TOM PLATE WRITES IN HIS SYNDICATED COLUMN – In its latest angry shout-out, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea looks to be emerging as something of a computer wonk, the teen crashing and trashing a Hollywood movie-studio’s Christmas Day launch-party plans, embarrassing its movie execs by hacking into and spamming out their private emails, and threatening to return like the evil Freddie Krueger if the movie (“The Interview”, with James Franco and Seth Rogen) about a mock assassination of their leader ever sees the light of day – not to mention the dark of a movie theater.
The plot thickens: Instead of standing up to Freddie like the normal Hollywood hero, Sony Pictures Entertainment, mega-studio here in Los Angeles, though accounting for but 10% of sales overall of the parent colossus in Tokyo, runs in the other direction – the shrieking coed scared out of her mind. Cowardly act or smart business? On Friday the studio puts the blame on frightened distributors and theater chains scared off by the turmoil and uncertainty.
It gets better: At the president’s end-of-the-year press conference (a minor Washington ritual) Barack Obama takes a sweeping Lincoln-esque view of Sony’s “mistake,” all but suggesting that its cowardice will put the American Republic’s vaunted freedom of speech and artistic license in grave peril. (Wow! Pyongyang must be so pleased….)
Plot point: At the same time, the Hollywood hack attack is officially laid at the feet of Pyongyang, perhaps – darkly suggest U.S. sources – in cahoots with some unseen network of hacker hit-men, allegedly based in China, or mayve based elsewhere (but then again, who really knows?), through which portals North Korea’s otherwise diminutive Internet traffic has to flow.
For its part, North Korea denies everything. It even insists on some sort of “joint” probe, whatever that could mean. In reply, some have suggested that China and U.S. get together to punish the offender. Personally, I like the idea of Beijing and Washington doing almost anything constructively together. But surely this is an idea that’s way too good to be true.
In any event, further investigation will be needed before this case (the evidence now based primarily on malware fingerprints) can go to the global jury of public opinion – or the UN Security Council. But one way or the other, the point has been made: Internet hacker technology gives the little guy a terrific weapon that can rattle the big guys to the core of their hard drives.
This wonky warfare also adds a new chapter of action-reaction to the global threat playbook. As with the generation of new offensive missiles of the 1970s, the new cyber-warfare challenge now is to develop effective malware defensive systems. But in this early-stage evolution of the new threat paradigm, the hacking offense looks to be well ahead of the anti-hacking defense – as was exactly the case for a long time with the missile race.
Indeed, the enormous range and depth of internet and cell phone surveillance by the United States’ National Security Agency underscores that. Enemies as well as allies can’t be sure their cyber life and phone calls aren’t being secretly snooped into and scooped up. President Obama did promise key partners like German Chancellor Merkel that they have nothing to worry about. But how does he know for sure? Can an American president trust skilled NSA nerds not to tap any more than he can trust Central Intelligence Agency field agents or associates not to torture under the pressure of some future ‘national-security’ crunch?
The internet has created a new world of uncertainty. Technology not only takes us to places we never knew existed but also can elevate the attack game of the little bullies that are able to field the right malware and the right kind of nerd programmers. Sure, the total amount of sympathy around the world for North Korea could probably fit in a four-year-old’s sock. But a little guy is a little guy even if he’s a bad guy. No one will say it, and few will want to admit it even to themselves; but the fact of the matter is that anytime the little guy shoves back at the giant, a tiny part of our soul simply can’t help but smile.
For decades the United States has strode across Asia with big feet. This is a fact of our history, and in Asia people tend to have healthy memories. We may imagine we are looking down on North Korea from a very high moral horse. But we need to compare our moral height more to that of a pony – and a pony whose tail a brat will always want to yank. This instinct is actually rather normal, don’t you think?
Professor Tom Plate’s next book will be ‘Did They Really Say That?’, based on interviews with political figures. An earlier version of this column was commissioned by the Straits Times of Singapore.