Top Five Hacking Portrayals in Movies and TV

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There was a time when no computer hacking scene on the big or little screen was complete without a score of perky chirping noises and enough flashing, colored buttons to light a disco. Breaking into a system was portrayed as quick and simple, requiring nothing more taxing than some heavy-handed typing. And what keys were struck didn’t seem to matter much.

These engaging but inaccurate depictions allowed movie makers and TV show producers to portray hacking in a way that was visually exciting to a largely computer illiterate audience.

Since hacking made its Hollywood debut back in the 1980s, when Jeff Bridges’ Tron character casually mentioned that he had been “doing a little hacking here as a matter of fact,” computers have been purchased by billions of people worldwide.

Despite a more tech-savvy public, hacking still gets presented on-screen in totally unrealistic terms, often featuring a totally unrelated 3D visual interface. How else would Arrow’s Felicity Smoak be able to send a malicious hacker flying across the room by blowing up his computer with an “executable.”

While truly realistic hacking scenes would probably make for quite a dull viewing (and be incomprehensible to most people), here are the Top Five moments when films and TV shows got hacking sort of right:   

  1. WarGames (1983)

    In this 1983 cult classic, a fresh-face Matthew Broderick mistakes a NORAD supercomputer for a videogame and almost kickstarts World War III.

    While we can scoff at the system communicating in English sentences rather than in programming language, programming a computer to process a range of phone numbers to locate other computers was an actual technique known to contemporary hackers as “war dialing.”

  2. Mr Robot (2015–2019)

    Sure, Elliot wears many hoodies, but Rami Malek’s character also carries out some believable hacks, like using Raspberry Pi to compromise an HVAC system to try and destroy archived data stored on LTO tapes in Episode Four in Season One.

    The screens that appear in the show are practical and have real code on them, and the actors use real software. No meaningless beeps here.

  3. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

    In the second film in the Matrix franchise, Trinity uses Nmap — a legitimate network scanning and mapping tool deployed in the hacking community. This 2003 release also references the real-world security weakness SSH1 CRC-32 compensation attack detector vulnerability when Neo’s squeeze Trinity summons a program named “sshnuke.”

    Security analyst Michal Zalewski discovered the SSH CRC-32 bug in 2001 in code designed to guard against cryptographic attacks on SSH version one.

  4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

    Low tech tactics are highly realistic in this 2011 movie version of the psychological thriller novel by Stieg Larsson.

    Protagonist Lisbeth finds a computer password written on a piece of paper that was hidden under a blotter on a desk. She then uses it to crack into a computer and steal documents. Studies have shown that many people commit their passwords to paper rather than to memory.

  5. The Italian Job (2003 version)

    In the American retelling of the 1969 British triumph, computer whizz Lyle hacks into the Los Angeles Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control Operations Center. Once inside, he manually changes the lights from red to green, causing cars to crash.

    Six years after the film’s release, traffic engineers Gabriel Murillo and Kartik Patel were sentenced to two years’ probation for hacking into LA’s traffic signal computer and slowing traffic at key intersections.

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