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Sony executive sees broad hacking threat

A woman took a photo of a poster for the film, “The Interview,” outside of Regal Theater in New York in December 2014.
Justin Lane/EPA
A woman took a photo of a poster for the film, “The Interview,” outside of Regal Theater in New York in December 2014.

Despite having tens of thousands of sensitive documents leaked in a massive international hacking attack, the chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment doesn’t think his company was particularly prone to a digital raid.

And that means corporate America should be a lot more scared of a repeat performance, Michael Lynton said Thursday.

“There’s no question in my mind that we’re all equally vulnerable,” Lynton said. “When you are attacked by what turns out to be a sovereign nation-state, there isn’t a single company – well, maybe a few – that could potentially withstand that kind of attack.”

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Lynton’s remarks came in an interview with Harvard Business Review editor Adi Ignatius at an event for HUBweek, a festival of arts and ideas co-founded by The Boston Globe. Harvard University, which Lynton serves as part of its Board of Overseers, is another HUBweek founder.

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Sony Pictures Entertainment, a unit of Tokyo-based Sony Corp., was attacked by hackers in late 2014, losing control of thousands of internal documents and e-mails detailing daily operations inside the entertainment company.

US officials later pinned the attack on North Korea, and Sony had difficulty distributing the comedy film “The Interview,” which lampooned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a farcical attempt to assassinate him.

Lynton said that Sony had effectively served as a “canary in the coal mine” for cybersecurity, and a relatively inexpensive one at that — with revenue of about $7.3 billion in its most recent fiscal year, he noted, “we’re not General Electric.”

But Lynton said other corporate leaders may not be heeding the lesson provided by Sony.

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“I’m concerned myself that people are not going to take advantage of that. And that would be a shame, if we went through all of this this and everybody said ‘It can’t happen to me,’” Lynton said. “We as a nation and we as a bunch of businesses in this country need to be a lot more mindful of this.”

The document dump, which has been published in searchable format by Wikileaks, revealed plenty of industry gossip that captivated Hollywood insiders, but it also has unearthed information that has generated serious public debate.

Some of the documents contained evidence of a gender pay gap that runs from the executive suites to the actor’s trailers.

“American Hustle” co-stars Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, for example, earned a lower slice of profits from the Oscar-nominated movie filmed in Boston and Worcester. Documents also showed that Sony Pictures itself had only one woman among its top executives earning $1 million or more per year — the other 16 were men.

One e-mail exchange highlighted in the hacking trove revealed that the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” omitted evidence that an ancestor of Ben Affleck was a slaveowner, after Affleck requested that information be kept out of the program. The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, later said it made the editorial decision independently.

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Sony unsuccessfully asked the news media to stop reporting on the details of the documents, even with warnings that the studio would hold media agencies “responsible for any damage or loss” resulting from their use of Sony’s stolen data.

Lynton criticized the publication of Sony documents several times in the roughly hourlong talk, at one point comparing publication of Sony e-mails to mob behavior.

“You had the lowest of the low of the press throw a brick and publish an e-mail. And the next one said, ‘Oh, they’re going to do it? Maybe I should do it too.’ And it went right up the food-chain,” Lynton said.

President Obama tightened economic sanctions on North Korea in response to the hacking episode, specifically referencing the country’s “destructive, coercive cyber-related actions during November and December 2014.”

Some security researchers and analysts speculated that the hacking was not actually launched by North Korea, suggesting instead the possibility of an inside job aimed at sabotaging the company.

US officials, however, have been forceful in tying the attack to North Korea. ‘‘I have very high confidence about this attribution — as does the entire intelligence community,” FBI Director James Comey said in January.

The movie tied to the hacking episode, “The Interview,” got an underwhelming critical reception when it finally was distributed digitally, after many theaters balked at carrying the film.

Asked by Ignatius if he wished the movie were better, Lynton gamely acknowledged that media at the center of free-speech controversies isn’t always the highest form of art.

“It’s very rare that the thing you’re winding up protecting is for the ages,” he said. “Do I wish it were a better movie? Sure. Do I think it’s funny? I think it’s a pretty funny movie. But unfortunately, that’s not what you wind up defending.”