Reality vs Cinema – A Look at Cyber Security in Movies

CybeRiskBlog, Cybersecurity

Cyber Security in Movies

When actor Michael Caine’s character in the 1969 movie The Italian Job sought help from a group of Britain’s most infamous computer hackers to steal a load of gold bullion from under the noses of the Mafia and the Italian police, the age of cyber-crime in modern cinema really got underway.

Since then, hacking and hi-tech have become staple subjects for television and movie entertainment, bringing the cyber world to the attention of viewers and cinema audiences worldwide.

Problem is, the vast majority of these cinematic efforts meet with groans of exasperation from real hackers and cyber security experts, alike. This is largely because of a disconnect between the realities of our own world (the real) and the world of film (the reel).

Cyber Security in Movies – It’s All About the Glamor

Ever since the 1995 movie Hackers led us to believe that all female hackers look like a young Angelina Jolie, television and movie cyber-subversives have largely had to fit a certain stereotype – at least on the distaff side of the gender spectrum.

  • From Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan (pert and pretty blond school-pal/sidekick to Clark Kent/Superman, later WatchTower to a prototype Justice League, then wife to billionaire vigilante Oliver Queen/The Green Arrow)…
  • through Arrow’s Felicity Smoak (pert and pretty blond though formerly raven-haired Goth/Emo college cyber-criminal, later Overwatch to Star City’s vigilante team, then wife to billionaire vigilante Oliver Queen/The Green Arrow)…
  • to Daisy Johnson from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (pert and pretty raven-haired cyber-activist Skye, then kick-ass government agent Daisy Johnson, turned earth-shattering Inhuman super-being Quake).

You get the idea. Hacker women in Hollywood have to be gorgeous (often in a bespectacled, or quirky kind of way). Madly skilled. And usually with the backing of some serious organization – or at least, with an idealistic mission.

Patriarchal Hollywood being what it is, men in the IT or hacking trades can largely get away with fitting the traditional physically weedy, behaviorally quirky “nerd” or “geek” stereotype. But they can also get away with looking like Ben Affleck (Paycheck, 2003). Or Hugh Jackman (2001’s Swordfish).

In all cases, a certain level of glamor is typically required – be it in their lifestyle, the kinds of hacking jobs and situations they get into, or simply in the way their work is presented.

There’s Little Glamor in the Real World

The sad fact of the matter is that it’s often an economic necessity to severely distort the truth, in films. In reality, there’s little glamor to be had in hacking, cyber security methodology, and indeed working with computers in general. And movies and television are part of the larger world of show business – with emphasis on “business” here.

TV shows and films have to be engaging and visually interesting in order to attract audiences and make money for production houses, networks, and studios. So there’s an incentive for the makers of visual entertainment to dress up the cyber realm with imagery, mood, and dialogue that’s likely to click with audiences, and ultimately make money.

Which is where those glowing lights, super-animated cursors, grinning skulls, vibrating text, atmospheric sounds and other hokey elements featured in Angelina Jolie’s Hackers (and a slew of laughable movies since) have their origin. They’re put in to jazz up the reality of a world where, as columnist, occasional white-hat hacker and CSO Roger A. Grimes puts it: “In real life, hacking is 95 percent monotony and 5 percent excitement, where focused dedication is more than a virtue. It’s almost the only trait that matters.”

Descriptions of the actual methodology of hacking (and by extension, methodologies on the flip side of the coin, in digital forensics) emphasize activities such as painstaking research, thorough surveillance, social engineering, extensive periods of trial-and-error, and the capacity to spend days, weeks, or even months on a project, if that’s what it requires.

These kinds of activity aren’t that easy to make “sexy” or accessible on screen and are therefore unlikely to translate into huge audience figures or big bucks. Which is why they’re so often ignored, watered down, or compressed into a scene that lasts a few seconds.

There’s an amusing comic strip over at which nicely illustrates the divide between reel life and real life, for the jobbing hacker.

