North Korean Cyber Terrorism: You’re Unprepared

It was revealed yesterday, in an announcement from the FBI, that North Korea was responsible for the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The attack resulted in the public release of thousands of confidential (and embarrassing) email messages and documents involving Sony, its executives, popular celebrities, and many of the entertainment company’s business partners—among other misappropriations of intellectual property. This included various Sony films now freely available on pirate sites. According to Patrick Mahaffey, CEO of software consulting firm Room 5, the Sony hack “may have ushered in a new era of state sponsored terrorism against civilian targets.”

the_interview for linkedinThese acts have also caused the controversial cancellation of the release of Sony’s movie The Interview, the comedy drama that was the motivation for North Korea’s actions. In the movie, the characters portrayed by Seth Rogen and James Franco are enlisted by the American government to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. (Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, the two American spies complete their mission; there’s a viral video excerpt trending on social media if you’re curious.)

North Korea’s actions weren’t financially motivated, but rather purely political in nature. However, they were financially impacting. Kim Jung-un’s third world, impoverished totalitarian regime just cost an American subsidiary of a Japanese company $200-300 million in lost revenue—not to mention a severely tarnished reputation. To put this in perspective, Sony Pictures Entertainment, based in Culver City, California, reported $8 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2014.

On December 15, CNNMoney reported that parent company Sony’s stock had fallen 10 percent due to the incident. Then, on December 17, the FBI announced that it considered the hacking incident a national security threat. On December 19, the event elicited public statements from President Barack Obama, who said that Sony Pictures “made a mistake” in cancelling the release of the film and that the United States would respond to the attack “in a place and manner and time that we choose.”

According to Reuters: “‘North Korea’s ultimate goal in cyber strategy is to be able to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United States,’ said Kim Heung-kwang, a defector from the North who was a computer science professor and says he maintains links with the community in his home country.”

The general tone among Americans has been that Sony (and, by extension, Hollywood) spinelessly caved to the influence of a rogue dictator. Echoing the President’s comments, social media has been abuzz with anti-Sony sentiment, and even calls for boycotts.

I would argue that North Korea’s actions amount to a terrorist act on the part of a communist totalitarian nation, in the form of a cyber attack that, akin to an act of war, brought Japanese Sony, American-based Sony Pictures Entertainment, and American partners like Snapchat to their knees. I would also argue that this event can be—in the long run—good for us. Here’s why.

It’s easy to become too internally focused when you’re in one of the most technologically, culturally, and economically advanced nations in the world—and a shining example of democracy and progress, despite all of our internal bickering and ideological and religious contention.

the_interview_3_for_linkedinFortunately, we have organizations like the FBI, CIA, and the military’s various internal counter cyber-terrorism groups. Before you laugh and begin schooling me on how none of these organizations can be trusted (and bring up torture and waterboarding), remember “same team” (and 9/11, if you have a short memory).

This isn’t the time to be pointing out how the family dog crapped on the rug a few times. Rather, we should be thankful that Rover keeps the house safe from intruders and kills pesky rodents before they begin living in the garage or digging into that 50-lb bag of bird seed. It’s our bird seed, dammit, and Rover—rug pooping and all—helps protect it from thieves.

North Korea’s recent acts of cyber terrorism are a wake-up call not only to large corporations like Sony, but also to middle class Americans. Although I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, I don’t think it was a wake-up call to our government’s security agencies or the military. I believe they’re in the loop on this one.

Kim Jong-un for linkedinWe middle class consumers, however, are sloppy with our data and online accounts. Our passwords suck, most of us never backup our data, and asking us about our firewall is like inquiring about the pH balance of our lawn; we simply don’t know. And, all too often, we don’t give a damn. Again, we’re too busy dealing with social media, work headaches, and our kids to bother with the likes of password strength and data backups. As Americans, we’re pinnacle procrastinators. Watching The Voice or True Detectives is more important to us than personal data security. We prove it every day.

The revelation of North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures proves that we’re much more vulnerable than we think. If a black hat hacker anywhere, foreign or domestic, wants to steal your identity, copy or corrupt your data, or blackmail or embarrass you, even a moderately talented cyber thief can do so with relative ease. The reason it hasn’t happened to you is because you haven’t been targeted. At least, not that you’re aware.

According to Daniel Solove, a research professor of law at George Washington University Law School, “All of our personal data is at significant risk. At home or at work, your personal data is at risk. Whether in the cloud, or on your computer, or in an email, your data is at risk. The internet wasn’t built for security; it is a very risky zone, like wandering a minefield.”

