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Sony Hacking Attack, First a Nuisance, Swiftly Grew Into a Firestorm


LOS ANGELES — It was three prior days Thanksgiving, the start of a calm week for Sony Pictures. In any case Michael Lynton, the studio’s CEO, was regardless driving his Volkswagen GTI to Sony’s parcel at 6 a.m. Last anticipating corporate gatherings in Tokyo was on his motivation — in any event until his cellphone rang.
The studio’s CFO, David C. Hendler, was calling to tell his supervisor that Sony’s machine framework had been bargained in a hacking of obscure extents. To counteract furThe files seemed to fulfill every Hollywood gossip’s fantasy of what is said behind studio walls. Ms. Pascal was caught swapping racially insensitive jokes about President Obama’s presumed taste in African-American films. A top Sony producer, Scott Rudin, was discovered harshly criticizing Angelina Jolie. Mr. Lynton was revealed to be angling for a job at New York University.

Sony technicians privately started fighting back by moving to disrupt access to the data dumps. But the studio — apart from public apologies by Ms. Pascal — was largely silent on the disclosures.

In this, Mr. Lynton was perhaps betrayed by his own cool. While Ms. Pascal alternately wept and raged about the violation, Mr. Lynton assumed the more detached manner that had served him well in the publishing world. Mr. Lynton engaged in debates with lawyers who rendered conflicting opinions as to whether media outlets could in fact be stopped from trading in goods that were, after all, stolen.
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As a tough and seasoned executive in her own right, Ms. Pascal brought badly needed expression to emotions that many, perhaps most, Sony employees were feeling. Hoarse and humbled, she would eventually bring colleagues to her side with an address at an all-hands gathering on the Sony lot in which she said: “I’m so terribly sorry. All I can really do now is apologize and ask for your forgiveness.”

Until shortly before that, Mr. Lynton was hesitant about confronting media outlets with legal action. But the lawyer David Boies persuaded him there was a case to be made against free trade in information that was essentially stolen property. Mr. Boies on Dec. 14 began sending legal warnings to about 40 media outlets using the stolen data.

On Dec. 15, while rallying the troops at that gathering on the Sony lot, Mr. Lynton displayed flashes of anger and words of resolve — fighting spirit he had not shown publicly. “Some of the reporting on this situation has been truly outrageous, and is, quite frankly, disgusting,” he said. He urged employees not to read the anticipated next waves of emails, lest they turn on one another.

“I’m concerned, very concerned, that if people continue to read these emails, relationships will be damaged and hurt here at the studio,” he said.

A Crucial Threat

Shortly before 10 a.m. the next day, Dec. 16, the hackers made good on their promise of a “Christmas gift,” delivering thousands of Mr. Lynton’s emails to the posting sites. With the emails came a message that within minutes converted the hacking from corporate annoyance to national threat and fully jolted Sony from defense to offense.

“Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made,” it said. “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.” The message specifically cited “The Interview” and its planned opening.

Unfazed until then by Sony’s problems, exhibitors were instantly galvanized. “When you invoke 9/11, it’s a game changer,” said one theater executive.

Within hours, the National Association of Theater Owners convened a board meeting. Through the day, the exhibitors were briefed by Sony executives (though not by Mr. Lynton), who took a position that infuriated some owners: The studio would not cancel the film, but it would not quarrel with any theater that withdrew it because of security concerns.
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More on Sony and ‘The Interview’

Highlights from The Times’s coverage of the Sony Pictures Entertainment cyberattack.

“Sony basically punted,” said one theater executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality strictures. “Frankly,” the executive added, “it’s their movie, and their mess.”

Carmike Cinemas, one of the country’s four largest chains, was the first to withdraw. By the morning of Dec. 17, owners of about 80 percent of the country’s movie theaters — including Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, and Cinemark, already mired in legal fights over a 2012 theater shooting in Colorado — had pulled out.

