THE BLOG

The Most Important Lessons You Can Learn From the Sony Hack

12/18/2014 06:56 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2015
  • Adam Levin Author of Swiped. Former Director New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs; Co-founder of Credit.com and IDT911
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Angelina Jolie may have been all thorns when she ran into Sony's Amy Pascal last week after the hacker group Guardians of Peace leaked the co-chair's email rant about the Maleficent star, but while the gossip mill grinds and the spin doctors do their best to stop the bleeding at the company, the real lesson here revolves around a question of corporate culture.

It is important not to understate what happened. While I doubt the hack could sink Sony, it's not the sort of thing that makes for smooth sailing. The idea that such a thing could happen at a company with so much to lose beggars the imagination. The failure is beyond epic, a big plot twist with a third act that's yet to be written, but one that might include a boardroom bloodbath. And it is beginning to seem like that was the intent of the perpetrators.

This was an enterprise-level disaster. So many things had to go wrong to turn this fortnight of the living dead news item into the Christmas gift that keeps on giving to the world of entertainment news.

The amount of information snatched is dumbfounding. Scripts were leaked, heretofore unreleased movies found their way to pirate sites, the Social Security numbers and details regarding compensation of Sylvester Stallone, Judd Apatow and other celebrities were let loose online, the Social Security numbers of 47,000 current and former Sony employees were publicly posted and thousands of controversial emails were unearthed. The financial damage could sail into nine figures -- and if the attack was not launched by weapons-grade hackers (or even if it was) the mess leaves a lot of serious questions regarding the future of doing business in the age of the super hack. Anyone who runs a business -- whether it's a mom-and-pop shop or a multinational behemoth like Sony -- needs to pay close attention to what happened here, and begin to take data security seriously.

Though even the FBI has said that few companies -- as few as 10 percent -- could have prevented an attack like the one that targeted Sony, one has to wonder what would have happened were there better data-security protocols in place. Companies need to remember that claiming helplessness in the face of an unprecedented event is a slippery slope. This was an enterprise-level problem. The teachable moment here is that security has to be practiced at that level and must be sewn into the very fabric of daily life at the office; it has to be part of an enterprise's corporate culture. A good top-down corporate culture may have helped mitigate many of the problems that the company now faces.

1. Modeling Corporate Culture

Any time a hack is perpetrated, corporate leaders will wind up in the spotlight, whether their personal emails were leaked or not. Company leaders in general, however, must learn to demonstrate a level of sophistication, nuance, sensitivity and respect when communicating internally, especially when those communications involve high-profile people -- like celebrity actors, for example.

Gossip and backbiting are all too common in corporate America's electronic communications, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to correct that. One might even argue that the lack of respect exhibited in emails is often manifested elsewhere in companies--specifically in the lackadaisical attitude towards data security that allowed the personally identifiable information of both employees and talent to be stolen.

One take-away from the Sony hack is that there's no guarantee your email won't at some point be leaked. To be sure, few companies put under the Klieg lights like Sony would come out looking clean. Is it unreasonable to ask for spotless behavior throughout your organization? Of course it is. Given the reality, however, it's wise to assume you'll eventually be hacked and be shown for what you are. So be good... or at the very least consider picking up the phone if you have something to say that you wouldn't want to be broadcast on the evening news.

2. Emphasizing Ownership

In the case of Sony, films were stolen, as were a lot of other assets, including scripts, budgets and even contract negotiations. How can this be prevented? The first step for companies is to truly take ownership of their assets. Ownership is a state of mind that requires upkeep and vigilance to protect what's yours. Ownership creates security. Ultimately, this starts with corporate leadership, since fostering a sense of ownership among employees is a trickle-down process.

3. Staying Shipshape

A strong corporate culture is a work in progress, constantly evolving. It stays ahead of the curve as a result of clear leadership and a culture where employees feel invested in their work, i.e., they take ownership of the tasks assigned to them. Something like the Sony hack -- where the enemy is well-armed, fully weaponized and in war mode -- may not be avoidable, but a state of readiness predicated by a healthy corporate culture that puts security first is the only way such an attack can be properly contained and managed.

Whether North Korea (or a proxy) attacked Sony Pictures to stop the release of The Interview or if some disgruntled ex-employee turned latter-day Lex Luther has an ax to grind with Michael Lynton, the reality that any company -- whether it's the size of Sony Pictures or a local wedding videographer -- can be put out of commission in such a spectacular and specific way is something no one can ignore. In the same way the Target breach changed the way Americans viewed identity theft, the Sony hack will forever alter the digital landscape of corporate America.

This reinforces the big lesson that's been around since the days of Peter Drucker: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.