Cyberbullying is working, for now

This is the lousy Kim Jong Un death scene from The Interview that apparently caused Sony to cancel release of the film. A second film release, Team America: World Police, has also been cancelled. Kim Jong Un is now deciding which movies Americans can see.

The North Koreans have not been shy about making and distributing their own movies showing destruction in the US, including a nuclear attack:

These are folks who can dish it out but can’t take it. I know what we called them in grade school. The bullying is working for now.

But it is likely to draw some fire. President Obama is said to be looking for a “proportional” response. I suppose the leaking of the death scene may even be part of that, though it need not be. It is inevitable that the entire film, bad though it is rumored to be, will appear online in due course. Cybercommand need do nothing to ensure that.

This seemingly silly incident nevertheless has serious implications:

  • Cybertheft of the sort that enabled the North Koreans to embarrass Sony has a very low entry price. A few good hackers and computers plus a decent internet connection suffice.
  • It is fairly easy to hide your identity and geographic location when stealing from others’ computers, though the North Koreans seem not to have done a thorough job doing that.
  • Threats to attack movie theaters or other public venues are easy to make and hard to disprove or defend against. A single smoke bomb in a theater showing the movie would likely make most of us stay home, never mind a deadly attack.
  • The North Koreans are likely to conclude from this incident that cybertheft and intimidation work well against their much more powerful antagonists in the US.
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as other cyber-capable enemies will likely conclude the same thing.

Our economy is heavily dependent on the internet. On rare occasions I have been separated from both computer and cell phone (neither is allowed in some of the places where I teach). Those days my productivity is cut sharply–it takes me several additional days to catch up. Surely Sony employees are suffering something similar at the moment, as the company tries to figure out how to stop the continuing theft of its emails. The day this happens to the Federal government, the Federal Reserve, the New York Stock Exchange or other more vital institutions our GNP is going to sink like a stone. The same is true for most countries in the world today.

North Korea, Cuba and other countries that have kept the internet at bay are not vulnerable in the same way.  Cyber warfare between advanced economies would be very destructive, but there is also inherent deterrence: knowing our own vulnerabilities, we would have to think twice before launching a cyberattack on Russia, for example. Cyber is likely to be more useful to “assymetric” adversaries who don’t use the internet as much as we do.

I’m sure there are better ways to defend against cyberbullies than what we are doing today. But for now, they have the advantage.

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