At the same time, Mr. Lynton was advised by George Rose, who is in charge of human resources, that employees, for the first time since the initial attack, were showing signs of being deeply shaken by the possibility of violence to themselves and to the audience.
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That afternoon, Sony dropped “The Interview” from its schedule. In theory, the studio had gotten its way by putting the onus for cancellation on apprehensive theater owners.

But Sony at that moment made a critical error. In a hasty statement, in some cases delivered orally to reporters, the studio said it had “no further release plan” for “The Interview.” In fact, Mr. Lynton had been talking with Google’s chairman, Eric E. Schmidt, and others about an alternative online release — discussions that Google would later confirm publicly. But Sony’s statement was widely interpreted to mean Sony would shelve the movie for good, leaving an impression that it had caved to the hackers and a terrorist threat.

The reaction was swift and furious. Hollywood stars and free speech advocates sharply criticized the decision. On Friday, Dec. 19, President Obama used his final news briefing of the year to rebuke Sony for its handling of the North Korean threat: “We cannot have a dictator imposing censorship in the U.S.” For Mr. Lynton, the president’s remarks became a personal low point in the entire affair. He had expected support from Mr. Obama — of whom Mr. Lynton and his wife, Jamie, were early and ardent backers in 2007. “I would be fibbing to say I wasn’t disappointed,” Mr. Lynton told a CNN interviewer shortly afterward, understating his reaction. (Mr. Lynton had already agreed to the CNN interview and, in fact, watched the president’s news conference from a TV in a CNN lounge.)

“You know, the president and I haven’t spoken,” Mr. Lynton added. “I don’t know exactly whether he understands the sequence of events that led up to the movies’ not being shown in the movie theaters.”

The president’s decision to specifically — and harshly — criticize Sony was not mapped before the news conference, according to two senior American officials. But it was clear to Mr. Obama’s aides and national security staff that the president felt passionately about the issue and was eager to push for the film’s release, the officials said.

Shortly after the president spoke, shocked Sony executives spoke with senior members of the White House staff, asking whether they had known that the president was going to criticize them. The staff members told the executives that nothing had been planned.

In the end, the exchanges were constructive, as administration officials persuaded Sony that an expanded electronic attack was unlikely; that gave the studio cover to tell the distributors and theaters they were very likely safe to show the film. But Mr. Obama played no direct role in pushing deals that, in less than a week, would put “The Interview” online and in 331 smaller theaters.

Sony’s Christmas Eve triumph in announcing an immediate online release of “The Interview” was more fragile than it looked. While Google had been committed for a week, Microsoft and its Xbox service came aboard only late the night before.

In the end, the film may be seen by more viewers than if it had experienced an unimpeded, conventional release, particularly if, as studio executives suspect, those who paid for the film online were joined by friends and family. Sony said “The Interview” generated roughly $15 million in online sales and rentals during its first four days of availability.

Now, five weeks into the episode, Sony’s internal technology is still impaired. Executives estimate that a return to normal is at least five to seven weeks away.

But the studio’s spirit apparently remains intact. Showing up in the Sony cafeteria for lunch last week, as a theatrical release and the Google and Microsoft deals were announced, Mr. Lynton was surrounded by 30 to 40 employees who told him they were proud to be at Sony and to get the movie out.

“If we put our heads down and focus on our work, I honestly think we can recover from this in short order,” Mr. Lynton said on Sunday.ther harm, specialists were debating whether to take Sony Pictures altogether disconnected from the net.

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Not long after Mr. Lynton arrived at his office in the stately Thalberg building at Sony base camp in Culver City, Calif., it got to be clear that the circumstances was a great deal more critical. A portion of the studio’s 7,000 workers, touching base at work, turned on their machines to discover grotesque pictures of Mr. Lynton’s disjoined head. Sony close down all machine frameworks right away from there on, incorporating those in abroad work places, leaving the organization in the advanced dull ages: no voice message, no corporate email, no creation frameworks.

