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New risks for culture in the cyberspace

Digital culture comes with digital threats.
© European University Institute

Digital culture comes with digital threats. As people increasingly share information about their daily lives, their tastes, their cultural consumptions, they are also disclosing information that can be collected and used by a variety of actors. A large number of websites, applications, social media collect user data that are used or sold for personalised advertising, and there is often very little transparency on the kinds of data that are collected. In addition, personal data is stored on a variety of devices and servers, which puts it under the threats of cyber-attacks. In sum, the sources of online vulnerabilities are on the rise and can be exploited by states, which see the cyber-space as an extended space of military struggle, as well as by cyber-criminals that make profit out of these vulnerabilities.

The cultural world appears particularly at risk with regards to the various threats that have risen with the emergence of the digital world. Cultural and creative industries often consist of small and mid size companies and are often less protected by public authorities than sectors viewed as more vital, like health. Therefore they can be easy, but also highly symbolic targets of cyber-criminals. In October 2014, the Hollywood studio Sony Pictures Entertainment was victim of a cyber-attack and a large amount of its confidential documents was posted online. The attack was linked to the studio’s planned release of its film “The Interview”, staging the assassination of the Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un. As a result of this attack, Sony Pictures Entertainment cancelled the release of the movie.

This story reveals several characteristics of the issues of cyber-threats affecting cultural industries nowadays:

  • Cyber- threats as a new form of censorship. While the protection of such a cultural firm could have been guaranteed in the physical world, the Internet allows foreign powers to harm organisations beyond their own territory. In the case of the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, this amounts to a form of censorship exerted by a foreign country. This could set a precedent and encourage other governments to use cyber-attacks to put pressure on foreign organisations that portray a negative image of them.

  • The difficulty to attribute cyber-attacks. While such attacks are increasingly perceived as acts of war, it is often difficult to establish an appropriate response. State authorities are rarely able to bring tangible evidence to attribute the responsibility of an attack. In this case, the US authorities were reported to be quasi certain that the attack was directly linked to the North Korean government. However, North Korea dismissed such allegations.

  • Cyber war is less asymmetrical than conventional war. While there is a clear power asymmetry in conventional battlefields, in which only a few superpowers possess certain key military equipment, being active in the cyber-space is less costly and enables small countries to exert significant power. The case of the Sony Pictures Entertainment attack shows that even countries like North Korea, small and poor, can influence superpowers.

Share your views:

What do you think states can do to protect cultural organisations from the cyber-attacks of foreign powers?

© European University Institute
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Culture in the Digital Age

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