How Hollywood portrays hackers
By Andrew Brandt
(IDG) -- No doubt you remember Matthew Broderick's portrayal of a hacker in the movie War Games. That film launched hacking as a popular pastime, at least for a specific demographic of teenage males. But it wasn't the first film to feature hacking, or the last.
Movie hackers have had many faces: one-dimensional clowns, nefarious villains, mischievous geniuses, anarchic heroes. And as hackers and their motivations in the real world have changed, so have their counterparts in the movies. In more recent films they're more unrealistic, cartoonier, angrier, and able to perform completely impractical or impossible acts.
One constant among the movies, however, is the depiction of hackers as lone wolves acting independently to thwart (or in some cases, execute) a malevolent scheme. While some hackers have been presented as warriors fighting an epic battle in distant, unfamiliar realms, more often than not the Hollywood hacker is the buffoonish comic relief.
Following is a select list of hacking-related films (some primarily about hacking, others featuring a prominent hacker character), illustrating the evolution of the film industry's portrayal of hackers as it paralleled the public's changing view of hacking.
The Early Years of Hacker Films
A tale told way before its time, Tron uses the concept of cyberspace as a separate dimension to relate the story of a conflict between the good and evil inhabitants of that parallel universe.
Computer programmer and video game arcade owner Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) develops a hugely popular video game, which his employer steals before firing him. Flynn attempts to hack into the company's mainframe to gather proof of the crime. The system's security program detects him and zaps him into cyberspace, where Flynn must battle the forces of the security software to survive.
The frame-by-frame, hand-painted special effects were the first significant "computer graphics" meshed with live actors in a film. The painstaking work taught the film world a lesson: For special effects, using real CGI is easier than applying traditional animation techniques.
The film tanked at the box office but became a cult hit among the hard-core geek crowd. Its portrayals both of a cyberworld separate and unique from the real world and of a networked universe where data flows freely anticipated the Internet's popularity by a decade. And the climactic triumph of individual (hacker) good over corporate evil struck a Revenge of the Nerds-esque blow to the dismissive establishment.
WarGames introduced hacking to a whole new generation of computer buffs just as the home PC was becoming popular. It foreshadowed the security dangers inherent in systems connected to a modem (and later the Internet).
In the film, Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a well-adjusted, curious teenager, who uses his computer, a modem, and an automated dialing program to hack into what he believes is a computer game manufacturer's system. Instead, he's broken into WOPR, the U.S. military's mainframe system at NORA, a nuclear missile command center in Colorado that simulates nuclear war games for training purposes.
When Lightman launches a game of Global Thermonuclear War with the system, military personnel read it as an enemy attack and move into high alert (Def Con 1), preparing to launch nuclear countermeasures. Lightman manages to avert nuclear war only with the aid of WOPR's reclusive creator.
In addition to giving the public its first glimpse of teenage hackers and their techniques, War Games depicted (and perhaps helped to launch) the ongoing mutual fascination and frustration that exists between hackers and the military.
The portrayal of hackers as young geniuses who understand and respect technology better than the adults who create it is an underlying theme of this film. A teen prodigy named Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarrett) enters university at age 15 and takes up dorm residence with another young genius named Chris Knight (Val Kilmer).
Taylor and Knight help construct a high-power laser as part of a research project for one of their professors, only to see the professor steal the laser and sell it to the military for use as a weapon. The two students hack into the laser's control mechanism to inflict revenge on their professor and a rival student.
Real Genius offered viewers the first image of a villain deceiving smart hackers into doing his dirty deeds.
Before the public became wise to it, social engineering (tricking a person into giving away a password or information) was long the leading method hackers used to obtain entry to otherwise inaccessible systems. Sneakers was the first movie to illustrate that technique's effectiveness, and was also the first hacking film to delve into the significance of encryption.
Led by Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), several aging radicals--who have become computer security experts--are enlisted by government agents to obtain a mysterious black box of unknown origin and function.
Once Bishop and his team retrieve the box, they discover its true purpose: to crack encryption codes and break into secured computers. And the freelance hackers find out that the "government agents" are actually members of an organized crime operation that plans to use the box for nefarious deeds.
Latter-Day Hacker Films
As hacking became more widespread in the late 1980s and early 1990s, law enforcement began to clamp down on cracker gangs who stole credit card numbers and broke into phone systems to make free calls.
The latter half of the 1990s also saw several widely publicized hacks that caused mayhem on the early Internet. As a result, a few celluloid hackers ventured into more-complex roles.
But the majority of computing-related films remained corny melodramas, and the hacker went from being a cartoony good guy to being a cartoony bad guy.
There's nothing less complex than a James Bond villain, and the evil figures in The Net aren't far behind. Sneakers (discussed on the previous page) is not without some complexity, and features a more textured, ambiguous portrayal of hacking than the caricatures in Goldeneye and The Net, which were released three years later.
