted “sad day for creative expression,” using “#feareatsthe soul” as the hashtag.

Photo Credit: Mike Thurston/Getty Images

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