More than a hack assault on Sony

How serious is this? Threats follow the exposure of Sony secrets.

At the outset, the hacking of internal company records at Sony Pictures Entertainment and the release of the candid and sometimes snarky internal communications of company executives seemed relatively harmless. Embarrassing for the execs, titillating gossip for people who are obsessed by Hollywood celebrity.

"Leaked: The Nightmare Email Drama Behind Sony's Steve Jobs Disaster," screamed the headline on Gawker's story quoting from a quarrel between Sony Pictures executive Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin over who would direct a film about the late Apple founder. It seems mega-star Angelina Jolie was upset that Oscar-nominated David Fincher might direct that film instead of her Cleopatra biopic.

Rudin dismissing Jolie as "a minimally talented spoiled brat" whose project would be "a giant bomb," and Pascal warning Rudin, "Do not (deleted) threaten me." The two also made lame wisecracks speculating that President Barack Obama favors movies with black leads. In all, it was a combination of drama and comedy worthy of the big screen. Call it "Egg on My Face."

But the people at Sony are not entertained. They feel deeply violated — with good reason. These secrets came to light after anonymous hackers broke into their computer systems and stole a huge trove of documents and messages, as well as salaries and several actual movies. They proceeded to release it, including the Social Security numbers, bank records and medical information of Sony employees.

It's speculated that the hackers may be in the employ of the North Korean government, which vehemently denounced the studio's forthcoming film "The Interview," a fictional comedy about a clownish plot to assassinate dictator Kim Jong Un. But no one knows for sure.

The humor went out of the spectacle when the intruders sent a message to all Sony employees warning: "Not only you but your family will be in danger."Since then, threats have been directed at the New York premiere of "The Interview" on Thursday and at theaters that show the film. Actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, who star in the movie, have canceled media appearances.

Sony lawyer David Boies, a nationally known litigator, sent news organizations a letter warning of legal action if they make any use of the stolen information. Sony, he said, "does not consent to your possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading or making any use" of it.

As a legal matter, the company is on shaky ground. The news organizations didn't steal the information; they merely had access to it after it was stolen. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court gave broad license to news outlets to use even illegally intercepted communications if they involve matters of public concern.

Given that Sony is a major international corporation whose political action committee spent $337,000 on the 2014 elections, there's news value in its operations. Apparently it toned down "The Interview" to appease a rogue government. Fumed star Seth Rogen, "This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy."

As long as they steer clear of things like Social Security numbers and medical information, whose sensitive private nature outweighs any possible public curiosity, newspapers, TV networks and Internet sites can sift through the information and disseminate it based on what they think will be of value to their audiences.

What is legal, of course, is not the same as what is appropriate for publication, which is why mainstream news organizations have reported only a tiny fraction of what has been exposed. For the most part, they have been careful, with an eye to protecting the privacy of Sony employees and their own reputations.

The concern here isn't over what information has been repeated by the news media. The concern is whether this episode marks a genuine intimidation campaign. North Korea denies involvement.

The broader risk for Sony, the risk for every company and every individual, is the frighteningly common theft of sensitive digital information. This vulnerability gets exposed time after time, from the hacking of celebrity selfies to Target and Home Depot credit card data to Sony emails and personnel records.

Private companies and the U.S. government try to prevent such leaks, but the hackers seem to stay one step ahead. If you want to be sure what you say is kept in confidence, there's just not much guaranteed safety beyond speaking in a whisper, to yourself.

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