In the grocery store of film genres, the “techno-thriller” tends to have the shortest shelf life: the worst examples are the movie equivalent of unrefrigerated milk. 20-plus years later, popular ‘90s techno-thrillers like Sandra Bullock’s “The Net” and Will Smith’s “Enemy of the State” might as well be set in the ‘50s in terms of their similarities to today’s computing and surveillance environments.
However, the ubiquity of computers and smart devices as we approach the third decade of the 21st century suggest that technology will be getting more supporting, and even central, roles in film.
Perhaps because of the antiquated feel of many old techno-thrillers, the ones that are fairly realistic tend to stand out. Here are three examples of Hollywood getting hacking right.
Real life ‘WarGames’
Interestingly, one of the first portrayals of computer hacking on film was also one of the most accurate. The 1983 Matthew Broderick movie “WarGames” is about a tech-savvy high school student who accidentally hacks into the NORAD missile defense system, triggering a real-life nuclear showdown between the U.S. and Soviet Union. “WarGames” became a hit, and it played an instrumental role in helping a mass audience understand new computer concepts like modems, hacking and machine learning.
In fact, the movie was so effective, it inspired one of the government’s first cybersecurity measures. President Reagan was a family friend of the film’s co-writer, Lawrence Lasker, and he watched “WarGames” in a screening at Camp David the day after it was released, according to the New York Times. After Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked into the real-life dangers of computer hacking, Reagan was warned that, “the problem is much worse than you think.”
Just 15 months later, the president signed a classified national security decision directive, entitled “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security.” Although laptop computers were brand new to the market, the directive presciently warned that they were “highly susceptible to interception” from hostile foreign powers and other hackers.
Reagan’s directive was later overridden by Congress, but thanks to “WarGames,” the issue of cybersecurity finally caught the attention of our most powerful government officials.
Domo Arigato, ‘Mr. Robot’
A recent article written by Linux expert Catherine Flick highlights another show that’s been accurate and influential in its portrayal of hacking: USA’s “Mr. Robot,” starring Emmy winner (and now Oscar winner) Rami Malek. The show is centered on Elliot Alderson (Malek), a troubled cybersecurity expert who joins a hacktivist group in an effort to expose the corrupt conglomerate E corp. The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning cyber drama is set to return later this year for its fourth and final season.
“‘Mr. Robot’ offers the most accurate depictions of hacking because it recognizes that humans are frequently the weakest links in security,” Flick writes. “E-mail phishing scams, impersonation of staff or other manipulations of social norms and expectations are often more successful than technical efforts.”
Even some of the more dramatic tactics portrayed on the show have a basis in reality. [Minor spoilers follow] The episode in which Elliot “uses a planted device to upload software onto backup energy storage devices” so he can trigger an explosion is “entirely reasonable” according to Flick, because “these gadgets usually use lead acid batteries which can emit explosive hydrogen gas when overcharged.”
“Mr. Robot” is so accurate in its depiction of hacker culture, it has actually been ahead of the news. The plot to target the consumer data held by E Corp was a precursor to the Ashley Madison hack and data dump in the summer of 2015; and the episode in which the group wirelessly hacks into a minivan aired shortly before a Wired report on remote vehicle hacking.
“Obviously, I can’t see into the future,” “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail told the Huffington Post. “So I don’t know these things are going to happen and write them into the script, but it’s strange how we’re really paralleling what is happening in the news.”
Despite these examples, it’s impossible to deny that the record of hacking in Hollywood has been spotty at best. Perhaps no movie better embodies the uneven portrayal of computer culture than “Live Free or Die Hard,” the fourth installment of Bruce Willis’ signature action franchise. For those who lost track, this is the one where John McClane teams up with a hacker played by Justin Long (then known as the human Mac in Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign) to stop a cyber-terrorist who has taken control of America’s infrastructure grid.
On the one hand, the movie’s “hammering on the keys while waiting on a load screen” moments are as absurd and unrealistic as John McClane single-handedly taking out a fighter jet. Still, the movie is not without its merits. Hacking into the infrastructure grid is indeed one of the gravest real-world threats in cyber warfare. In fact, the movie was actually inspired by John Callum’s 1997 Wired article “A Farewell To Arms,” which laid out the worst-case national security issues dramatized in the film.
Like many other techno-thrillers, “Live Free Or Die Hard” also features Nmap in a scene, which is a real network port scanner and service detector. Nmap regularly pops up in techno-thrillers, not only because it could be theoretically used in a wide range of hacking activities but because, as Flick notes, “it produces reams of text which scroll past in the way we’ve become used to seeing [Hollywood portray] complicated computer wizardry.”
Hack to the Future
It’s inevitable that as technology becomes more and more integrated into our daily lives, it can’t help but show up in more and more movies and TV shows. While many of these portrayals will undoubtedly stretch the limits of believability (we’re looking at you girls with dragon tattoos), it’s worth taking stock of the story’s larger narrative. Even a movie as over-the-top as “Live Free or Die Hard” can contain elements of truth, while “WarGames” is evidence they can even affect policy. And with a TV-obsessed, former reality show host in the Oval Office, we can’t dismiss anything.