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Why has Sony's CEO remained silent on security breach?

Two weeks after Sony's PlayStation Network was hacked, Sony's leader hasn't publicly addressed it, even as the scandal over the company's customer data security grows.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
3 min read
Sony CEO Howard Stringer James Martin/CNET

We've asked a lot of questions about the Sony security breach, some of which Sony has been able to answer. But here's a big so far unanswered one: where has Howard Stringer been?

As chairman, chief executive, and president of Sony, he's been strangely silent on the failure of his company's networked entertainment security systems, which were hacked more than two weeks ago.

When PlayStation Network went offline April 20, Sony communicated with customers via its official PlayStation Blog. Company spokesman Patrick Seybold periodically posted tidbits of information about the outage and repeatedly apologized for the service being down.

Then after a week of intensifying customer confusion and ire, it was Seybold who dropped the bomb by revealing PSN and Qriocity were inaccessible because the servers had been infiltrated and 77 million customers' personal information had been stolen.

And it's been Seybold who's been offering semi-regular daily updates over the course of the last week. While it's obviously in his job description to communicate with customers and the public, when a devastating cyberattack hits your company's security systems and your outraged customers fear they're identities may have been stolen and credit cards are at risk, a faceless spokesperson who has no other power within the company won't do.

That's conceivably why the press conference over the weekend featured Kazuo Hirai, Sony's executive deputy president, making amends and explanations for the situation. It made sense that the guy who rose up through the ranks at Sony's networked entertainment business would be pushed out on stage to accept the blame and apologize--even bow as a way of asking forgiveness.

He's also been basically anointed to be Stringer's heir apparent. Hirai is the No. 2 guy at Sony, so it's probably good he gets some practice at dealing with situations like this if he's going to lead Sony someday.

But after Monday's news that 25 million more Sony customer accounts had been stolen delivered yet another blow to the company, it's becoming rather awkward that Stringer has yet to speak up.

"This is huge," said Merrill Freund, executive vice president of Schwartz Communications. "This is affecting 100 million of his customers and the fact that he hasn't said word one is shocking."

When something has the potential to do severe damage to your company's reputation and standing with a loyal base of fans, it's important for the guy in charge of it all to step up. Not his No. 2.

"He's the CEO," Freund said of Stringer. "When you have something of this magnitude it has to be him. There's no other person."

We've seen plenty of recent examples in the world of tech flubs. When Amazon remotely deleted copies of an electronic book in 2009, the company quickly issued a statement of apology. But several days after, CEO Jeff Bezos himself personally apologized to customers.

When the Facebook mishandled the addition of the now-standard News Feed to the site in 2006, Mark Zuckerberg penned a blog post that started,

Eric Schmidt eventually admitted Google "screwed up" when its Street View cads were caught recording information broadcast from unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots.

Even situations that don't require apologies do require the leader to say something, anything. When Apple started hammering on Adobe Systems about Flash's shortcomings last year, the No. 2 guy didn't defend Adobe--CEO Shantanu Narayen did.

Even if he didn't say the right thing right away, he said something, which leaves no questions of who's in charge, said Freund.

Even overblown scandals need addressing. Steve Jobs eventually called an almost unprecedented (for Apple) press conference when last summer's iPhone 4 "antennagate" broke. Even though his tone clearly conveyed that he found the whole episode ludicrous, because the public outcry threatened to drown out marketing for the new iPhone, he needed to respond and put a stop to it.

We need something from Stringer. Especially now that the security breach has gone from 77 million known exposed accounts to more than 100 million in the last two days. Clearly this is a developing situation, but it won't hurt Stringer to let customers know that.

"Sony's a very big company, this is very complicated, so I think they're just being cautious about what they say," said Michael Cusumano, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "Maybe too cautious. At least say something, at least assure us they're on top of it."