LOS ANGELES - WikiLeaks' decision to publish tens of thousands of hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment documents and emails marks a wider focus for Julian Assange's cyber organization, which is now expanding its publishing activities well beyond the global military-industrial complex and governmental bodies.
On Thursday morning, WikiLeaks trumpeted the news that it has created a searchable archive of Sony Pictures documents and emails that were initially released last November in a cyber attack that the FBI said was directed by North Korea. The move is likely to spur attempted legal action against the organization, although experts said Sony's options are limited by the lack of an identifiable central hub of operations for WikiLeaks, headed by Assange, a shadowy, controversial figure who has so far evaded litigation or prosecution connected to the org's activities.
In a lengthy statement, WikiLeaks sought to rationalize the SPE disclosure by citing Sony's connection to public policy matters through its membership in the MPAA, through CEO Michael Lynton's ties to the Obama administration and RAND Corp. and through the political fundraising activities of employees. But by any measure, the disclosure of Sony Pictures documents is far removed from the sectors that have been the focus of WikiLeaks document dumps to date.
Floyd Abrams, the renowned First Amendment attorney who represented the New York Times in the battle over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, said WikiLeaks faces clear liability on copyright and privacy grounds, both from Sony and individuals affected by the disclosures. But he emphasized that the fact that WikiLeaks is "shrouded in secrecy" makes it virtually impossible for Sony to pursue action. He noted that a federal grand jury in Virginia has been probing Assange's activities for some time but has yet to issue an indictment to what has proven to be a moving target.
"The biggest problem for Sony is finding someone or something to sue," Abrams told Variety.
The fact that material contains sensitive information ranging from email addresses and phone numbers of movie stars to bank accounts and health records of employees would help a plaintiff make the case that the disclosure comes with tangible damages.