In last night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama briefly reiterated the point that Congress has an obligation to pass some sort of legislation that would enable cybersecurity to protect “our networks”, our intellectual property and “our kids.” The proposal appears to be a reiteration that companies share more information with the government in real time about hacks they are suffering. Yet, there is something a bit odd about the President Obama’s cybersecurity call to arms: the Sony hack.
The public attention given over to the Sony hack, from the embarrassing emails about movie stars, to the almost immediate claims from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that the attack came from North Korea, to the handwringing over what kind of “proportional” response to launch against the Kim regime, we have watched the cybersecurity soap opera unfold. In what appears as the finale, we now have reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) watched the attack unfold, and that it was really the NSA’s evidence and not that of the FBI that supported President Obama’s certainty that North Korea, and not some disgruntled Sony employee, was behind the attack. Where does this leave us with the SOTU?
First, if we believe that the NSA watched the Sony attack unfold—and did not warn Sony—then no amount of information sharing from Sony would have mattered. Sony was de facto sharing information with the government whether they permitted it or not. This raises concerns about the extent to which monitoring foreign attacks violates the privacy rights of individuals and corporations. Was the NSA watching traffic, or was it inside Sony networks too?
Second, the NSA did not stop the attack from happening. Rather, it and the Obama administration let the political drama unfold, and took the opportunity to issue a “proportionate” response through targeted sanctions against some of the ruling North Korean elite. The sanctions are merely additions to already sanctioned agencies and individuals, and so functionally, they are little more than show. The only sense that I can make of this is that the administration desired to signal publicly to the Kim regime and all other potential cyber attackers that the US will respond to attacks in some manner. This supports Erik Gartzke’s argument that states do not require 100% certainty about who launched an attack to retaliate. If states punish the “right” actor, then all the better, if they do not, then they still send a deterrent signal to those watching. However, if this is so, it is immediately apparent that Sony was scarified to the cyber-foreign-policy gods, and there was a different cost-benefit calculation going on in the White House.
Finally, let’s get back to the Sony hack and the SOTU address. If the US was taking the Sony hack as an opportunity in deterrence, then this means that it allowed Sony to suffer a series of attacks and did nothing to protect them. If this is the case, then the notion that we need more information sharing with the government may be false. What the government wants is really more permission, more consent, from the companies it is already watching. Protecting the citizens and corporations of the US requires a delicate balance between privacy and security. However, attempting to corrupt ways of maintaining security, such as outlawing encryption only makes citizens and corporations more unsafe and insecure. If the US government really wants to protect the “kids” from cyber criminals, then they should equip those kids with the strongest encryption there is, and teach good cyber practices.