The mysterious Sony Pictures hackers threatened violence for the first time on Tuesday, possibly breaking a new set of U.S. laws.
Before Tuesday, the hacking entity known as Guardians of Peace, or GOP, had released gigabytes of information and wrecked some of Sony’s computer systems. But the latest message warns of attacks on any theater showing The Interview, a Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy to be released by Sony on Dec. 25, in which the actors play undercover assassins trying to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed,” the message says, in the garbled English typical of the group’s communications. “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”
A Department of Homeland Security official told Mashable that there is “no credible intelligence” showing a threat against American movie theaters at this time.
But the threat alone might have violated American laws, according to cyberlaw experts. Hacking and releasing private information are unlawful under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, while online threats fall under the “true threat” doctrine, which holds that such threats are not protected by the First Amendment.
A threat can go from unsavory to unlawful if someone is threatening a specific place or person, and if a “reasonable person” would feel unsafe. And given that the Department of Homeland Security has said there’s no actual evidence of a plot against cinemas, it’s hard to say whether a reasonable person should be afraid to go watch Rogen and Franco in theaters.
“Many types of threats to cause physical violence fit into that awkward gray area,” Eric Goldman, an Internet law professor at Santa Clara University, told Mashable. “Until we actually see people with guns or bombs, a lot of it is hard to distinguish from idle chatter.”
Still, he said that this threat would probably qualify as a crime under U.S. law, in part because the group has followed through on past threats to release Sony’s information. Out of fears for their safety, Franco and Rogen have canceled public appearances to promote the movie.
Of course, much depends on who is behind the hack. The FBI is investigating, but the bureau hasn’t offered many details. North Korean hackers, or hackers who sympathize with the country are suspected, but there’s no hard evidence to support that. The GOP clearly detests The Interview, though.
If the FBI does identify the culprit(s), prosecution could hinge on the nationality of the offender(s). The U.S. has extradition agreements with some countries, but by no means all of them. If the hackers do turn out to be North Korean, there would be little chance of the FBI putting them in handcuffs.
Goldman believes the U.S. government will “use any means in its power” to make the culprit “pay” should they ever be identified — given how damaging the hack was to the economic interests of a major U.S. company. But for now, the bottom line is that the case falls in a lot of legal gray areas. If the GOP’s origin is ever identified, some things might clear up. But for now, details are hazy.
“There’s so many different ways this one could play out,” said Christopher Bavitz, managing director at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard University.
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