If you were a computer geek like me, growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then I am sure that weekend movies were a ritual for you and an opportunity to escape for two hours into a dark cinematic fantasy-world. In 1983, courtesy of Matthew Broderick and director John Badham, many were introduced to the realm of computer hacking and
wardialing in the movie Wargames. Many of us remember that idea of possibility when Broderick, as high school computer nerd, David, changed his report card grade. And, come to think of it, Broderick also hacked his school’s computer three years later in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to change his absence record. Even movies like the Matrix have featured a hacking theme, where Nmap is used to search for a SSH vulnerability. So the question is, do movies sensationalize the world of hacking?
While we have previously blogged about CISSP movie concepts, the fact is that many of the depictions of hackers in film tend to go towards extremes: either slick sociopaths such as the laughably bad Sandra Bullock film The Net or, more often than not, the typical stereotype of the repressed loner with poor hygiene and even worse interpersonal skills who lurk in basements like a troll (take your pick…there are really too many to list). What you actually usually see in films is either a black hat hacker, white hat hacker, or maybe a hacktivist who engages in hacking as a means of “sticking it to the man” or taking on the powers that be.
Take for example Sneakers (1992) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (both the 2009 original and the 2011 remake). In Sneakers, a security specialist team of white hat hackers (headed by Robert Redford) are hired to steal a chip which will be able to decrypt any computer on the planet. Ridiculous plot from a computer standpoint, but it’s well done, by Hollywood standards, right down to the showdown with the evil mastermind of Ben Kingsley who is trying to steal it for criminal use. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the best-selling series of novels by Stieg Larsson, features Lisbeth Salander, as a hacker who breaks many of the stereotypes for computer geeks—she’s a woman, she’s independent, she’s a punk rocker, and, although she is socially awkward, she isn’t one dimensional as she has Asperger’s Syndrome which explains many of her personality traits. In the course of the film, she is able to use her hacking, lockpicking, and coding talents as a means of tracking down and bringing to justice a serial killer. Even at the end when she uses her hacking to embezzle millions of dollars, the audience is left feeling like it is excusable because the man she stole it from is a corrupt billionaire guilty of multiple crimes.
Hollywood’s depiction of hackers is, typically, skewed to better serve film narratives. Most audiences would find the real work of hackers, spending hours scanning IP addresses, looking for vulnerabilities, writing computer code, launching SQL injection attacks, and compiling scripts much less dramatic than Jeff Goldblum uploading the virus that destroys the mother ship in Independence Day and, ultimately, saves the world. Who would have thought that aliens would be running an old version of Apple’s OS?