Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The 'little guy' strikes back - via the Sony hack

By Tom Plate, Published The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2014

LIKE it or not, North Korea may be growing up, but not for the better. For our technological times are a'changing everything.

To get attention, Pyongyang would always throw its rattle out of the cage like a colicky baby. A missile launch (but who knows where it would land?), a nuclear-laced harangue (are they serious?), a gunboat engagement (well, yes…), whatever.

Not this time, we are told.

In its latest angry shout-out, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea looks to be emerging as something of a computer wonk, the obnoxious teen crashing and trashing a Hollywood movie studio's Christmas Day launch-party plans, embarrassing movie executives by hacking into and spamming out their private e-mail messages, and threatening to return like the evil Freddie Krueger if the movie (The Interview, with James Franco and Seth Rogan) about a mock assassination of their leader ever sees the light of day, not to mention the dark of a movie theatre.

The plot thickens: Instead of standing up to Freddie like any normal Hollywood hero, Sony Pictures Entertainment, a mega-studio in Los Angeles, though accounting for but 10 per cent 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? The studio has put the blame on frightened distributors and theatre chains allegedly scared off by the uncertainty.

It gets better: President 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 licence in grave peril.

Plot point: At the same time, the Hollywood hack attack is laid by the FBI at the feet of Pyongyang, perhaps in cahoots with some unseen network of hacker hitmen, presumably in China, through which North Korea's Internet traffic flows.

For its part, North Korea denies everything. It even insists on some sort of "joint" probe, whatever that could mean. Certainly, further investigation will be needed before this case (the evidence now based on "malicious malware" fingerprints) goes to the global jury of public opinion - or the United Nations Security Council.

But one way or the other, the point has been made: Internet hacker technology gives the little guy a weapon that can rattle the big guys to the core of their hard drives.

This kind of wonky warfare also adds a new chapter of action-reaction to the global threat textbook. As with the generation of offensive missiles of the 1970s, the cyber-warfare challenge now is to develop powerfully effective malware defensive systems. In the early-stage evolution of the new threat paradigm, the hacking offence looks to be well ahead of the anti-hacking defence - as was exactly the case for a long time with the missile race.

Indeed, the enormous range and depth of Internet and cellphone surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) underscores that. Enemies as well as allies can't be sure their cyber life and phone calls aren't being secretly snooped on. President Obama did promise key partners like German Chancellor Angela Merkel that they have nothing to worry about. But how does he know for sure? Can an American president trust the skilled NSA nerds not to tap any more than he can trust Central Intelligence Agency field agents 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 if possessing the right malware and the right kind of nerds. 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. This is the case even when the little guy is as bad as, yes, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

For decades, the United States has strode across Asia with big feet. This is a fact of America's history, and in Asia people tend to have healthy memories. Americans 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?

The writer, a veteran columnist on Asia-Pacific affairs, is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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