HBO’s Tough Weekend: Cabler Battles Hack While Facing Social Media Campaign

HBO Game of Thrones Hack
Courtesy of HBO

Sunday is supposed to be the day HBO execs enjoy the fruits of their labor, especially with the network’s flagship show “Game of Thrones” on the air. But in a George R.R. Martin-worthy plot twist, this weekend almost everything went wrong for the cabler.

While “Thrones”’ dragons were airborne, accusations of racism and revisionism against the network were bubbling up on Twitter. #OscarsSoWhite activist April Reign had launched a social media campaign against “Confederate,” the new drama from “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, and the hashtag #NoConfederate started trending on Twitter during the broadcast of “Game of Thrones.”

News of “Confederate,” which takes place in an alternate present in which the South has seceded from the United States and the institution of slavery thrives, has been met with outrage on social media ever since it was first announced in mid-July. Many expressed concern that the series would be racially insensitive and cause social harm.

The network already tried to quash the controversy last week. On Wednesday, programming president Casey Bloys appeared at the Television Critics Association press tour, pushing back at the criticism and blaming HBO’s handling of the announcement — not the programming decision itself — for the backlash.

“Our mistake — HBO’s mistake, not the producers’ — was the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release. That was misguided on our part,” Bloys said.

HBO then responded to Sunday night’s social media uproar with a follow-up statement: “We have great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around ‘Confederate.’ We have faith that Nichelle, Dan, David and Malcolm will approach the subject with care and sensitivity. The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.”

But if HBO’s execs had thought that things couldn’t get any worse, they clearly had forgotten about Littlefinger. No, not Lord Petyr Baelish, one of “Game of Thrones”’ shadiest characters, but a hacker adopting Baelish’s nickname as his nom de guerre. The hacker contacted a number of publications Saturday via email, claiming in broken English that his group had “successfully penetrated a huge company” and that leaks of “precious stuff” would follow.

Late Sunday night, it became clear that the company in question was in fact HBO, and that the intruders were able to obtain unreleased episodes of at least two shows, “Ballers” and “Room 104.” The network has since confirmed the hack, admitting that it “resulted in the compromise of proprietary information.” It declined to comment on reports that a script for an upcoming episode of “Thrones” was among the loot.

As of now, no one knows who the hackers are, or what else they got their hands on. “The greatest leak of cyber space era is happening,” the group boasted in a second email sent to reporters. It also claimed that it was able to gain access to HBO’s internal network and employee emails, stealing a total of 1.5 terabytes of data.

An intrusion of that magnitude could have major consequences for HBO that go far beyond a handful of episodes. When hackers attacked Sony Pictures in 2014, they leaked tens of thousands of internal, sensitive and at times embarrassing emails. The incident not only forced the company to pay up to $8 million to employees who had found their social security numbers and other personal information published online, but also contributed to the ouster of Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal.

So it’s no wonder that the security incident was followed by a war of words. “HBO is falling,” declared the hackers dramatically.

HBO CEO and chairman Richard Plepler on the other hand tried to rally the troops in an email to employees: “As has been the case with any challenge we have ever faced, I have absolutely no doubt that we will navigate our way through this successfully.”