Are Hollywood hackers bogus or bright?

Hackers are treated pretty well by movie-makers, a researcher says

Quick: What's a hacker? A pimply faced teenager in a dark bedroom trying to start World War Three, or a thirty-something professional with mad computer skills?

Although today's hacker is more likely to be a professional software developer or security expert, that pimply faced teenager image persists. To help understand why that is, Damian Gordon has watched more hacker movies than perhaps anyone in the world. And now he's written an academic paper for the International Journal of Internet Technology and Secured Transactions looking at the way hackers are portrayed in the movies.

Gordon, a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, studied 50 movies, produced over five decades. The results amazed him. In the movies, most hackers aren't teenaged whiz-kids. They're professionals, over 30 years old, who work in IT. "Generally they're presented as good guys, not bad guys," he said.

So why the pimply teenage sociopath rap? "There were a few really seminal movies that stuck in people's minds that were slightly different," Gordon said. "'War Games' is a perfect example."

In 1983's "War Games," Matthew Broderick plays a teenaged hacker who inadvertently brings the world to the brink of nuclear war after hacking into a military network.

"Once 'War Games' took off, that was a kind of bogeyman that the media hung onto," he said. "Even though we know that most hacking is done by people who are sacked from their jobs who have the passwords."

Panned by the critics, "Superman III" actually contains a pretty accurate portrayal of a hacker, Gordon said. In the movie, a character played by Richard Pryor, uses what's known as "salami slicing" to skim thousands of dollars from his employer."Computers rule the world today, and the fellow that can fool the computer can rule the world himself," villain Robert Vaughn tells Pryor during the film. Last year, Michael Largent, a real-life criminal from Plumas Lake, California, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for pulling off a salami slicing scam.

In the past, researchers have looked at how Hollywood has presented science in the movies and found it lacking.

Similarly, Gordon has problems with the typical hacker movie. Filmmakers always want to jazz up the way that hacking software looks, and they often make it unrealistic. And hackers usually do what they want way too easily. "They will open every computer system or they'll hack into anything," he said.

Of the 60 hackers portrayed in his 50 movies, 44 of them (73 percent) the hackers were good guys. They were bad 17 percent of the time, and in-between 10 percent of the time. Only 20 percent of the hackers were students; 32 percent were computer industry professionals; 20 percent full-time hackers; and 20 percent came from other professions.

Gordon, a former computer programmer, started the research because he wanted to get a better idea of whether hacking movies would work as a teaching tool. But his love of hacking flicks dates back to childhood. "I blame my parents. When I was a child, the only movies we got to see were 'Tron' and 'War Games' and things like that," he said. They were the kinds of movies I looked at as a child, and lo and behold when I grew up I did a degree in computer science."

In the course of his work, Gordon discovered that hacking movies are older than most people realize.

The oldest movie cited in his study is 1968's "Hot Millions," starring Peter Ustinov. In the film Ustinov plays a criminal who uses social engineering techniques to impersonate a computer programmer and steal money, using a variety of fake identities.

Gordon nearly included "Desk Set," a 1957 Spencer Tracy - Katherine Hepburn movie where Hepburn's character discusses ways that she and her staff might destroy or hack into a computer system called EMILAC. But since they don't actually do any hacking, the film didn't make the cut.

Gordon's five favorite hacking films, in alphabetical order, are:

*"Hot Millions" -- " A really excellent representation of how hacking goes."

*"Independence Day" -- "A Mac hacking into an alien operating system and loading a virus. That's Steve Jobs' dream: The power of the Mac"

*"Sneakers" -- "You have to love Robert Redford."

*"Tron" -- A sentimental favorite, it was the first hacker movie he saw as a child. "Because Tron 2 is coming soon, that's a source of great excitement."

*"War Games" -- "A big fun one… It will always be remembered as being very important."

Tags hackersmovies

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Robert McMillan

IDG News Service

14 Comments

nurbles

1

Independence Day...

I never thought of the Mac taking out the alien system as "power." Instead, I always saw as a logical result of attempting to connect a Mac to a large, critical system network. The Mac's attempt to make everything work exactly the way Apple wants causes the network to crash. QED.

Of course, the skull'n'crossbones was just an unfortunately side effect.

;-)

Gaspar

2

The term "Hacker" originally referred to University faculty...

The term hacker was originally coined to refer to anyone who made modifications to computer systems on site. The most common group of "hackers" were tenured professors, graduate and post-graduate students as well as other staff at several major University labs. The work they did was very much legal as well as morally sound.