Incidentally, even though plain ignorance is occasionally the reason for inaccurate portrayals of cyber-elements on film and TV, there’s often been a deliberate attempt to make the “computer stuff” as ludicrous as possible. Posting anonymously on Reddit, a movie industry insider who claims to have written for one of the worst offenders claims that: “We write those scenes to be inaccurate and ridiculous on purpose.”

The writer goes on to claim that there’s an active game going on out there, with writers on various projects competing with each other to see who can slip in the most groan-worthy sequences of tech-related jargon or activity – sometimes with the collusion of directors and producers.

Making IT More Accessible

Trolling aside, the incorporation of cyber-elements in TV and film has had the positive effect of bringing Information Technology firmly into the public consciousness and fostering an interest in things digital and computer-related in the minds of a generation which might otherwise have encountered these subjects only in workshops or dry academic literature.

And the technologies featured in these entertainment media (the light cycles in Tron, anything from The Matrix, etc.) have inspired scientists and inventors in much the same way as visionary works of science-fiction helped to shape the world we see today.

Cyber Security in Movies – An Age of Realism

For the purists out there, the 21st century has seen something of a positive shift in the way the cyber realm is portrayed in the world of TV and film.

The 2009 Swedish language film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (remade by Hollywood in 2011), while presenting its computer rebels as hip, punkish outcasts drawn into a murky mystery, nonetheless brought a dry realism to its depiction of the practical aspects of hacking.

Biopics (partly fictionalized biographies) such as 2013’s The Fifth Estate (with Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange) and 2016’s Snowden (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role) explored the personalities behind the news, while “docudramas” like director Alex Winter’s 2015 Deep Web shone the spotlight on the inner workings of the cyber-realm’s secret parts and hidden corners.

On the fictional side, cyber industry insiders reserve praise for movies such as 2015’s Blackhat, which starred Chris Hemsworth (Thor) as a convicted hacker drafted in to assist US and Chinese technical investigators in tracking down a Balkan cyber-terrorist operating in Southeast Asia. Ironically though, the film’s accurate depiction of digital forensics practice was enough to sink it at the box office.

On TV, Mr Robot has been and continues to be a shining example of how actual computing and hacking procedures can be blended with more traditional plot elements, to create a drama that’s still gripping enough to hook substantial audiences, week after week.

The production crew employs a former white-hat hacker (Kor Adana) to oversee each on-screen hack – with an assurance that viewers can freeze-frame the screenshots and see actual (and relevant) code. Following random IP addresses featured on-screen can lead to special websites set up as promotions for the show, and the hacks featured in each episode are field-tested by Adana and his team, to ensure that they work in real life.

Movies and TV Can Serve a Purpose

Film and television aren’t solely about telling fantastic stories of fiction, so there’s been plenty of scope for the cyber realm to be represented in documentaries. Notable examples include 2000’s Hackers in Wonderland (focusing on hackers in the United Kingdom and USA, featuring interviews with the likes of ColdFire, Phobos, and cyberjunkie), 2001’s Secret History of Hacking (which dealt with real-life instances of phreaking, computer hacking, and social engineering from the 1970s to 1990s), or 2006’s Hacking Democracy (which explored allegations of electoral fraud during the 2004 US presidential election).

Movies being (largely) a free-form medium, there have been opportunities too for members of the cyber community to create films that speak on their behalf. The 2008 documentary Hackers are People Too gave this sector a chance to air their side of the story and to make an attempt at breaking down negative stereotypes. The film describes what hacking is, how hackers think, and discusses the role of women in the field.

But perhaps the greatest benefit that movie and TV portrayals of the cyber world have produced is to get people actively thinking and talking about issues such as privacy, cyber security, and the role of technology in our lives. Which can’t be a bad thing.

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Reality vs Cinema - A Look at Cyber Security in Movies
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Reality vs Cinema - A Look at Cyber Security in Movies
The vast majority of cinematic efforts about the cyber world meet with groans of exasperation from real hackers and cyber security experts, alike. This is largely because of a disconnect between the realities of our own world (the real) and the world of film (the reel).
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