Publicly, President Barack Obama turned down the rhetorical heat against North Korea, which the US blamed last week for the hacking of Sony’s computer systems and prompting it to cancel the release of a film satirising the dictatorship.
“I don’t think it was an act of war, it was an act of cyber vandalism that was very costly, very expensive,” Mr Obama said in an interview shown on broadcaster CNN on Sunday.
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His attempt to put a more moderate interpretation on a rare, publicly identified cyber attack by a foreign government against a target in the US brought immediate condemnation from political opponents.
“The president does not understand that this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare,” said Arizona senator John McCain, who was also speaking in an interview on CNN. He added: “When you destroy economies, when you are able to impose censorship on the world, and especially the United States of America, it’s more than vandalism. It’s a new form of warfare.”
Press reports over the weekend suggested that the US was considering retaliation that could include mounting a retaliatory cyber attack of its own or imposing new sanctions on North Korea.
US officials have also approached China for help in blocking cyber attacks emanating from North Korea, which relied on Chinese networks to mount its assault on Sony.
“We have discussed this issue with the Chinese to share information, express our concerns about this attack and to ask for their co-operation,” a senior administration official said. “In our cyber security discussions, both China and the United States have expressed the view that conducting destructive attacks in cyber space is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behaviour.”
The US approach to China comes at a time when relations between the two countries are already strained over cyber security issues: Washington this year publicly indicted five Chinese officials it identified as playing a role in cyber attacks.
Denouncing the North Korean attack as a crime rather than an act of war seemed an appropriate response from Washington since American lives were not threatened by the hack itself, though there had been a follow-up threat against cinemas, said Corey Thomas, chief executive of Rapid 7, a cyber security firm. He added that the crime appeared to have gone beyond vandalism to include theft and extortion, after the release of confidential Sony emails and threats against theatres planning to show the film at the centre of the incident, The Interview.
When you destroy economies, when you are able to impose censorship on the world, and especially the United States of America, it’s more than vandalism. It’s a new form of warfare
– John McCain, senator for Arizona
Most definitions of cyber war are limited to attacks against a country’s essential infrastructure, such as utility grids and air traffic control systems, Mr Thomas said.
Mr Obama also kept up pressure on Sony over the weekend for cancelling the planned Christmas Day release of the film.
“If we set a precedent in which a dictator in another country can disrupt . . . a company’s distribution chains or its products, and as a consequence we start censoring ourselves, that’s a problem.”
A Sony executive had earlier shot back at Mr Obama’s public comments criticising the company.
“We have not given in and we have not backed down. We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie,” said Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment. He blamed Sony’s decision on an action by cinemas to cancel their screenings of the film, making the planned release impractical.
Speaking on CNN, however, Mr Obama suggested that Sony should have done more to make sure the film was seen.
“I was pretty sympathetic to the fact that they have business considerations that they got to make,” he said. “Had they talked to me directly about this decision, I might have called the cinema chains and distributors and asked them what the story was.”
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