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The Sony Pictures hack is a big deal. Here’s why.

A water tower looms over the Sony Pictures lot.
A water tower looms over the Sony Pictures lot.
Jerome Kundrotas /
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.
  1. Sony Pictures Entertainment suffered a massive security breach last week, in which hackers stole many terabytes of information. (The exact number is not known, but the hackers have claimed to have taken 100 TB of data.)
  2. Among the data taken were high-quality versions of several films, including the upcoming new version of Annie. These immediately began circulating on file-sharing sites.
  3. But the hack also included mountains of private data, including spreadsheets listing employee pay, Social Security numbers, and other private information.
  4. It's the second embarrassing hack for Sony in the last several years, as the company's online Playstation network was hacked in 2011, compromising personal and financial information for 25 million users.
  5. There's some possibility that the hackers are working with the North Korean government, which is furious with Sony for its upcoming film The Interview, a movie in which characters played by Seth Rogen and James Franco plan to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

How did all of this happen?

Sony first noticed the hack on November 24, and it responded to the incursion by immediately taking its system offline. (This early report by the Los Angeles Times does a good job of summarizing the early hours of the hack.) Employees weren't allowed to use their computers or check corporate email.

But the damage was already done. "We’ve obtained all your internal data including your secrets," the hackers, who refer to themselves as the Guardians of Peace, told the company, according to the Hollywood Reporter, before threatening to release that information unless its demands were met.

The first big consequence of the hack was the release of five Sony films to file-sharing networks. The films included Brad Pitt World War II vehicle Fury and the new version of the musical Annie. They also included several smaller films, like Still Alice, an intimate drama in which a character played by Julianne Moore suffers from early on-set Alzheimer's; Mr. Turner, a biopic of a famed painter; and To Write Love on Her Arms, about the founding of the charity of the same name.

Because Fury, the only one of these films with significant global appeal, is already in theaters, most box office analysts doubt the leak will have much impact on Sony's future releases.

Of far more gravity, however, are the thousands (and potentially millions) of documents hackers grabbed in their sweep. Around 40 gigabytes of this information was made available to select journalists on Monday, though much of it was encrypted. Buzzfeed was able to gain access to the data, and in a stunning report reveals that the information includes everything from salary information to a document that "outlines the breastfeeding diet of a senior executive."

Fusion used the information to calculate how many senior executives at Sony were women or people of color, and how much they were paid. Unsurprisingly, only one of the company's 17 executives being paid $1 million or more is a woman (studio co-head Amy Pascal), and Sony does not appear to have many non-white executives at that level.

Sony was back online as of early this week. But over the weekend, the company's executives were working on blackboards with chalk, according to The Wrap.

What do we know about the Guardians of Peace?

Very little!

Most journalists have been communicating with the GOP through a series of emails with a hacker identifying themselves as "lena." Vox sister site The Verge was the first to report communications with lena, saying that she claims the hackers want only "equality."

"Sony doesn't lock their doors, physically, so we worked with other staff with similar interests to get in," lena told The Verge. "Im sorry I can't say more, safety for our team is important [sic]."

What's this about a North Korea connection?

Both Re/code and the Wall Street Journal have pointed to possible connections between the Guardians of Peace and the North Korean government. The government is doing nothing to particularly dissuade these claims, telling the BBC that it should "Wait and see" to find out if it was responsible for the hack.

While this wouldn't be the first time North Korea has tried to take credit for something it didn't do, the country has been extraordinarily angry with Sony for the upcoming comedy The Interview, which is about two characters played by Seth Rogen and James Franco attempting to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea threatened Sony with "stern punishment" for the film on Friday. Sony executives have reportedly been re-editing the film, but claim to only be trying to make it funnier, not to appease North Korea.

Sony is also exploring the possibility that the hack was the work of a disgruntled former employee, according to The Wrap.

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