Checklist 119: Hacky Holidays!
The holidays are here — and so is the entire Checklist crew! On this week’s special holiday edition of the show, we’re veering into something new and fun. Rather than bringing you depressing stories about data breaches or the headlines about whatever Facebook’s latest follies may be, we’re sinking into the sofa with mugs of hot chocolate (and mini marshmallows, of course) for a holiday movie marathon. We aren’t flipping on the Hallmark channel, though, because on our list for this week, we’re going to tick off these stories:
- An 11-year-old wreaks havoc (Hackers)
- A game that is not worth playing (Wargames)
- Putting a blind man behind the wheel (Sneakers)
Are some of these sounding a little familiar? Maybe you’ve seen them before — but if not, we’re about to take you on an interesting journey. Here’s how it works: Nicholas Ptacek and Nicholas Raba, SecureMac security gurus, along with August Trometer, Checklist host, all selected their favorite films that involve computers, especially hacking. We’ll look at what they’re all about, how they depict computer security, what’s right, what’s wrong, and what you might be able to learn from them, too. Let’s get things started with a movie that is truly a “so bad it’s good” classic.
Nicholas Ptacek’s Pick: Hackers
1995’s Hackers is perhaps one of the most famous movies on its eponymous subject. IMDB summarizes it like this:
“A young boy is arrested by the US Secret Service for writing a computer virus and is banned from using a computer until his 18th birthday. Years later, he and his new-found friends discover a plot to unleash a dangerous computer virus, but they must use their computer skills to find the evidence while being pursued by the Secret Service and the evil computer genius behind the virus.”
Directed by Iain Softley, the film stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller, while Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens, Lorraine Bracco, Wendell Pierce, and Marc Anthony round out the cast. RottenTomatoes records a “ROTTEN” rating of 33% from the critics, while viewers have a kinder view of the movie with an audience score of 68. So what is it about this movie that’s made it such an enduring classic for our own Nicholas Ptacek?
Why do you love this movie? It’s actually one of my favorite movies of all time — Okay, maybe Star Wars is higher, but Hackers is way up there. I love this film because it’s practically what I grew up on; I was just getting into computer stuff around that time, and it was a huge influence that brought me into the whole “computer security” thing in the end. It’s hard to describe what Hackers is — it’s bad, it’s cheesy, and you love to hate it—or maybe you hate to love it! Either way, it’s a classic and something many in the security world enjoy. It’s just a fun, goofy escape.
What does the film get right overall? Well, not so much about the hacking stuff, as it turns out. However, the phone phreaking stuff in the movie is pretty much correct. (Note: Check out Checklist 40 Apple’s Hacker History for more on phone phreaking). I believe they actually had a consultant on the movie, Eric Corley, who publishes the famous 2600 Hacker Quarterly magazine. So, things like the opening scene, where a character is connecting to a phone box outside someone’s house to steal someone else’s service, that’s pretty accurate. Finding out that those things were real and could be done was a big part of what cemented my love for the movie.
What’s the most ridiculous thing in the movie? That’s a tough one for Hackers. I’d have to say it’s a tie. First up, the graphical user interfaces in the film. Sure, they look cool with all their 3D fly-bys and all — but none of it was real then, and none of it is real now. It’s pure fantasy. In the latter part of the movie, the characters are sending out viruses — and there are literal representations of the viruses chewing up the files. Obviously, that’s not how it works at all, but it was engaging!
From a security side, is there anything viewers can learn from the movie Hackers? Regarding practical knowledge? Not much, though there is one scene where characters go dumpster diving for documents with passwords and logins on them — so you might want to consider shredding those sensitive files before they go in the trash. For understanding security and computer culture, though, it can be a pretty useful film. We make fun of it, but we love Hackers, so there are references to it in a lot of places online, in software, and elsewhere. That’s where a lot of the fun in viewing Hackers today comes from: being able to spot all the other people who love it too.
