A security guards walks past the entrance to Sony Pictures Plaza. (Credit: AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. Brown)

The hackers are winning.

Something has shifted. This year, they didn't only steal credit cards numbers. They clear-cut through retailers records and broke into highly sophisticated systems. They stole celebrity photos that paparazzo only dream about. And now, we have something new, again: a widescale breach and control of a media narrative aimed at destroying a major company based in the United States.

For years, hacks were mostly about committing robbery -- slipping in and out unnoticed, with maybe a dropped calling card as a small-scale brag. Now Sony has canceled the Christmas Day release of "The Interview" -- the movie that apparently spurred the hacks into Sony Pictures Entertainment  in the first place.

The tactics are similar to the renegade, total information freedom approach popularized by groups such as Wikileaks or Anonymous. Those leaks and attacks -- some serious, some just online vandalism -- were aimed specifically at getting publicity, but you can at least understand the pursuit of a higher motivation. When you take down the CIA Web site just "for the lulz," it may be goofy, but at least you're making a splash to prove a point.

But Sony is hardly the National Security Agency or a national government. These broad leaks aren't for a cause -- they're aimed at undermining the character of a company by exposing how it conducts its normal business. It's like "The Jungle," but for movies. And the threat of a violent, physical attack put Sony in the toughest position imaginable -- between losing a war of principles or putting lives in danger. Sony was set to lose either way.

The hacks of Home Depot, celebrity iCloud accounts and Sony were likely the work of different people. But taken together, they show a growing cockiness, ambition and media savvy within the hacker world.

And that's truly troubling, on a couple of levels. For one, the idea that North Korea may be behind these attacks -- the prevailing determination of U.S. officials -- shows just how easy it is to cause large-scale mayhem. Somehow a poor and not-at-all tech-friendly country managed to conduct these attacks. If it's that easy, we can certainly only expect these splashy attacks to continue.

Secondly, the progression of hacks from credit card theft to sordid Jennifer Lawrence photos and now forcing Sony to cancel "The Interview" shows hackers gaining both technical prowress and media savvy. In the case of Sony, they didn't just obtain and publish a list of social security numbers and home address to extort executives. The releases also have been framed in compelling and sharp ways -- exposing racially-tinged jokes among top executives or demonstrating that men are paid more than women.

While that has prompted a debate about what the media should cover, the leaks from the hackers have been difficult not to read. The hackers were able to tap into the part of us that reads tabloids and tell-all memoirs.

All of this is uncharted territory. But the success the Sony hackers have seen to date will likely spur others who think they're Snowden-like vigilantes to steal other information that falls along equally tricky ethical lines. Sony is likely just the first battle of a long, long war. And if driving conversation is where the power lies, one thing is clear.

Right now, the hackers are winning.

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