Richard Stallman goes into lots of detail explaining what the word "hacker" means and how it came about.

As for its modern use. We have three groups using it. The entertainment industry who use it as a mostly derogatory term to state someone is doing something illegal. The second group is composed of people who grew up watching this entertainment and learned the word in its improperly used form. They are for the most part young and for the most part dabble lightly in subjects on the edge of technical. The vast majority of these persons soon move onto non-technical careers.

The third group is bay far the largest by several orders of magnitude. It is composed of thousands of dedicated professionals. They are almost all employed in the traditional (and legal) meaning. If they are not employed, most still contribute to various community projects such as Mozilla Firefox, Linux or MySQL to just name a few prominent ones. Many are entrepreneurs leading the march of technological innovation.

To quote Stallman:
"Around 1980, when the news media took notice of hackers, they fixated on one narrow aspect of real hacking: the security breaking which some hackers occasionally did. They ignored all the rest of hacking, and took the term to mean breaking security, no more and no less. The media have since spread that definition, disregarding our attempts to correct them. As a result, most people have a mistaken idea of what we hackers actually do and what we think. "

The source can be found here:

http://stallman.org/articles/on-hacking.html

To Damian Gordon in response to your quote,

"Even though we know that most hacking is done by people who are sacked from their jobs who have the passwords."

I would request on behalf of all true hackers, that you desist libeling us with such false descriptions and statements that we are criminals.

jkcohen

3

Desk Set

Minor correction: the name of the computer in Desk Set was EMERAC.

Anonymous

4

A Mac with a sad face or Xs for eyes would have been much more realistic.

Rocky

5

Hollywood not so kind to Asian Males.

How about covering racism in hacking films? Hollywood does not treat the Asian man so well, and disproportionately treats African Americans well.

I've been in the computer industry (in the U.S.) for 20 years, and Asians (men in particular) vastly outnumber the number of African Americans in the industry. However, do you see them in films?

Some examples? War of the Worlds (the series), Transformers the Movie, The Matrix all prominently feature Black hackers while suspiciously avoiding Asian programmers.

Or how about Live Free or Die Hard -- which feature Asian female hackers (both good and evil) while having a single Asian male receptionist?

Anonymous

6

Your post is ridiculous.
Why

Your post is ridiculous.

Why are there no blind Native American female hackers with Crohn's Disease :((((

Rocky

7

I think you miss my point. If I were to make a movie about the NBA, but featured only white actors, then wouldn't that be racist?

I've worked in offices with a **majority** of the programmers being Asian (male).... if not the largest minority.

Anonymous

8

I've worked in offices where the majority of programmers are from the Western hemisphere. Why don't Hindi or Japanese films feature westerners as the lead role?

Stop bandying around the racism card. The lead roles are cast so that the majority
of movie goers can identify with them on some level and they are produced in the
West.

Rocky

9

Your argument makes no sense. The overwhelming majority of people in Japan are Japanese, therefore there are no white roles.

On the other hand, we're talking about the United States, here, with a much-less-than overwhelming White majority and only 12% African Americans...yet with that small of a percentage, Hollywood has no problem placing African Americans in prominent "hacker" roles while ignoring minorities that far outnumber them in said roles (not to mention doctors and lawyers -- roles where Asians also greatly outnumber).

And who said anything about a lead role? How about ONE -- just ONE supporting role?

Anonymous

10

> How about ONE -- just ONE supporting role?

Wasn't the main characters friend in Hackers 3: Antitrust asian?

I still don't think the lower number of asian characters in "hacker"
themed films constitutes as racism. Maybe it's because it's only
Western computer criminals who make the headlines, maybe it's not.
It certainly isn't racism. I think your argument is moot either way.

On a sidenote, are you asian? You seem a little jaded...

Anonymous

11

Racism in hacker films

Maybe asians don't make good hacker actors. However, isn't the matrix trilogy dominated by asians? They are everywhere.

otto

12

They don't portray Asians because we are in a new cold war with China. Asians are "evil" and from China. Their's only black and white in America doncha know.

Charles

13

It's interesting that the article uses a photograph from the movie Hackers, but makes little mention of that movie, which does stereotype Hackers as young kids.

Terrell

14

The race talk is moot;

New World Disorder and Untraceable, I don't recall seeing those on the watched lists.

Comments are now closed.

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