HBO, the producer of the most beloved televisual products the world has ever seen, has fallen victim to an attack from a group of cyber-criminals hoping to make a quick buck off of the company’s misfortunes. If these villains are to fail in their effort, we — news producers and news consumers alike — are going to have to make a rather difficult choice: to simply ignore any illicitly obtained material released in the information dumps that follow.
As bits and pieces of information have dribbled out, the hackers claim to have stolen a phenomenal amount of data — some 1.5 terabytes of it. Some of that data comes in the form of TV shows; the goons say they have obtained access to unaired episodes of programs such as “Ballers” and have portioned out little bits of supposed information about the network’s crown jewel, “Game of Thrones,” as a sort of perverse proof of life.
What might be even more damaging is that the criminals claim to have gained access to HBO’s internal email servers. In a sort of warning shot, the hackers released a tiny percentage of the missives that they claim to have obtained — supposedly including notes with personal contact information for “Game of Thrones” actors and draft scripts from future episodes. HBO said in a statement Monday that it had no “reason to believe that our e-mail system as a whole has been compromised” and is still investigating the extent of the hack.
It’s the emails, more than the episodes of TV, that would likely give HBO execs serious reason to consider paying off the hackers. The risk of lost revenue from the hack is probably minimal: I’m willing to bet that most people who watch HBO’s hit programs will likely wait for the shows to debut on the network — they already pay for the service and would prefer to watch the programs on real televisions rather than laptop screens in the company of others online, tweeting along in real time and reading recaps the next morning. HBO is one of the few channels left to offer true destination viewing, a real sense of community among fans.
No, as anyone who remembers the Sony hack from a few years back or the hack of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails during last year’s presidential campaign will tell you, it’s the emails that will keep executives up at night, the emails that will nudge them a lot further toward paying off the ransom than anything else. After all, who among us would want their personal, private business communications displayed for the world to see? Who would want people picking apart what we wrote and said about those we worked with and for? Who wants strangers sifting through their Amazon purchase history, as happened to Sony’s Amy Pascal when the writers and editors at Gawker’s Jezebel decided the world needed to know about the personal grooming products she purchased?
The simple fact of the matter is that this crime, like any other form of blackmail, relies on the potential of embarrassment for the victim for it to truly have any power. The financial damage the attack could do to HBO may be modest in comparison with the personal, reputational damage it could do to HBO employees. But that threat of blackmail really only works if we, the people, allow it to. If we reporters and writers dig through and highlight the salacious details; if you readers and news consumers share the grotesqueries uncovered.
This will take a rather remarkable amount of restraint on behalf of all involved — indeed, it may be worth considering whether or not it’s time for a sea change in norms when it comes to the media’s role in promulgating stories. This is not a particularly tough case, as one could argue the Podesta email breach — nominally a newsworthy dump about a powerful political figure executed in the name of “transparency”; more likely a cyberattack enabled by a foreign power in order to impact a domestic election — was. It’s not even like the recent avalanche of nude celebrity photos to hit the Web a couple of years back, which was a crime but an almost chaotic one, Joker-esque in its prurient randomness. The HBO breach is straightforward graft, an attempt to earn an enormous amount of money by circumventing any number of laws.
As such, it is incumbent upon us not to aid in the crime, to not serve as unwitting accomplices. Just don’t look. Just don’t share. And never forget: You could very easily be next.