Is It Legal to Read Sony Hack Documents?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 23, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last November, hackers who had gained access to Sony Entertainment Pictures data began releasing emails, un-released films, and personal information gained from a possibly year-long attack. Last week, WikiLeaks posted the entire collection of stolen data, around 200,000 documents and emails.

The hack itself was illegal under nearly all state and federal computer crime laws. But does that mean posting and reading the leaked documents is criminal as well?

Sony Solicits Silence

In the immediate wake of the hack, Sony aggressively targeted media outlets with demands to not only refrain from publishing the leaked documents but also destroy any copies. Sony even went after Twitter and K-Pop singers.

Observers noted at the time that Sony's threats of lawsuits were probably baseless. The Supreme Court has held that publication of even illegally intercepted communications is protected by the First Amendment so long as the communication was on a "matter of public concern."

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange justified the publication of the material in a press release: "This archive shows the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation. It is newsworthy and at the centre of a geo-political conflict. It belongs in the public domain." As long as WikiLeaks and others can demonstrate a public concern in the documents, their publication is likely legal.

One caveat: this analysis only applies to communications, not copyrighted material. So while publication of emails is likely OK, posting entire scripts or movies probably isn't. Additionally, there may be claims for invasion of privacy for publicly disclosing private facts like medical histories or financial information. And Sony has responded to the WikiLeaks publication the same way it did to earlier posts.

If the publication is legal, then the consumption certainly is. All of the legal issues above would only apply to the media outlets, like WikiLeaks, that publish the hacked Sony documents. There are no laws prohibiting people from reading published material, even if it's published illegally.

That said, whether you can read the Sony hack documents doesn't address whether you should read them. The decision to wade into the personal lives of even public figures will depend on your own moral compass and time (and boredom) constraints.

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