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Sony CEO Reflects On Immobilizing Cyberattack 1 Year Later


Even in a movie, this story would have sounded too over the top. North Korean hackers infiltrate one of the biggest studios in the world. They leak tawdry, gossipy emails about celebrities to a ravenous press. The hackers steal everything from employee's Social Security numbers to unreleased movies. The alleged motive? A stoner buddy comedy about the assassination of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un. All of this actually happened to Sony Pictures one year ago. And the CEO who led the company through that period joins us now. Michael Lynton is the head of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Welcome back to the show.

MICHAEL LYNTON: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So here we are on the other side of one of the worst corporate cyberattacks in U.S. history. Was there a time in your darkest hour when you weren't sure whether the studio would make it to the other side?

LYNTON: No, that actually didn't ever occur to me. I think part of the reason was the resilience of all of the employees and all of my colleagues. The other reason was one of the best ways, I've found, to get through this kind of a process is to have not necessarily a false optimism but always have this sense that you are going to get through because if you do fall into the trap of doubting that, then it becomes truly perilous.

SHAPIRO: Last summer, you told the Harvard Business Review that the hackers didn't just steal practically everything from the house. They actually burned the house down. What do you mean when you say they burned the house down?

LYNTON: So (laughter) they stole all the data. Then they wiped the data clean. Then they destroyed most of our servers and most of our PCs. So by the time it was done, we were immobilized.

SHAPIRO: And so were you functioning in, like, a 1970s manner, teletypes and Post-it notes?

LYNTON: Very much so. The only difference between then and the '70s is we had cellphones. Though, first things first, we had to set up a communications method, which was texting trees. We did indeed use a lot of Post-it notes. In addition to that, we had to drag out of the basement the old payroll check-cutting machines.


LYNTON: Happily, we never missed a single day's payroll. And we did manage to keep the place going. We didn't miss a single day's production on any of the television shows or movies we had in production. And that's really thanks to the incredible work of the folks at Sony Pictures.

SHAPIRO: I imagine you must have heard stories from people who were hit really personally by this, whether it's somebody saying, you know, my child's Social Security number is now public or I am no longer speaking to the person because we've seen each other's salaries. And it's - or some - I mean, this really hit home in a personal way.

LYNTON: Right, you know, there was a lot of that, as well. You know, all that I could say to them, first of all, on the email front was I never looked at any of the emails. And I really encouraged them to do the same. To this day, I've never looked at the emails. And I'd said that the rubbernecking doesn't help anybody. On the personal information front, all you could do was be very sympathetic - I was put in exactly the same place that they were - and explain to them that we were doing everything in our power to make sure that their identity and their personal information was going to be protected going forward. And - which is what we did.

SHAPIRO: This was obviously hugely damaging. And the hack is something that nobody would ever have wished for. Is there anything good to have come out of it? I'm thinking, for example, there is a national conversation happening right now about gender in Hollywood that was spurred, to no small extent, by the information that came out in the hack. Do you think there is any positive upshot from this?

LYNTON: I would have a different - I mean, I'm not - I've heard that conversation. I think the conversation was going to be inevitable. Obviously, the people referred back to some emails. And by the way, when you keep referring back to these emails, so many of these emails are taken out of context that it's not an accurate portrayal of what the conversation was. But leaving that aside, I do think that one of the positive things that came out of this was we are a relatively small but very loud canary in the coal mine. We're a fairly large company but we're nowhere near the size of the company of a General Electric or something like that or the National Grid. But we're very loud because of the unfortunate fact that all these - a lot of these stolen emails were made public and a lot of them involved celebrities. So the good therein is that I do think people have bolstered their security. I do think people are a lot more tempered in what they've put in their email. Although I must say, a year later, I still get emails from colleagues and people outside of Sony that I'm stunned by sort of saying, like, wow, haven't we learned something from all of this?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Do you write back to the person and say, have you forgotten what happened a year ago or do you just...?

LYNTON: No, I pick up the phone.

SHAPIRO: ...Pick up the phone? You pick up the phone (laughter).

LYNTON: I pick up the phone. I pick up the phone and I say, (laughter) come on, we did not go through all of this to continue like this. There's a lesson here, and we should all keep it in mind.

SHAPIRO: OK, so who's going to make the movie about this?

LYNTON: (Laughter) I do not want to see the movie.

SHAPIRO: Oh, come on. You're the CEO of a film studio.

LYNTON: I - no, this is one disaster film that I don't think needs to be made. It's always, by the way, very difficult to make movies, having made one or two, involving computers 'cause the trick is not to endlessly be seeing somebody just slapping away at a keyboard. That's not exactly cinematic.


SHAPIRO: There was some other drama in there, too.

LYNTON: There was, in fairness, there was, yeah. No, that's true. You could get away from the keyboard at some point. I'd just not - I'd just as soon not see that again.

SHAPIRO: That's Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Thanks for talking with us.

LYNTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.