Why the Sony “Hack-mail” Saga was a Victory for Privacy

-- By ChrisWoller - 04 Jan 2015


For much of December, national news was dominated by coverage of the hack of Sony Pictures. The hack resulted in the release of hundreds of company documents, including e-mails between Sony executives, directors and actors, as well as financial documents and other strategic company information. The ostensible purpose of this hack was to blackmail Sony from releasing the feature film The Interview.

Many of the leaked e-mails contained politically incorrect, profane and immature comments. Over the course of several weeks, the hackers continued to release Sony documents, explaining that they would not cease until Sony cancelled the film’s release.

Eventually, the hackers’ rhetoric and threats increased to a point where the film’s release was, at least initially, cancelled. Due to strong national backlash to the cancellation, however, Sony eventually released the film online and to theatre chains that were willing to screen it.

The saga was an example of just how much power one can wield over another simply by threatening to expose an individual’s private communications. Perhaps more starkly, the saga was an example of how critical and unrelenting the public is willing to be to individuals based on comments expressed in confidence.

Hackers’ Strategy

There can be no doubt that the content of the Sony executives’ emails was embarrassing. Once the e-mails were made public, the executives were forced to apologize, their reputations were smeared, and there was especial public backlash towards some of the more politically-incorrect statements contained in the e-mails (statements about President Obama, for example).

The hackers’ strategy was essentially this: “We are going to continue to embarrass the hell out of you, and destroy your personal and public reputations by releasing your private e-mails, unless you acquiesce to our demands”. And it worked. Out of fear for what private communications would be made public next in the ever-escalating document leakage, Sony caved.

Reconciling the E-mail Backlash with the Cancellation Backlash

Of course, we know what happened next. Celebrities, pundits and average-Joes decried the cancellation as an act of cowardice, as an American company unacceptably bending to the will of a dictator. Some cried that free speech was being quashed. All in all, the general sentiment was that the cancellation of the film’s release went against the very American ethos that is constitutive of this nation, yadda yadda yadda.

What we have here, then, is a company between a rock and a hard place. Release the film? Face the unveiling of your most private and defamatory e-mail correspondences (and other company data), and suffer the resulting backlash. Cancel the film’s release? Be labeled un-American and a coward.

These two stances appear impossible of reconciliation. Thus, the matter becomes this: would the public rather the United States be a nation susceptible to hacking blackmail; a nation that bends whenever faced with a potential private document leak? Or would the public prefer the US to be a nation of somewhat shitty people who sometimes say questionable stuff in their private e-mail conversations? If the fallout after the initial cancellation of The Interview’s release is any indication, national pride and general American egoism demands that a company in this sort of situation stand up to the hacker-bullies, even in the face of further e-mail leakage.

Perhaps unfortunately, there have been no leaks subsequent to Sony’s decision to release the film, so for now this hypothesis remains untested. It does raise an intriguing question, however: if the hackers did release more e-mails as a result of Sony’s decision to release the film, would the public continue to comb over the leaked e-mail’s contents, with their torches and pitchforks on hand? Or would the public view the e-mails with a greater indifference, with perhaps slight annoyance or justifiable disappointment in the content, but with an understanding that the indifference is required, lest Sony-esque “hack-mail” become the new norm?

A “Big-Picture” Privacy Victory

The Sony hack illustrated, on a massive stage, the genuinely embarrassing magnitude of power our fear of having private correspondences exposed has over us. The high profile nature of this hack, in effect, shined a giant spotlight on this fact. This is why the hack was a victory for privacy. The incident illustrated that concepts such as privacy, and the ability to say, unencumbered, potentially offensive or politically incorrect things to one’s close acquaintances are indeed closely linked with what are generally regarded as traditional American values. The story became bigger than just what one executive said to another executive in an e-mail. The narrative became one of protecting key American values like freedom of speech, individualism, and the refusal to acquiesce to bullies.

The only way to avoid future scenarios like this, where companies or individuals are held hostage by hackers threatening the release of private e-mails, is for American society to decide, collectively, that, “we don’t give a shit what someone says in a private conversation”. Or, at the very least, “we aren’t going to murder you for the inappropriate joke you privately made to your close acquaintance”.

Any millennial who has grown up during the Facebook era has considered the possibility of posts from years earlier becoming public. Any student who uses g-chat or iMessages to communicate and joke with friends has imagined, with fear, what would happen if such communications were made public. Situations like the Sony hack may be relatively new, but have the potential to become the new normal. This would both have a private-discourse censuring effect, and add an “inoffensive and politically-correct background check” requirement for any future career significance.

It seems that the same sort of national pride and “freedom-from-censure” ethos that made the movie’s cancellation so disparaged mandates that Americans refuse to let the threat of communication leaks censure the way one speaks with one’s close associates. The Sony hack, combined with millennial “progressive indifference” towards online history, just might lead society in a direction that lets people say what, yet doesn’t crucify them if innocuous but potentially offensive comments are made public.