12/22/2014 10:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What to Make of North Korea's Sony Hack


Aside from exposing the difficulty of securing cyberspace, the Sony hack displays the way that technology breaks down the relationships that so-called super powers have with other nations and leaves its victims without a framework for responding.

American military preponderance only exists in the realm of conventional military superiority. The sophistication of American military technology creates an asymmetric international balance of power that leaves other states unable to rely on traditional means to confront the United States. As a consequence, weaker states have relied on unconventional means such as developing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. But it seems that investing in cyber espionage may be even more efficient. Unconventional weapons are fairly effective as a deterrent, but cyberspace offers an avenue for offensively, rather than defensively, challenging the United States.

If, as the FBI recently announced, the North Korean state did in fact hack Sony, it raises the specter of an international cyber-arms race whereby states will develop "offensive" and "defensive" cyber weapons in constant reaction to each other. This will not be limited to the United States or China or Russia. What is unique in this case is the weakness of North Korea vis-à-vis the United States, and the magnitude of damage the hack caused. If North Korea, with a GDP of $12 billion (compared to $16 trillion in the U.S.), can pose that kind of a threat, we need to seriously rethink what the term "super power" really means. Perhaps even more fundamentally, we need to reconsider what "power" means.

And even if we can reinterpret power, what is the appropriate response to cyber attacks? There is really no political or legal framework to navigate this question. If a cyber attack constitutes an "act of aggression," then the United States could claim "self-defense" in response. But cyber attacks have never in the past been designated as such. Moreover, even if they were, how should their victims react? Certainly, a military response would senseless. Sanctions have done very little to alter North Korean behavior. There really aren't any good options aside from fortifying cyber-defenses and issuing strongly worded condemnations -- neither of which are likely to have any lasting effect.

The real consequences of the Sony hack are far bigger than the fact that we likely won't see The Interview in cinemas or that we now know that Sony's employees are bored with the trite plots that the company puts out. This hack signifies a change in the rules and a leveling of the playing field. We may live in the strongest nation of all, but it may be for that very reason that our personal security is at the greatest risk.