This holiday season has stood out a bit from others, being the first time, at least as far as I can recall, that cyber warfare and the fictional assassination of North Korea's Supreme Leader have featured so very prominently in news and personal discussions. The Sony Pictures release of The Interview — a comedy about a pair of gonzo news/entertainment upstarts, played by James Franco and Seth Rogen, who interview North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and attempt to assassinate him — has actually generated some interesting ideas about cybersecurity, information warfare, and a host of other issues.
I'm still trying to fit pieces together and I think it's going to be a while before all the dust settles. So far though, all this seems to point out some significant implications for wars and the way they're fought. Especially war's softer side: the will to fight.
Information and psychological warfare are two, and not necessarily the most important two, forms of non-kinetic conflict that will shape warfare in the next century. Both share a common attribute: they're waged publicly and openly, while being aimed at reducing an opponent's will to fight. They are distinct from another widely discussed non-kinetic form of conflict: cyber warfare.
Cyber warfare is a kind of super-evolved form of electronic warfare and signals intelligence and espionage all rolled into one. Not only are cyber attacks generally not a spectator sport, they're also typically geared to attack the capability to fight, rather than the will. This might involve direct infrastructure attacks, espionage, or jamming communications.
The division between these two modes has heretofore been pretty straightforward. Information warfare is public and acts on willingness to fight. Cyber warfare is covert and acts on the capability to wage war.
It's a bit like the difference between aircraft carriers and submarines and the way they are used to shape the regional military and diplomatic environment in peacetime. Aircraft carriers are great ways to carry out a big, public show of force and send a signal to other countries — a bit like information warfare. Submarines are hugely capable and are excellent intelligence-gathering tools, but don't have much visibility — kind of like cyber warfare.
The Sony hack is interesting because it's really the first large scale hybrid of these two forms. It's a cyber attack waged to achieve the objective of information warfare. And at least on this scale, that's really new and novel. It's the use of covert tools for a public attack, intended to shape public narrative.
Now to be absolutely fair, there's been a few instances of this kind of cyber-information warfare, such as Russian leaks of intercepted US State Department calls about Ukraine, which were released to sow discord between the US and EU. But these Sony hacks take it all to a whole new level. They're more public, they're aimed at a corporation and an entertainment product.
There will be more and weirder fallout going forward as this shakes itself out. Combining these forms creates an unresolved contradiction. Public efforts run directly counter to the deeply ingrained tendency of covert operators to keep quiet about sources and methods. Announcing to Sony and the world that there's some hacking going on is about as diametrically opposed to protecting sources and methods as you can possibly get.
Moreover, the debate about public content and controlling the narrative has been carried out in public. If they had grabbed Sony by their short hairs and quietly threatened them over the movie, it would have been one thing: blackmail. But public blackmail is pretty rare and doesn't have a lot of precedents; particularly when it's a case of a country blackmailing a company.
There may be some very subtle and sneaky advantages to going this way (but most of them will have to wait for another article). It has to mean something when two journalists with wildly different political outlooks — MSNBC host Touré and Fox News host Greta Van Sustern — both argue for the wisdom of self-censorship. Keep in mind this is coming from journalists: a profession of self-proclaimed free speech champions. Put another way, if discretion is the better part of valor, and cowardice is the better part of discretion, Touré and Van Sustern probably think they're brave to tell Sony that their best bet was to completely wuss out and shut up.
In terms of information warfare affecting the will to resist, the fact that an MSNBC and Fox News host both publicly advocated against self-expression and in favor of the North Korean position says something about the effectiveness of the alleged North Korean attack.
The strange ripples from this go beyond the shores of the US. The Sony Corporation — the Japanese parent company of the US-based Sony Pictures — has been pretty uneasy about The Interview from the get go, according to a report in the New York Times. That article details a huge amount of unprecedented back-and-forth between Sony and its US subsidiary over the summer, before the hacking started in earnest.
The concern is pretty natural. Between the occasional North Korean abduction of Japanese nationals and regular episodes of North Korean saber rattling, the Japanese are reasonably sensitive to the fact that North Korea sometimes feels the need to use what is known in diplomatic circles as the "batshit crazy" style of communication.
When the hack put The Interview in the spotlight, it also put Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the hot seat; he has to choose between backing his ally, the US, without causing neighboring North Korea to completely flip out.
Oddly enough, it means that if North Korean hackers had been able to suppress the release of the movie, it would have helped out Japan with a fair amount of geopolitical breathing room. Which just goes to show how the interface between public opinion, diplomacy, and information warfare can produce unexpected results. If information warfare represents a softer side of war, then perhaps the Sony hack suggests that diplomacy is war waged by other means.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan