4 Films That Get Hacking Mostly Right
Films usually treat hacking like a flashy circus act—these four films don't.
If there's one thing that American film fans can't seem to get enough of, it's hackers. They turn up over and over again in Hollywood blockbusters and indie movies of all genres. They're even the titular characters in some pretty well-known mainstream fare.
The problem with all of that is the fact that most of the portrayals of hacking that you'll see onscreen are so laughable that they defy belief. They often contain nonsense text streaming across computer screens, or laughing Jolly Roger icons signifying successful virus penetrations (I'm looking at you, Independence Day). Most of the instances you'll see are so bad that they end up on this subreddit that's dedicated to poor tech portrayals in media.
That's not to say there are no movies that get hacking right, or at least don't go all-in on the flashing lights and gibberish. In fact, there have been a few notable instances of movies that treated hacking in more realistic ways, even if they still took some artistic license to keep things entertaining. If you're interested in seeing them, here's what they are.
'War Games' – 1983
The first example of a decent portrayal of hacking you'll find in a film is in War Games, which came out way back in 1983. It tells the story of a teenager with a computer that accidentally breaks into a NORAD defense computer system while trying to break into a video game company. He finds a number of games on the computer (which were there to teach the system game theory and tactics) and initiates a game that simulates a global nuclear war. The trouble is the computer doesn't know it's a game, and the countdown begins for real missiles to fly.
The reason it made the list is simple. It takes place back in the days of dialup modems (if you remember those), and it's notable because of the depiction of how the main character David finds his way into the target system. No made-up screens, no flashy graphics. He probes and probes and prints out data about the system's designers until he can guess an admin password that works (Hint: stop using your children's names as passwords). In the real world, this is how most data breaches happen, even today —so this is a movie that still holds up well more than thirty years on.
'Sneakers' – 1992
Another great depiction of hacking comes in the form of an ensemble comedy-drama film from 1992 called Sneakers. It's headlined by an all-star cast including Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, and Dan Aykroyd among others. It tells the story of a team of penetration testers made up of people with checkered histories (which is where they learned the tricks of their trade). They're tricked into stealing a device that contains a chip capable of deciphering military-grade encryption schemes and have to steal it back before the authorities pin the crime on them.
Although there's little in the way of obvious computer hacking in the film, it delivers a realistic portrayal of how penetration testing of physical and cyber security systems is done. It's a process that's standard operating procedure these days, and the movie gets it largely right. You may not learn how to become a cyber security expert by watching it, but you'll gain a pretty good understanding of how—and why—companies now hire former hackers to test their defenses. Plus, it's brilliantly acted, written, and is just plausible enough to hold your interest for the whole two-hour duration of the film.
'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' – 2011
If you're looking for a film that depicts hacking without a shred of pretentious nonsense and that pulls no punches, consider The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The 2011 drama tells the story of a disgraced journalist that teams up with an elite hacker to solve a 40-year-old missing person case. It's raw, gritty, and not for the faint of heart.
In the film, hacker Lisbeth uses all of the real-world tools in a hacker's arsenal to gain access where she needs to. There's nothing exciting about the approach—it's as realistic as it gets. She uses copies of magnetic-stripe keys to get physical access to locked offices. She looks for common places where people tend to jot down their passwords. She uses social engineering techniques over the phone to ferret out information. In short, she uses all of the techniques that modern hackers rely on for the bulk of their exploits. Fair warning, however— this movie is disturbing and violent, so avoid it if you can't handle such things.
'Office Space' - 1999
An honorable mention here has to go to the 1999 Mike Judge-helmed comedy Office Space. It's not a hacking movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it does get a few things dead-on about the topic. First, it portrays fed-up employees who decide to introduce a bug into their company's accounting system to siphon off small amounts of money into an account in their own names. That in itself is significant, because insider threats now account for the majority of data breaches, so the film's a bit prophetic in that way.
Best of all, though, is the scene that depicts how they infect the accounting system with their malicious software. It's an intricately choreographed floppy disk hand off sequence that ends in an upload to the target system. Afterward, the main characters observe "well that was easy," about their successful effort. In two minutes, the movie gets more right about how malicious code gets into corporate networks than some cyber security courses cover in entire semesters. Plus, the movie's a classic pop culture phenomenon. It's well worth a watch for anyone trapped in a cubicle all day.
So there you have it—four films that get hacking mostly right. Sadly, there are more poor examples of Hollywood-style hacking than films like these, but they do exist. So if you're bored of made-up GUIs and terrible references to Linux and UNIX commands on-screen, give these four films a try—you'll be happy that you did.