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Movies That Got Cybersecurity All Wrong

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Movies take fantastical leaps in logic all the time. They can’t always remain realistic and still tell a compelling story. There needs to be drama, the raising of stakes, and a few choice moments of ‘deus ex machina’ to push the story forward. But even the most grounded, true-to-life stories can make major missteps when telling stories about cybersecurity and hacking. Oftentimes, they opt for fantastical graphics and over-the-top personalities to sell the idea that hacking is cool. Meanwhile, hackers prefer to be clandestine. Plus, no matter how many movies and television shows would have you believe it…you cannot zoom in indefinitely. There are limitations to even the best cameras and photo software. Unlimited enhancing is not a thing.

War Games (1983)

One of the first movies about hacking, this film set the stage for a generation’s fascination with the Internet. Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a teen hacker, who uses his modem for mayhem. He hacks his school to change his grades. He tries to find free computer games. He stumbles on the NORAD supercomputer, and its AI war simulator, WOPR. Through some research, he correctly guesses the programmer’s password. But he almost starts World War III. Some elements are realistic, like his “war dialing” random numbers to look for vulnerable computers. But it is hard to believe a computer that could launch nuclear weapons would be on an open network. That’s a huge safety liability. This movie was realistic enough to inspire President Ronald Reagan to enact the National Security Decision Directive 145.

Superman III (1983)

While neither the best nor the worst of the Christopher Reeve franchise, Superman III  casts comedian Richard Pryor as computer programmer turned cybercriminal, Gus Gorman. A few moments from the film stand out as utterly illogical from a cyber security standpoint. Pryor does the typical penny-shaving scheme which pulls pennies from multiple transactions. The official term is “salami-slicing” and has been used in countless movies from Office Space to Hackers.   But he receives a manual hand-signed check for over 85 thousand dollars. That would have been fact-checked. Then there’s also him hacking a weather satellite to discern, and recreate kryptonite. Best of all, one of the computer screens has a typo.

The Net (1995)

This thriller with Sandra Bullock predicted some technological advancements. Companies using our personal information and chat history to engage with us, the perils of identity theft, and even the Domino’s Pizza Tracker. Angela Bennett (Bullock) did not want to interact with anyone and would even order her pizzas from a website. While ahead of its time with some ideas, some major cybersecurity realities were glossed over. The FBI and the New York Stock Exchange using the same security software, while possible, would not be likely. Also, hackers would not be so obvious as to hide their epic backdoor into any system as a clearly visible Pi symbol in the corner of the screen. Even an intern QA-ing the website or program would notice that. Plus it seems like the bulk of Bullock’s cybersecurity skills involve pushing the Escape button and the Ctrl and Shift keys at the same time. Also, as per usual, it uses pixelated screens and visual representations rather than actual code.

Hackers (1995)

Hackers made the idea of hacking cool with hip youngsters like Jonny Lee Miller and his future wife, Angelina Jolie. While some of their hi-jinks are possible like hacking a television station or public posting a person’s phone number, some are far-fetched. While it’s possible to set off a fire alarm it’s doubtful these were managed via computer at the time. Using a trash file to store a “salami-slicing” supervirus would also be hard to pull off. Not to mention, computer security professionals don’t get to dress however they want, disrespect CEOs, and skateboard through the offices like Fisher Stevens does in this film. Plus, many computer viruses do not have animations as they do in most movies, although, it would be nice to have something to entertain us while our computers crash. 

Enemy of the State (1998)

This Will Smith conspiracy thriller seems like a retelling of The Net with an NSA twist. Lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith) gets handed footage of a US Congressman being murdered. This results in a subsect of the NSA and its teams of hackers and analysts using all their powers to destroy his life. They have the IRS audit his witnesses, turn off his credit cards, and insert tracking devices in his shoes. As if that’s not far-fetched enough, they manage to have full security dossiers and deep checks performed in minutes. They also have seemingly limitless power to involve other agencies and law enforcement with no warrants and by phone call alone. While in the wake of the Edward Snowden leak, we are more aware of some of what the NSA can do. This movie takes it to the extreme.

Swordfish (2001)

While neither popular nor plausible this movie falls into the Hall of Shame as far as hacker movies go. Hugh Jackman plays Stanley Jobson, a hacker enlisted by Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) to steal money from a government slush fund. This is definitely one of those key tappings takes on hacking. None of Jackman’s moves are grounded in reality. Notably, he’s asked to hack the DEA with a gun to his head and during a risque moment in 60 seconds. It would take actual hackers an hour to achieve that. This film goes way off the rails but it doesn’t seem particularly grounded in this reality. 

Notable Mentions 

Firewall (2006)

Criminals take Harrison Ford’s family hostage so he can steal millions to pay them off. This seems highly unlikely. Not only do the hackers leave an epic and easy-to-follow paper trail with their messy transactions, why would they put themselves at risk of larger charges for violent crimes? Also, given the breakdown of financial networks, many of these changes would have to be done offline by a second party not just by Harrison Ford in a spiffy suit. 

Blackhat (2015)

Chris Hemsworth plays a convicted hacker who is drafted to help stop an international hacking incident. While it’s feasible for the FBI to enlist the services of former computer criminals, it’s not likely they’d give them a gun and send them on missions. Hemsworth’s take on hacking involves actual code and seems realistic, yet some of the plot points don’t seem super secure. It’s not likely most cybercriminals also have a ton of self-defense training. Also, the only means of monitoring him is an ankle bracelet while he travels to multiple countries…not likely. 

Skyfall (2016)

As if MI6 getting hacked isn’t far-fetched enough, the way it’s handled is messy at best. James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are reviewing the encryption process and Bond notices a word out of all of the code. While a convenient plot point, that isn’t how encryption works. Also, when you finally decrypt the code you would end up with code not an elaborate map of London. 

Not every movie can hire cybersecurity experts and consultants. But sometimes the magic of Hollywood glosses over the facts of how hacking and cybersecurity work to try and make a sexier story. That can be confusing to audiences and potentially dangerous in navigating the Internet. But, at least they look good while doing it? Here’s hoping this list inspires more realistic portrayals of cyber security.

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