Computer and networking technology, along with the common skills of hackers, have evolved to the point that, regardless of motive, these cyber bad guys can swoop in, steal or corrupt your data, and leave almost no trace. You may have been hacked and have no idea. The IT departments of major retailers like Target, Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus have been hacked and suffered the theft of point-of-sale data for tens of millions of customers. And, in some cases, they barely learned that it happened. If $100 million IT departments are vulnerable, what do you think can happen to you and me?

the_interview_2_for_linkedinThe reason most of us haven’t had our data or personal home networks compromised is simply because we’re not big targets—not because our data or networks are secure. If a frustrated, psychotic co-worker, spurned lover, mean ex-husband, angry neighbor, or pissed-off friend really focused on messing with your data, they could do so with relative ease. It just might involve hiring a savvy teenage nerd to make it happen. Don’t assume, because a person doesn’t possess computer skills, that they can’t be responsible for a data attack on you and your family.

Statistics from a variety of sources indicate that the majority of Americans never (as in never) backup their data. Surveys and metrics also indicate that our passwords—even for things like bank and investment accounts—are pathetically weak. Do you have any “password1234” passwords in your collection? How about a derivation of your name (or your pet’s name)? Do you use the same password, or a slight variation, on all of your accounts? I know; it makes them easier to remember. It also makes you extremely vulnerable to hacking.

There’s plenty of books and resources available to help you improve your data security. I won’t push my book, because the point is simply to get you to improve your personal data security, not necessarily buy something from me. But do something.

james franco for blogCyber terrorism and hacking activities, from governments, large corporations, and individuals, are only going to increase. We’re all susceptible, from Sony Pictures to your next door neighbor. However, there are many things you can do to help prevent digital disaster that results in identity theft, public embarrassment, and financial loss.

Learn about what you can do. Make a plan. Execute it. Maintain your efforts. Be diligent.

Take it seriously.

Did you, or one of your friends, ever run a car out of gas? Wasn’t there a feeling of incredible stupidity and regret? Wasn’t there a realization that a brief stop at a local gas station could have been made oh-so-easily, preventing the embarrassment and expense of your negligence and oversight?

Well, get ready. Because the Sony Pictures hack by North Korea is only the beginning. Organizations and individuals that aren’t prepared will, sooner or later, suffer.

Try not to be one of them.

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Curt Robbins

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Higher Ed & Corporate Thinking – Part 2

OhioStateUniversityThanks to my colleague Brett Tipton for his contribution to today’s blog post. Brett is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. He brings a great in-the-trenches perspective to the topic of higher education, how well it prepares students for the real world of corporate America, and how corporations themselves—and IT departments, in particular—approach recruitment and the positioning of new hires.

This post began organically enough: Brett published a post to his blog, to which I commented. It went from there.

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Curt Robbins

It’s best to read Part 1 of this dialog before continuing….


“Good point regarding dissonant voices, Brett.

I’m not necessarily a fan of big corporations. However, in their defense, some rules do need to be established and enforced for the cohesive management of tens of thousands of employees. I often wonder how a big corporation with 50,000+ employees can pull it off. How does Foxconn (the infamous Taiwanese manufacturer that makes many Apple products), with 1.3 million employees, do it? Then again, I’m really digressing, because higher education isn’t really a part of that equation. But someday it will be.

After robotic and fully automated (i.e. nearly humanless) manufacturing takes over (and can do the job even cheaper than China’s pseudo slave labor), everyone in both China and the U.S. will need higher education to obtain a job. Certainly to get on a career track. With little need for blue collar manufacturing labor, high school students will realize they have two options: Pursue higher education or try to get one of the few well-paying trade positions. But most high school graduates will need to pursue higher education to avoid low-paying jobs or unemployment. Many would criticize me and say that we’re already there.

But I digress, Brett. I agree that corporations, the primary benefactors of higher education (other than students themselves), focus mostly on recruitment from our institutions of higher education, not the educational process itself. There are exceptions to this, of course. But the trend—the big picture—is that corporations are concerned with getting the most qualified graduates before their competition.

This has been an area on which IT, specifically, has focused in recent years, due largely to a shortage of qualified software developers, network engineers, and other technical skills. This is one reason why corporate IT imports so many of these skills from India (aside from reducing overhead because this imported talent costs less). When working within the IT departments of several Fortune 500 companies, many of my managers were out-of-office on a regular basis, manning a recruitment desk at a local college campus. The IT departments of smart companies are putting real resources into recruitment.

It begs the question: Should there be two “stages” to a student’s higher education? One in which the student obtains a “real world” education in the area they’ve chosen and another in cultural literacy, like classic literature, history, and philosophy? In other words, how important is cultural literacy versus the hard skills necessary for a particular profession?

I know…this debate could go on forever. I should write 600 page novels, with an approach like this. But I think it all comes down to the fact that corporations, entities that are continually monitoring their overhead expenses and driving from the bottom line, don’t want the expense of being a bigger part of higher education. They have no motivation to help the average student better prepare for the realities of corporate life because they can cherry pick from the best graduates.

Meanwhile, universities are intelligently spending more time focusing on educational curricula that are better at real world prep (like software development, nursing, and video production). Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of cultural literacy and soft sciences like psychology and writing (there’s only so many hours in the day, after all).

Nothing more than food for thought. But something that all of us—children, students, parents, and employees—should take seriously.”