A modest bunch of old Blackberrys, placed in a storage space in the Thalberg storm cellar, were given to officials. Staff parts started to exchange instant messages utilizing quickly organized telephone trees. Sony’s as of now incline specialized staff started working day and night, with some individuals resting in organization business locales that got to be littered with stale pizza. Directors pulled out old machines that permitted them to cut physical payroll weighs in lieu of electronic immediate store.

Still, for a considerable length of time the scene was seen inside Sony as meager more than a huge irritation. In spite of the fact that Sony administrators were rapidly in contact with government law authorization authorities, the organization’s beginning center was on setting up jury-fixed frameworks to give it a chance to limp through what was required to be a couple of days or weeks of bother. The organization’s first explanation on the rupture, made on Nov. 24, appears to be practically ludicrously dull everything considered: “We are examining an I.t. matter.”

Truth be told, short of what after three weeks Sony would be the point of convergence of a worldwide firestorm over a becoming advanced assault on its corporate character and information; its motion picture “The Interview,” about the anecdotal death of the North Korean pioneer Kim Jong-un; and its own treatment of the following emergency.

Interviews with in excess of two dozen individuals included in the scene propose that Sony — moderate to understand the profundities of its danger — let its inconveniences develop by mounting an open safeguard just after gigantic harm had been carried out. The introductory choice to treat the assault as generally an interior matter reflected Hollywood propensity and the official sang-froid of Mr. Lynton, who can be cool practically to a flaw. As Mr. Lynton found, be that as it may, at a midpoint in the scene, this dilemma obliged a completely diverse methodology.

In truth, “There is no playbook for us to turn to,” Mr. Lynton told his staff at a certain point. Mr. Lynton and his associates belittled the fierceness of the communication between the news media and the programmers as the show unfolded in December. Programmers discharged the data to movement hungry sites, which distributed the most humiliating subtle elements, while Sony basically stayed openly quiet.

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Harmed by a stumble when it affirmed the undoing of a Christmas Day discharge for “The Interview,” Sony was thumped about by feedback by the White House, Hollywood stars and other people who blamed it for ceding to blackmailer dangers. The studio’s definitive accomplishment in demonstrating its film in face of a dread risk came after Mr. Lynton’s regular store fell all the more in accordance with the enthusiasm and coarseness of the studio’s co-administrator, Amy Pascal, who was undermined right on time in the assault by the exposure of humiliating individual messages.

The child of a German Jew who served in British insights amid World War II, Mr. Lynton, 54, had weathered past corporate emergencies, including an inherited bookkeeping embarrassment when he ran the Penguin distributed house and a late endeavor by the extremist financial specialist Daniel S. Loeb to constrain change at Sony. Anyway not one or the other of those scenes matched the multifaceted nature and surreal spots of the hacking, which at last turned into a test of national will, a submission on media conduct and a safeguard of free interpretation, even of the crudest sort.

“What it added up to was criminal coercion,” Mr. Lynton said in a meeting.

Climbing Sense of Urgency

By Dec. 1, a week after Sony found the rupture, a feeling of earnestness and unpleasantness had infiltrated the studio. More than twelve F.b.i. specialists were setting up shop on the Culver City parcel and in a different Sony office close to the Los Angeles airplane terminal called Corporate Pointe, helping Sony manage one of the most exceedingly terrible cyberattacks ever on an American organization.

Piles of records had been stolen, inward server farms had been wiped clean, and 75 percent of the servers had been decimated.

Everything and anything had been taken. Contracts. Compensation records. Film plan. Restorative records. Government disability numbers. Individual messages. Five whole films, including the yet-to-be-discharged “Annie.”

Later, it would get to be obvious through records stolen by the programmers and distributed online that Mr. Lynton and Ms. Pascal had been given a slanted cautioning. On Nov. 21, in an email marked by “God’s Apstls,” the studio was advised to pay cash for an unspecified reason by Nov. 24. On the off chance that the studio did not consent.

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