As troubling as the recent hacking attack on Sony Pictures has been, experts are warning it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In terms of the potential to do long-term damage hacking is still in its infancy.

Comparing the online world to the reality of non-digital disasters, the New York Times earlier this week published a detailed article explaining where we are and what might happen next. Perhaps its most ominous inference comes early on, citing the last defense secretary Leon Panetta’s belief that it will take some sort of “cyber-Pearl Harbor” for the country’s officials and general public to give the threat the attention it deserves.

To date we’ve seen the relatively acceptable face of hacking, if indeed such a thing exists. Identity theft, stealing private data and copyright infringement, as we saw in both the Sony Pictures and Lionsgate/Expendables 3 cases, are bad enough and threats that need to be dealt with. But set against the potential damage a truly motivated (and well-funded) hacker could do, there has yet to be an attack that pushes lawmakers over the edge and into urgent action.

Within the movie industry, other studios are already acting to protect their own interests. Again, coverage of these moves refers to the Sony attack as a “wake up call,” but only in the context of Hollywood. The catalyst for uncompromising action at a governmental level has yet to emerge, leaving other industries and the general public at risk.

This hasn’t been down to a lack of hacking action on other fronts. In the last year everyone from banks and major retailers to the White House and the U.S. Postal Service have been hacked to varying degrees of severity. In every case the answer has been to react and cure the individual cut, but little in the way of preventive measures to prevent the spread of infection. Whether it results in direct financial loss or, perhaps more importantly, the international theft of intellectual property (everything from pre-release movies to state secrets), the consequences of a highly targeted attack – or set of attacks – are damaging both economically and politically.

Digital Lock

Image Credit: Yuri Samoilov

The threat of hacking is real and covers every element of society, but the public perception appears to remain stubbornly in the realm of imaginative computer nerds and individual criminals doing limited damage from their basement.

As it’s an idea perpetuated by most movies, it would be fittingly ironic if the real world damage done to a Hollywood studio is what finally prompted widespread preparation for the more serious hacking incidents that are undoubtedly around the corner.