In my 20+ years in software, I’ve seen plenty of changes. Exponential growth in computing power combined with maturation of tools, techniques, and frameworks has driven an inexorable march forward. Most of these changes take the form of incremental improvements and industry trends. Even though change is rapid compared to a lot of fields, it remains linear and gradual. You might already be reading articles that look back at things we’ve seen in 2014 or look forward to trends expected for the coming year — a byproduct of this sort of change is that it’s most visible when viewed over a period of time.
But every once in a while, there are quantum events that redefine the landscape of technology — transcending technology, in fact, to become part of our popular dialog. The introduction of Windows 95, for instance, or the announcement of the first iPhone. There are a handful of these events over the years where our landscape changed overnight.
Today was one of those days.
No i-device was announced today, though. No new software empowered millions of users to be able to accomplish something they couldn’t have dreamed of yesterday. No, today, we saw an announcement from the FBI: For the first time, a case of truly harmful cyber-terrorism has been linked to a nation.
I’m talking about Sony, of course, and the hacking incident we’ve all been watching for the last few weeks. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the incident began with a massive hack of Sony’s systems, compromising emails, private information, intellectual property (including movies), and more. The hackers almost immediately demanded that Sony cancel distribution of their upcoming film, “The Interview”, leading to early speculation that the attacks originated from North Korea. The hackers continued to rain blows down on Sony until Wednesday, when Sony finally capitulated by pulling plans to show the movie.
Today’s announcement, though, while widely anticipated, signals a chilling new reality for all of us — not just those of us directly connected to technology. I believe we’ll look back on the events of the last couple weeks as an awful watershed moment. Everything just changed in a very scary way.
Recall the days immediately following the 9-11 attacks: I think the overwhelming majority of Americans were enthusiastically behind the idea that America needed to find someone’s butt to kick, and kick hard. As a global citizen, not to mention a member of the U.N. Security Council and the last remaining superpower on Earth, though, we as a nation were paralyzed by the fact that we couldn’t find an actual nation to declare war against. In lieu of a single well-defined war, we wound up heavily involved in military operations that still haven’t seen a true conclusion, and I don’t think most Americans feel like we’ve seen the sort of “closure” we’d have liked. It turns out that chasing terrorists is a little like trying to nail snot to a tree.
The Sony hack is a little different, though, if it’s true that this act originated with the North Korean government. It’s true that we’ve seen any number of highly suspect electronic invasions over the last few years in which nations (most notably, China) were suspected to play a part. In these prior cases, though, the incursions were typically more properly considered espionage, and the nations suspected of these activities were just careful enough that nothing “real” ever stuck to them. The Sony case, then, is a scary new milestone.
There’s lots of dust left to settle in this case. President Obama, for instance, has promised that action will be taken against those responsible for this attack, but we don’t know yet what form that might take. It’s unclear how we’d expect a State to retaliate against another State for actions directed at a corporation, as well. This is truly uncharted territory. Not uncertain, though, is the impact of this incident – I’m quite confident we’ll remember this week well into the future.