August Trometer’s Pick: WarGames
Next, we’re turning back the clock a bit and heading back to 1983, back before computers as we know them today were widespread and long before the modern Internet was fully realized, to the movie WarGames. IMDB again:
“A young computer whiz kid hacks into a government supercomputer and starts a game called “global thermonuclear war”…but the game is real. It’s then a race against time to convince the computer that ‘the only way to win is not to play.’“
Directed by John Badham, a young Matthew Broderick gets top billing, alongside Alley Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, and Barry Corbin. Other notables include John Spencer (The West Wing), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), and Eddie Deezen (Grease). Critics loved this one back when it came out, with a RottenTomatoes FRESH score rating of 93% and an audience score of 76. So why did August pick this film?
Why do you love this movie? The reason I like this movie so much, in addition to just being a great, accessible thriller, is because it introduced to a worldwide audience something that had been going on in the background and underground concerning hacking. No one really knew about it, and for a lot of folks, WarGames was the movie that brought these things to the fore.
What does this film get right overall? So much! Everything from the online hacking, the physical hacking, to the social engineering in the film is all spot on. It’s actually impressive how it covers all these bases in a way that’s not just believable but engaging. In an early scene, Broderick’s character has set up a program that uses his modem to dial phone numbers in sequence. When the system finds one that links to another computer, it makes a note so he can check it out later.
What’s the most ridiculous thing? The idea that our national defense systems might have a simple login with only a username and no password; even the school in the movie has a password! That and all the adults in the movie aren’t too bright at all — though we can chalk that up to being part of the conceit of the movie.
Is there anything we can learn from WarGames? The social engineering aspect of this film must be one of its most interesting attributes. From bamboozling the school secretary into giving him system access to researching how to find a login for a system, it’s a real depiction of what good social engineering can allow someone to do. The human element is almost always the weakest point in any security system, and that’s something WarGames highlights a few times — so it’s a good takeaway for us to consider, too.
Nicholas Raba’s Pick: Sneakers
Finally, we’ll jump back into the 90s to consider 1992’s Sneakers, a movie that’s maybe a little less well-remembered than WarGames and Hackers but no less intriguing. We go to IMDB once again:
“Martin Bishop is the head of a group of experts who specialize in testing security systems. When government agents blackmail him into stealing a top secret black box, the team find themselves embroiled in a game of danger and intrigue. After they recover the box, they discover that it can decode all existing encryption systems around the world and that the agents who hired them didn’t work for the government after all.“
Sneakers was directed by Phil Alden Robinson with a star-studded cast that included Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and Ben Kingsley. Other notables include Timothy Busfield (The West Wing) and Stephen Tobolwsky (Groundhog Day). Scoring 78% on RottenTomatoes, users like it a little more, rating it an 80 – and Sneakers is Nicholas Raba’s pick for our hacky holidays.
Why? I remember being a kid and watching this movie with my dad at the time and being amazed at the idea of systems that could allow you to just access anything. In the film’s magic-like “black box,” that’s exactly what you got. That piqued my interest and sparked my imagination, but I also love this movie because of the way it represents the growing awareness that computers were not only the future, but that computer security would define our world even more.
What’d it get wrong? Well, the black box itself is undoubtedly a fantasy; maybe something that miniaturized could be made today, but in 1992? Definitely not. Besides that, though, there wasn’t a whole lot out of the realm of possibility; the black box’s purpose was to be able to break and defeat any cryptographic formula out there. While there’s thankfully nothing today that could do that with today’s encryption, we could totally make something like that to defeat old 90s encryption today.
What’s one of the coolest moments? It’s social engineering again. This movie’s got a lot of it, from shoulder surfing with cameras to having a date with someone to try and swipe a special keycard they have. It’s not just hacking — it’s a bit like being a spy, and that makes it seem way cooler.
What do you think about these movies? Think you might have something new to add to your watchlist this holiday season? Even if you can’t always take away clear life lessons from moving that involve hackers, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still great fun. So why not kick back, enjoy the rest of the holiday season, and take in a movie?
That’s the end of our discussion for this week, and with the end of 2018 on the horizon, it’s almost time to turn our calendars and start all over again from the top. In the meantime, you could also spend your holiday downtime getting better acquainted with all the content you can find right here in The Checklist Archives. Find out about the latest in security news, learn strategies for keeping you or your family safe online, and impress your friends with how much you know about what’s really going on in the world of security.
What’s your favorite hacker movie? We’d love to know — just like we’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and story suggestions all the time, too.