What do a cyber attack on a Hollywood movie studio and the cowardly murder of journalists in Paris have in common?
They are both threats to freedom of speech.
In both instances, the goal of the perpetrators was to intimidate people and limit freedom of expression.
One of the most troubling things about these recent events is that they demonstrate how a relatively small number of unscrupulous people can have widespread influence.
The recent debacle regarding the film “The Interview,” and whether or not Sony Pictures would release it in the wake of hackers’ threats, provides cause for concern on a variety of levels.
It seems like a bad idea to allow North Korea or any other nation, group, or individual to censor free speech in the US.
Giving them this kind of power is like skating on thin ice with heated blades. It portends bad things to come.
However, it would be prudent to be careful about making threats in response to cases like this.
This county has resorted to the use of military force for some questionable reasons in the past, and we have been slow to learn from our mistakes.
We need to know our enemy.
The world has changed since the days of the Cold War, when super powers watched each other warily while amassing huge armies bent on mutual destruction.
Perhaps one thing that kept the players from going over the brink in those days was the realization that no one would win if hostilities broke out.
The world was more clearly defined back then.
Today, the lines are blurred. Often, when it comes to cyber attacks, it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the perpetrators.
Even if they can be identified, it is not always possible to get at them.
We have seen this not only in the Sony case, in which vast amounts of private data has been hacked and released, but also in the countless other cyber attacks against businesses and government agencies.
In the Sony case, the group reportedly behind the attacks calls itself “The Guardians of Peace,” a moniker that is practically Orwellian in its absurdity.
But, whether the attackers are grubby little nation states led by unbalanced dictators, or groups of misfits living in a basement somewhere, they don’t lend themselves to traditional methods when it comes to national defense.
Most of us learned on the playground that threats only work if the person making the threat is willing to carry it out.
The reason there was some semblance of balance during the Cold War was that both sides had a lot to lose.
That’s not true today.
The battlefield today is not out in the open. It is in the shadowy depths of cyberspace, and threats come not from huge armies but from small groups of terrorists.
The only hope we have of curbing cyber terrorism is to completely redesign our defense systems.
So far, it appears businesses and government agencies are incapable of protecting the huge volumes of data they have collected.
Despite numerous breeches, there still doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency on the part of business or government to improve online security.
If any good is to emerge from the Sony situation, perhaps it will be that people start taking online security more seriously. Until that happens, private data and free speech will remain vulnerable.
Last week, a terrorist attack by masked gunmen on the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, left 12 people dead. Among them were the top editor, cartoonists, and police officers.
The attack in Paris occurred in the middle of the day. Three gunmen allegedly walked into the magazine office and murdered unarmed victims, reportedly in retaliation for material the magazine had published.
The danger in these cases and others like them is not only that those who are directly threatened will back away from publishing things in response to threats. There is also the secondary effect, which may prevent others from exercising free speech out of fear that they, too, could become targets.
We often hear people speak about freedom of speech in a casual way that implies it is an unassailable right.
The truth is, freedom of speech is precious and fragile. It is constantly under attack by forces outside and within our own country.
We may not care about movies, satirical cartoons, or even newspaper columns, but we can’t afford to take freedom of speech for granted unless we are prepared to lose it.