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Why did the Sony hackers spend so much time leaking celebrity gossip?

The water tower on the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot.
The water tower on the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After Sony pulled The Interview and the hackers declared victory, it left one question: If the hackers were so interested in getting release of The Interview canceled, then why hadn't they made that clear from the beginning? Or, put another way, why did they spend two weeks leaking embarrassing emails sent by celebrities, rather than shifting immediately to putting pressure on Sony over The Interview?

The answer here is pretty simple. The hackers either greatly misunderstood how the media works in the internet age, or they understood perfectly how it works. If we assume it's the latter, then what you realize, quickly, is that it wasn't that the hackers were interested in celebrity gossip. It's that the reporters were, and the hackers were smart enough to know it.

The way the hackers released their data was simple. Each day, the hackers sent reporters (including some from Vox) a message on Pastebin, a site that allows for anonymous communication of text information. The e-mails were short, misspelled, and some reporters (including, again, some from Vox) initially thought they were spam. But they weren't. The links were to "hidden" Pastes — Pastes that are only available with the direct link. Here is one I've made that has the list from our top 25 animated shows story from last week to give you an idea of what this looks like.

Pastebin is quick, dirty, and relatively anonymous. (It almost certainly tracks your IP when you post something on it, but that's easy enough for even low-level hackers to get around.) Interestingly enough, all of the posts the hackers made on Pastebin were removed on Wednesday — the same day Sony ultimately pulled release of The Interview. Who was responsible for the deletions is not known.

The hackers' Pastebin posts contained long lists of links, which led to torrent sites and direct downloads of the information. Follow one of these links, and you would end up downloading a large (at least one gigabyte, and usually more) data archive in .RAR format, which allowed for compression of lots and lots of data. That looked like this.

Once that data was uncompressed, you ended up with a giant list of files that often seemed to have little to do with each other, which looked like this.

What the hackers did was simply leak giant caches of data they thought would be of interest. Sometimes, they misfired and ended up leaking out a bunch of syndication documents that didn't really suggest anything nefarious on Sony's part. (If there was some smoking gun hidden in that release, no one I know has found it yet.)

This, honestly, is why the story took a little time to take off on many outlets — including this one. There was gigabyte after gigabyte of data to sift through, each consisting of vast numbers of documents.

When the story gained wings is when the hackers began leaking email inboxes. But this didn't result in reporters writing about The Interview (except in a few isolated cases).

It resulted instead in reporters writing about celebrity gossip, particularly after the emails of Amy Pascal, the head of Sony's Motion Pictures Group, were leaked. The email could easily be searched for keywords (say, "Steve Jobs" or "Barack Obama"), resulting in the bigger stories of the first week of the Sony hack story.

This is what I mean when I say the hackers either misunderstood American media priorities or understood them perfectly. If they had gone straight at The Interview, the media might have seen the hack for what it was: cyberterrorism meant to stifle a piece of politically controversial art. If that had happened, it's unlikely the press would have played along. We are usually sensitive to threats against what people can write or say.

But since The Interview wasn't the subject of the initial hacks, the press suddenly found itself with access to a ton of gossipy information that embarrassed, among others, the people who chose to make that movie in the first place. That raised fewer alarm bells for the media — reporting on industry gossip and embarrassing private conversations is a constant in the digital age — but it served the hackers' purposes just as well.

Then, when the pressure against Sony became unbearable, they unleashed their real demand, which was destroying The Interview entirely. And that worked, because they had been able to enlist the press to do so much damage to Sony before sending their final ransom note.

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