WikiLeaks’ decision to publish tens of thousands of hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment documents and emails marks a wider focus for Julian Assange’s cyber organization, which is now expanding its publishing activities well beyond the global military-industrial complex and governmental bodies.
On Thursday morning, WikiLeaks trumpeted the news that it has created a searchable archive of Sony Pictures documents and emails that were initially released last November in a cyber attack that the FBI said was directed by North Korea. The move is likely to spur attempted legal action against the organization, although experts said Sony’s options are limited by the lack of an identifiable central hub of operations for WikiLeaks, headed by Assange, a shadowy, controversial figure who has so far evaded litigation or prosecution connected to the org’s activities.
In a lengthy statement, WikiLeaks sought to rationalize the SPE disclosure by citing Sony’s connection to public policy matters through its membership in the MPAA, through CEO Michael Lynton’s ties to the Obama administration and RAND Corp. and through the political fundraising activities of employees. But by any measure, the disclosure of Sony Pictures documents is far removed from the sectors that have been the focus of WikiLeaks document dumps to date.
Floyd Abrams, the renowned First Amendment attorney who represented the New York Times in the battle over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, said WikiLeaks faces clear liability on copyright and privacy grounds, both from Sony and individuals affected by the disclosures. But he emphasized that the fact that WikiLeaks is “shrouded in secrecy” makes it virtually impossible for Sony to pursue action. He noted that a federal grand jury in Virginia has been probing Assange’s activities for some time but has yet to issue an indictment to what has proven to be a moving target.
“The biggest problem for Sony is finding someone or something to sue,” Abrams told Variety.
The fact that material contains sensitive information ranging from email addresses and phone numbers of movie stars to bank accounts and health records of employees would help a plaintiff make the case that the disclosure comes with tangible damages.
“This sweeps in a great deal of information not in any theory relevant to public debate on public issues,” said Abrams, a partner in the firm of Cahill Gordon and Reindel. “The revelation of personal information can be a very real source of harm.”
The SPE archive that went live on Wednesday includes an easy to use key-word and Boolean search function for combing through the 30,287 documents and 173,132 emails. The material ranges from highly proprietary corporate information — the nitty gritty on talent deal points, TV license fees, profit participation splits and earnings of various SPE units — to highly personal email exchanges and sensitive, security-compromising employee data.
After suffering through the trauma last winter of the initial hack, many Sony Pictures staffers were in shock on Thursday that Social Security numbers and other information could once again be easily found online.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson would not comment when asked about the impact of the disclosure of sensitive personal information for SPE’s 6,000 employees worldwide. Hrafnsson, who said he was speaking from Reykjavik, Iceland, emphasized that the material had already been widely distributed last winter by the hacker group that billed itself as “#GOP.” The documents were distributed to numerous file-sharing sites online, but had mostly been removed by mid-January.
Hrafnsson said WikiLeaks has divulged documents from private companies in the past, citing Switzerland’s Bank Julius Baer, German tech/military equipment manufacturer FinFisher and Dutch oil trader Trafigura Beheer. Still, those firms had a much clearer connection to public policy and public interest concerns than a Hollywood studio. The FBI has said it believes SPE was targeted by hackers working at the behest of North Korea in retaliation for the studio’s Seth Rogen-James Franco feature comedy “The Interview,” which revolved around a plot to assassinate the state’s leader Kim Jong Un.
“This information is of historical importance and should be in the public domain,” Hrafnsson said. “This gives important insight into the inner-workings of this very powerful corporation.”
Hrafnsson would not comment on how long WikiLeaks had been working on assembling the Sony documents or if anyone from the org had been in touch with the original hackers.
“We never disclose our relations with sources,” he said. Nor would he comment on whether WikiLeaks was in the hunt for information on other media and entertainment congloms.
Sony Pictures called the move “a malicious criminal act” and condemned the org for trafficking in stolen information.
Abrams said there are serious questions about how the current climate of massive document leaks at the hands of renegade operatives such as WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden — whose leaks to news orgs disclosed the scope of the federal government’s domestic surveillance programs — will impact the legal climate for First Amendment cases.
The anxiousness about governments — and now possibly private businesses — being under cyber-attack may push judges to take a harder line on deciding free-speech cases. It’s a much different world than the 1970s, when Abrams successfully argued that the New York Times’ decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers was in the public interest because of the lives at stake in Vietnam and elsewhere.
“There’s no doubt that the next time a court takes a look at a case involving a major breach of security regulations, even if WikiLeaks isn’t involved, the impact of these (mass leak) activities will be argued by either side and the courts may take it into account,” Abrams said.