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Hollywood doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to portraying anything to do with computers or the internet. Here are five hacker movies that took computer security well beyond the bounds of reality.
Superman 3 (1983)
The Scenario: Corrupt corporate boss Ross Webster enlists the help of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), a man who learned programming from an advert on the back of a book of matches, to help him hold the world to ransom (and defeat Superman into the bargain).
Why it’s wrong: Leaving aside much else, including Pryor’s very easily-acquired expertise, the approach of Superman 3 to hacking accuracy can be summed up in one scene. Required to disable the security protecting a payroll network, he enters the immortal command “Override all security”. He goes on to interact with the same computer system using distinctly human syntax – “Channel half cents from all salaries into my expenses account” and it’s smart enough to comply.
The Scenario: Teenage hacker prodigy Dade and his pals happen upon a plot to release a highly advanced virus, and soon find themselves embroiled in a plot to embezzle millions of dollars, and pursued by the Secret Service. Hacking and social engineering abound, with a “hacking duel” taking place at one point.
Why it’s wrong: We all know old operating systems could be hard to navigate at times. But simulating flying between neon blue and purple virtual skyscrapers every time you needed to find a file is taking it to extremes. The computer interface encountered by the hackers on their way into a system looks more like a video game than any kind of file browser. It’s a Hollywood cliche repeated in Jurassic Park, where a 12-year old girl navigates the notoriously tricksy Unix OS by spooling through what look like digitized filing cabinets.
Independence Day (1996)
The scenario: It might not spring immediately to mind, given that the bulk of the film consists of Will Smith whooping while punching aliens, and Jeff Goldblum looking nervous, but the entire finale of Independence Day depends on attacking the alien mothership with a computer virus, making it one of the better hacker movies out there.
Why it’s wrong: For all that Jeff Goldblum’s all-purpose scientist character shows good skills in figuring out how the alien ships are communicating, it’s quite a leap from there to writing a virus that will at a stroke completely destroy their hugely advanced computer systems. In one night. On a mid-nineties Mac Powerbook. Having presumably devoted considerable time to probing the alien network for vulnerabilities, and worked out a compatible method of delivering the malware. We hope they tried an alien phishing scam first.
Scenario: The one scene everyone remembers sees hacker Hugh Jackman forced to hack into a Department of Defense website in under sixty seconds – in, shall we say, distracting circumstances. Later, he is required to code a ‘hydra’ – a multi-headed malware worm to crack a much more complex network system to steal $9.5bn.
Why it’s wrong: Movies and games blog Den of Geek does a good job of picking apart the fine details here: in summary, nonsense or irrelevant code on every computer screen. And Swordfish trips up in other ways as well – the speed-hacking challenge is predictably, totally unrealistic; hours, rather than seconds, would be a better fit. And a few other Hollywood hacking cliches show up too – most notably the big red ‘Access Denied’ signs when he initially fails to hack the Defense website.
Die Hard 4 (2007)
The Scenario: Terrorist hackers, led by Timothy Olyphaunt, cause chaos by hacking into pretty much every system in the USA simultaneously, controlling everything from banking to traffic lights, TV broadcasts to cellular networks. They then set about attacking a secure government facility which apparently holds a unified backup of all financial transactions.
Why it’s wrong: Lots of small ways – hackers don’t seem to ever need to use the mouse or the space bar, and like all Hollywood computing, nothing takes more than four button presses to achieve. But in a much bigger sense, the question is: if a gang of criminals had that much hacking expertise, why would they not just steal what they wanted in total secrecy, without alerting so much as a single security technician?
Have we missed your favorite hacker movies? Let us know in the comments.
Author Karl Thomas, ESET