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Hackers and the rise of Digital Terrorism

December 18, 2014 12:57 IST

'Today it is a studio being held to ransom, tomorrow it will be a government, an entire nation. I don't see anyone laughing when that happens,' says Suparn Verma.

The poster for the film The Interview, which Sony Pictures has withdrawn from release.In recent months a very scary and bizarre series of hacks have started to unfold.

First, it was 'The Fappening' where 4chan hackers broke into iCloud and released extremely personal photographs and videos of American celebrities, actors, models, pop stars, athletes and socialites.

The content went viral and once it is out on the Internet there is no coming back.

No hacker was arrested. The women whose personal content were stolen are picking up their lives and trying to move on with no justice in sight.

A few weeks later 'The Snappening' struck in which 90 gb of pictures and videos of Snapchat users was leaked online. This time it was the everyday common citizen, who used the safety of a service, where personal pictures and videos get destroyed within seconds of viewing, were affected.

No arrests were made. The content is still out there.

A little over a week ago a nightmare began unfolding for Sony Pictures.

Supposedly 'North Korean' hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace first leaked five films, some unreleased on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD, like the Brad Pitt starrer Fury to others like Annie, Still Alice which have not even released theatrically.

Image: The poster for the film The Interview, which Sony Pictures has withdrawn from release.

This was in retaliation to Sony Pictures producing the Seth Rogen-James Franco starrer comedy The Interview in which they end up killing North Korean despot Kim Jong-un.

Then the hackers announced they had stolen confidential data going back a decade to as recent as a week ago from Sony servers, including passwords, social security numbers, scripts, personal correspondence... for lack of a better word let us just say they stripped Sony Pictures bare and leaked it online.

The media has been having a field day going over documents and leaking them as news.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Amy Pascal versus big-shot producer Scott Rudin versus Angelina Jolie versus Obama versus Will Smith's kids versus David Fincher versus Aaron Sorkin versus Leo DiCaprio versus Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton... the list is endless.

It all makes for great gossip.

Decades of carefully built relationships and reputations destroyed within moments for our reading pleasure in the name of news.

Then the hackers went a step ahead.

They threatened an attack on theatres screening The Interview.

Today Sony Pictures blinked and has put the film in cold storage.

The Interview will never be released on any medium.

The ramifications of what has just happened is going to cascade and haunt us for a long time to come.

Today a major Hollywood studio surrendered to the demand of hackers who threatened the lives of cinemagoers.

'America does not deal with terrorists' is a phrase we have often heard.

It is not the case today and it is precisely the message that has gone across the world to every terrorist, hacker, fundamentalist, bigot out there.

I have seen intolerance first hand as a journalist.

Deepa Mehta's shoot of Water , which was disrupted again and again in Varanasi by the Hindu Right claiming it would destroy the very fabric of Indian culture, till the shoot was shifted to Sri Lanka.

The same thing happened during the release of Deepa Mehta's Fire starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, the characters were called Radha and Sita. Effigies were burnt, protests were made. Indian culture was under threat.

McDonald's entry into India was vehemently opposed, the livelihood of local vendors threatened, Indian culture was going to get an American makeover.

Kissing and hand holding was banned, rock concerts were screened for lyrics, dress codes and crowd behaviour codes.

The films released. MNC food chains have opened. Indian culture is still standing, local vendors are still there, all those nameless groups protesting have since vanished.

Putting a gun to the head of anyone in the name of intolerance has never worked and never will.

But bending to the will of hackers opens a door.

Tomorrow no writer or filmmaker can think of making anything remotely political because of ramifications like the one that Sony Pictures suffered.

There are also those who say that American filmmakers should not have made The Interview because it offends a section of people.

I say that is a load of crap!

Satire, spoof or political films by their very nature are built upon political incorrectness.

It has been happening for years and we have all had a good time.

If this genre did not exist, we would not have a The Dictator or The Great Dictator, Hot Shots duex, Inglorious Bastards, VHS, Wag the Dog, In the Loop, Dr Strangelove, Death of the President, Bananas, Underground and countless others.

The climax of The Interview, which has an actor playing North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un being blown up had incensed the North Korean government.

Image: The climax of the film, The Interview, which has an actor playing North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un being blown up had incensed the North Korean government.

The very nature of art is to engage, to create a debate, to stir up feelings. You can agree or disagree with it, but you cannot hold a gun to someone's head to push your view.

Just look at a history of banned films across the world and their reasons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_banned_films

Suppressing the voice of an artist is sad enough, but the enormity of what has happened today is worse.

We live in a digital age.

Our world revolves around our mobile phones, laptops, ipads, each loaded with apps.

These apps contain extremely personal information right down to our very locations. Apple just launched Wallet for all your credit and debit cards to make payments digital.

Imagine being held hostage by a bunch of faceless people who control your entire life and make you slaves to their diktat.
That is exactly what is happening right now.

Today it is one film studio, tomorrow it could be every film studio being told what they can or cannot make.

News agencies covering these events with such glee would be next!

One expose about any despotic regime and the hackers would hold the lives of the journalists and their sources in their hands, simply by hacking their laptops and mobile phones.

What would they do then? Will rival publications publish this data in the guise of news? Or fear they would be next?

This dangerous precedent has just began and digital terrorism is only shown the tip of its ugly head.

Today it is a studio being held to ransom, tomorrow it will be a government, an entire nation.

I don't see anyone laughing when that happens.

Suparn Verma is a film director.

Suparn Verma