President Barack Obama’s declaration Sunday that the North Korean attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment was an act of “cyber vandalism” and not an act of war has far-reaching implications for the U.S. response to the crippling hack that led Sony to cancel the release of the comedy film “The Interview.” Not only was the president correct in his assessment of the incident, experts said, but characterizing the attack as “cyber vandalism” and not war minimizes the chances of escalation between the two countries.
The North Korean cyberattack wasn’t an act of war because no violence was inflicted and Americans' physical security wasn’t in danger by Sony having its computer systems attacked and emails leaked, national security experts said. Even the hackers’ threatening 9/11-style attacks if theaters played the movie didn’t constitute an act of war, regardless of whether they had that capability, the experts said.
“At least in the Western tradition ... war and acts of war have to involve violent acts that are designed to compel enemies to accept your will,” said Bill French, a policy analyst at the National Security Network, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C. “It’s certainly true that there was some threat of violence, but the threat of violence isn’t an act of war. If there was an act of violence, it would be an act of war.”
“Cyber vandalism” conjures up images of a hacker who takes down a website for fun or engages in online harassment. Obama’s use of the term Sunday on CNN was “intentional,” according to Trey Herr, senior research associate at the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University in D.C. Nuclear-armed North Korea has a history of attempting to provoke “a significant response through spectacular actions,” and Obama’s downplaying of the incident negates North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s strategy of provoking the U.S. or South Korea into an action that would justify a military response from North Korea, Herr said.
“What the White House would like to do is deter future activities like this,” Herr said. “They wouldn’t want it to become an open season on American companies.”
The hack against Sony resulted in several films and details of corporate finances being leaked online. It centered on "The Interview," which depicts Kim's assassination and had been scheduled to be released on Christmas Day; after threats were made against theaters scheduled to show the film, Sony canceled its release.
Obama has said he would react to the cyberattack with a “proportional response.” Most likely, this means the U.S. would launch a “counterinformation operation,” such as disabling or limiting North Korea’s access to the Internet. If the U.S. can pin down exactly who in North Korea was responsible for the attacks, the Justice Department will probably return indictments. That is what happened with a group of Chinese military hackers who attacked U.S. defense contractors from 2009 to 2013. Su Bin, the owner of a Chinese aviation technology company, allegedly worked with two unidentified hackers to target the computer systems of Boeing and other U.S. defense contractors and sell data to state-owned Chinese companies.
The U.S.’ official national cybersecurity strategy states that it is willing to engage in “all capabilities” in response to a cyberattack, including the possibility of escalating to using nuclear assets, meaning those options are technically on the table. But they are highly unlikely to be used, according to Herr.
“We’re probably not sending B-52s over Pyongyang,” he said.
Obama’s response will likely be “low in intensity,” French said, such as disrupting the capabilities of the specific organization within the North Korean military discovered to have undertaken the hacks against Sony. “I think he’s buying himself considerable freedom of action to have a restrained response,” French said.
Whatever the response is, the U.S. can’t assume that North Korea will view it as proportional. “That’s the complexity of cyberspace,” French said. “There is not a clear set of norms that align the perceptions of various actors as to what actions constitute what. So what may be perceived as an act of war or a criminal act or how severe a criminal act, it’s not clear that North Korean actors and American actors have the same sets of perceptions.”
Further complicating matters is that the Sony hack marks uncharted territory for cyberattacks. There has never been a case where a company was hacked and a country considered it an act of war, French said.
Some Republican leaders, however, have argued that North Korea is provoking war. One of Obama's major critics, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the hack an "act of war" in a Friday radio interview, according to CNN. He elaborated on his remarks Sunday on the network.
"The president does not understand that this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare," he said. "When you destroy economies, when you are able to impose censorship on the world and especially the United States of America, it's more than vandalism. It's a new form of warfare that we're involved in, and we need to react and react vigorously."
French said McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, should know better. "John McCain, as someone who fought in Vietnam, should know the difference between stealing someone's email and committing acts of violence," he said. "That's the difference between cyberespionage and warfare."