Everything you can imagine is real.
But is it, really?
In the recent years, cybersecurity borders have been largely outstretched and pop references did not fall much behind. Wait, scratch that. Not only did cinematic producers keep close tabs on the evolution of technology with the dawn of the internet, they even sometimes found themselves on the brink of predicting future trends (the Internet of Things was their easiest guess).
Other times, let’s just say they ran out of luck and their imagination went waaay overboard. A bit of advice: good fiction doesn’t always have to stray that far away from the truth.
As more and more blockbusters and TV shows alike ventured in the ambitious journey of depicting the mysterious, yet ever so intriguing hacker universe, it was to be expected that some productions would perform better than others. That being said, this week’s article takes you through the Top 5 worst cybersecurity cinematic references. It is our conviction that, perhaps, by showcasing these examples here, this could actually turn out to be an educational post (for some).
#1 The ‘two on a keyboard’ scene
At some point in time, Hollywood producers seemed to all agree that hacking, the complex act of gaining unauthorized access to data in a system or computer, needs to be fast. Really fast. As if, if you’re not typing fast enough, the data will just run away from you. The navy cop series NCIS shows you just how heated such a cyber-race can get. Not typing fast enough? Then, by all means, let’s type the both of us. And then an infinite amount of windows will open on the screen. How would that even work?
#2 The ‘I am invincible’ scene
Boris Grishenko is a Russian hacker portrayed by Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the movie GoldenEye. On the one hand, he is a talented computer hacker, but on the other, he is also a backstabbing, arrogant misogynist. Believing everyone else is beneath him, he shouts out “I am invincible!” whenever he succeeds. This is one of movie makers’ favorite stereotype ever: hackers are God with Internet. That is, when they’re not too busy portraying them as nerdy social outcasts.
#3 The ‘oh, there’s malware’ scene
We get that everything on television has to be simplified for the viewer to quickly grasp the story, but this green code / red code scene in CSI: Cyber is just too much. As the name so subtly indicates, this TV series is about two things: (1) the CSI (a team of crime scene investigators) and (2) cybersecurity (or at least, some approximate perception of it). With a reputation of over-exaggerating the capabilities of a mere hack based on isolated events such as this one, CSI: Cyber sets the bar at all time low as it tries almost too hard to pin the tail on the cybersecurity donkey. Whereas flashing lights and special effects are cool and all that, highlighting the malware in red in the middle of a screen filled with green lines of code is, to put it bluntly, absolutely ridiculous. If it where that easy to detect a malware, then why are we not all using this magical bi-color solution?
#4 The ‘Deus Ex Machina’ scene
This September, the teenage movie ‘Nerve’ came out. While the idea of Internet anonymity was well executed, once the main character, Vee, enters the final stage of the game, the storyline spills all over the place. Suddenly, Tommy, one of Vee’s best friends, a rookie-hacker, steps in as the convenient Deus Ex Machina that saves the plot. Tommy suddenly reveals his connections with an influential hacker group that manages to stop the game (in less that 3 minutes) by revealing all watchers’ identities. Oh, well. At least the botnet looked pretty.
#5 The ‘kill the virus’ scene
We’ve saved the best for last and it’s definitely the 1995 classic ‘Hackers’. It crosses of our list all the previous clichés and adds in a new one: the video game dimension. Yes, in this movie, the kernel is an actual control tower and viruses are 3D evil characters that get to be blasted off with rays of code. Now, we know that sometimes cyber-threats are so annoying that nothing would give us more pleasure that to destroy them, but the screen writers of Hackers might have taken the word ‘destroy’ too literally.
It becomes clear by this point in our article that hacking is not a WAM BAM PUFF kind of activity. But it’s also obvious that nobody will sit down for 2 straight hours watching someone type, not red, not green, but regular code on a screen. Hacking can be a painstakingly slow process, yet there are ways that movies and TV series can fit this notion of time in their plot. One such example and one of our favorites at the moment is, of course, Mr. Robot.
Inspiring real-life hackers to cyber-mischief
“But I’m only a vigilante hacker by night.
By day, just a regular cybersecurity engineer. Employee number ER28-0652”
— Elliot Alderson, about himself
The story starts with our main character, Elliot, being recruited into a band of underground hackers by Mr. Robot (a.k.a the group leader). Suffering from social anxiety, as well as a drug addiction, what’s interesting about Elliot is the duality within him. He’s not really able to connect with other people, but he sure knows a lot about them since he, to put it bluntly, spies on them.
At the confluence between resentment against a superfluous world and the behind-the-scenes peak inside the hacker universe, here are a few reasons why Mr. Robot makes for a great watch for those cyber-aficionados:
It’s almost too real at times. And the reason it seems that way is because, according to the show’s creators, the TV series only adheres to hacks that have already happened and that have been diligently studied. For instance, the way the smart home in S02E01 is depicted was enough to send chills down our spines. There were no flashing lights or video games graphics involved, instead, Mr. Robot relied on quaint, multiple actions in order to drive the house owner off the edge (blasting the music in the speakers out loud, turning off the thermostat and so on).
It has a good tempo. There’s no 5-seconds hack and that is something that the cybersecurity expert community is highly appreciative of. Not only does Mr. Robot respect the accuracy of a certain cyber-attack, but the show also manages to give the impression of tediousness, each new hack being carried out in time. There are no stereotypes, just a vivid awareness of the human nature.
Elliot’s attention to the person behind the machine is daunting and serves as a propeller for his social engineering techniques. Once again, enterprises with strong security architectures are compromised not because of application vulnerabilities, but because of another type of vulnerability all together – man. What makes this production interesting in the end is the insight it provides into the psychological profile of a hacker (and not only).
With the Season 2 finale airing this week around the world, Mr. Robot concludes yet another great chapter in the hacker thriller genre. So much so that it’s inspired it’s very own ransomware, named after the group of hacker vigilantes led by Mr. Robot himself – fsociety.
(About the author: Cristina Ion is community manager at ITrust SAS. This post originally appeared on her blog, which can be seen here)
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