No longer was the hacker seen just as a harmless character pulling off Rube Goldbergian stunts; the hacker was now a dark antihero capable of causing serious destruction.
Sometimes thrust into the world of hacking against their will, at other times eager participants, movie hackers began to reshape the general public's view of the underground community alternatively as dark conspirators and sympathetic protagonists.
Three hacker-themed films made their way to the silver screen this year.
James Bond, always ahead of his time in terms of technology, enters the hacker realm in this installment of the series. In this scenario, Bond battles post-Soviet foes: the Russian mafia and a corrupt Russian military, aided by a self-important Russian hacker.
The hacker, a former computer programmer at a research outpost in Siberia, helps the mob steal a high-tech armored helicopter and a satellite weapon that can disrupt computers and electronics over hundreds of miles.
As in other Bond films, the villains are all arch, and the Russian hacker in particular comes to represent the new threat of the info-warfare era.
The film was the first to show a black-hat hacker employed by an enemy army, perhaps as a nod to the 1986 real-life incident involving German hackers who broke into U.S. military systems for the KGB.
The first movie to focus solely on the hacker community, Hackers features a ragtag group of teenage hackers caught up in the evil plot of a black-hat hacker who threatens to release a massive destructive computer virus in order to extort money. The hackers fight off the federal agents who are chasing them, and at the same time they try to halt the evil hacker's plan.
While the hackers in the film are depicted as highly skilled, they're not all particularly intelligent, and they're shown randomly breaking into systems driven only by that age-old teenage motive: boredom.
This movie gave the public its first glimpse of hacker minutiae, such as the handles they adopt, and the sense of community that the underground provides them. Hackers was also the first film to show a female hacker, played by Angelina Jolie (who, not surprisingly, became an object of fixation for many real-life hackers).
Trivia: Emmanuel Goldstein, the name of one character in the hacking group, is a nod to the pseudonym of Eric Corley, publisher of the real-life magazine 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. Corley himself took the handle from a character in George Orwell's novel 1984. Corley served as a consultant for Hackers.
As more personal information gets stored on computers, identity theft becomes a growing problem, especially for the main character of this film.
Just hours before Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock), a reclusive, agoraphobic computer expert, is scheduled to leave for vacation, she receives an odd program from a friend she knows only through the Internet. When she later hears that the friend has died mysteriously, she realizes the program contains hidden information for which her friend was probably murdered.
When the murderer discovers that Bennett possesses the program, he alters her entire identity by creating an elaborate, electronic criminal history in her name. Forced to run from authorities who believe she's a dangerous outlaw, Bennett must determine what the information in the program means and prove her innocence before the authorities find her.
Hollywood hackers often don't bear much resemblance to their real-world kin. The Net features some classic examples of the over-the-top notion that hackers can do absolutely anything, like steal data from distant PCs that aren't attached to a network. Bullock's character also seems to put about a gig of data on a typical 1.4MB floppy disk--listen kids, even a SuperDisk can't handle that.
As happens with many "high-concept" movies, nobody involved with writing, directing, or acting in this film seems to actually know how to use a computer. They don't seem to know the difference between an IP and a PI, and ... it's funny. Unintentionally so.
In this film, released on the eve of the 21st century, the fear of computers controlling the world takes on an even darker tone than what 2001: A Space Odyssey proposes.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) leads a double life. By day he manages the computer network of a large corporation, and by night his alter ego--the notorious computer hacker Neo--kicks in and spends the dark hours hacking.
One night Neo encounters a famous hacker online who goes by the name Morpheus. When Neo agrees to meet Morpheus, thinking the pro might clue him in to some new hacking technique, Neo discovers that Morpheus is actually the leader of an underground gang who is fighting for control of this manufactured existence we call reality.
Morpheus and his group recruit Neo to fight an even more menacing threat than federal agents: a malicious software "agent" that can kill using only its mind.
The philosophical and biblical undertones of the film reflected the ambivalence that the public had come to feel toward the rapid adoption of technology in all aspects of life.
The hacker as corporate watchdog is the theme of this movie, which borrows concepts from many of the hacking-related films that preceded it.
On his college graduation day, Milo Hoffman (Ryan Philippe) receives a call from billionaire technology CEO Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), inviting Hoffman to work for his company. Only after Hoffman agrees to work on Winston's project--a network of supersensitive communications satellites--does he learn that Winston is using the satellites to spy on competitors.
Ruthlessly eliminating anyone who attempts to thwart the completion of his project, Winston has one of Hoffman's college friends murdered. Hoffman then uses his hacking skills and knowledge of the network to take control of the satellites and halt Winston's plan to put competitors out of business.
While the movie failed miserably at the box office, it offered a new twist in a classic context: corporations hiring skilled hackers, and a small-scale hero fighting an evil tycoon and his empire (a thinly veiled Microsoft in this case).