“I’m not sure of the benefit of cultural literacy, at least in our current system. Most of those classes are required courses and students get through them (pass the test, write the paper, read the book, whatever). But since they are just going through the motions, they really don’t retain much—if any. Trying to teach them Shakespeare doesn’t work until they want to learn Shakespeare. Until that point, they will find a way to play the game. But then, it’s just a game, and learning isn’t the prime objective.

In terms of recruiting IT, I think most corporations recruit because most of the upper management doesn’t have a clue how to run the systems. And they don’t have a clue how to set up an environment where people can learn, grow, and keep up with technical trends. They would rather hire the cog they need as opposed to going through the hassle of growing from within.

They end up hiring people with technical skills, but without the skills to interface with real people. Those people then design machines and software that don’t interface well with real people. It becomes a huge perpetuating circle—people don’t understand the technology, hire someone who understands the technology (but not how to make it user friendly), and more counter-intuitive machines and software enter the market. Then there are more people that don’t understand the technology.

In terms of business, the real question is what kind of employees do they want? Do companies want people good at conforming and following systems that other people design? In that case, that’s what our higher education system produces. Or do companies want creative people who can design new systems, think in new ways, and challenge the status quo?

If that’s what they want, they won’t find it graduating from college.”

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, check out his car-themed articles on CarNewsCafe, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Higher Ed & Corporate Thinking – Part 1

OhioStateUniversityThanks to my colleague Brett Tipton for his contribution to today’s blog post. Brett is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. He brings a great in-the-trenches perspective to the topic of higher education, how well it prepares students for the real world of corporate America, and how corporations themselves—and IT departments, in particular—approach recruitment and the positioning of new hires.

This post began organically enough: Brett published a post to his blog, to which I commented. It went from there.

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Curt Robbins

The End of the Term

by Brett Tipton

I just finished teaching another term. I don’t know how many times I heard the phrase, “I’m so glad this term is over.” To me, this is shocking. It’s not shocking because I lack understanding. I feel the same way. What shocks me is that learning is a normal, natural process. So, why has the college system turned it into such a burden? Why have we created a system that leads to burnout?

As I step back and think about this question, my answer is that the system is not primarily concerned about teaching or personal growth. The main point of the system is to teach someone to be an employee. But, if the system that’s training them to be an employee leads to caustic burnout, I have to wonder if the jobs we’re preparing people for are going to be jobs they love.

Another thing I have to question is the whole promise of education being a gateway to good jobs. Colleges provide few good jobs for their employees. If they don’t even supply their employees with good jobs, can we expect them to help students find good positions?

The sad part is that all this introspection will soon fade. Next week I will be eating turkey and won’t give my job a second thought. Soon the next term will roll around and the grind will continue. Some students and instructors will come and go, but the system will continue—masticating people in its wake. It’s a broken system and I’ve lost hope it will change.


“Good perspective, Brett. It brings into focus the very purpose of higher education. It also illustrates the difference between purpose and function. Is the purpose of college to help one gain employment after graduation, but the function to provide education, knowledge, and cultural and literary enrichment?

I have a buddy who I met at Ohio State University when I was a freshman and he was a senior. I used to help him edit his papers for his Masters; we’ve been friends for 30 years. He’s worked in higher ed his entire life. He recently posted a cartoon to Facebook in which a young man returns a diploma to his college admissions office, saying “In lieu of repaying my student loans, I’m returning this. It didn’t work.” While the cartoon is obviously a political statement regarding the state of student loans and the sluggish hiring economy, I perceived it to also be a powerful comment regarding the value of a diploma.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal (with Elon Musk) and Silicon Valley luminary, has established the Thiel Fellowship. This fellowship gives 24 young people (age 20 or younger) $100,000 each for a two-year period to (temporarily, in theory) drop out of college and work with a network of 100 Silicon Valley mentors. Given the status of Thiel and his prestigious fellowship, it receives applications from students at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, among others.

Thiel’s fellowship brings to light several important questions. Is the experience young people receive when working with mentors who are older, successful professionals more beneficial than the formal education they receive at their respective educational institutions? Should this simply be considered a supplement to the students’ formal education? How many of them will achieve a level of business success—like college dropouts Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (both from Harvard), Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, and Oprah—that convinces them to abandon their nascent higher ed studies?

Not easy questions to answer. I’m personally pro-higher ed and will work hard to convince my teenage daughters to pursue at least a Masters degree and preferably a Ph.D. But Thiel’s fellowship—and the dropout habits of so many extremely successful and world-changing luminaries of Silicon Valley and Hollywood—do cause one to wonder if college is really the best path.”


“I sometimes wonder if the whole push for a college education by employers is that they simply don’t want to pay to train people. Since they aren’t paying, there is no concern for how inefficient the system is. I also wonder how many employers simply want someone who has already proven they can conform. While many companies clamor for creativity, they often tend to squash dissonant voices.”

Continue to Part 2

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.