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Cybersecurity in Real Life vs. the Movies — The Good, The Bad and The Terrible

An image of movie film reel, popcorn, and other movie related items.Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that sometimes Hollywood hits the nail on the head, giving us an accurate portrayal of real-life events and situations while offering us a brief glimpse into the unfamiliar. Other times, however, movies let the fantastic take over to that special point where they lose their grip on reality. When it comes to movies based on technology, Hollywood has a tendency to be imaginative.

Hollywood certainly knows how to tell a story, and cinema wouldn’t have the same draw if it was always an accurate reflection of reality. Imagine an Avengers movie where everyone sat around and calmly talked through their problems – boring!

Let’s take a quick peek into some cinematic portrayals of IT and see which ones are good, which ones are bad and which ones are just terrible.

For subject matter expertise, we turned to Don Pezet, CTO and lead edutainer for ITProTV.

Mr. Robot

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Mr. Robot is a hit series on USA revolving around Elliot, a young computer programmer who is recruited to help take down evil corporations. A cybersecurity engineer by day, Elliot joins forces with a group of hackers to help take down companies he believes are poisoning the world. This high-octane tech and psychological thriller has captivated audiences. But, is the portrayal of technology up to snuff? Pezet reports that Mr. Robot is among the more accurate depictions of technology.

“Writers behind Mr. Robot actually take the steps to do the research and planning,” he said. “They make sure portrayals of hacking are very realistic.”

Whether it’s a technical hack or manipulation, this series is on point.

“One of the things they do really well is showing the real aspects of social engineering,” Pezet said. “They don’t shy away from real, advanced hacking as well. They actually hire real hackers, select a hack before they write the script and then build the episode around it.”

If you want to know what real hacking looks like, Mr. Robot should be at the top of your list.

“When you see someone doing an authentication bypass, for example, that’s something that works in the real world,” Pezet said. “There might be known exploits, scripted utilities for scanning networks, what have you, and Mr. Robot does a great job of demonstrating that.”

The Matrix Reloaded

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This SciFi picture certainly has its fair share of fantastical elements, with Neo jetting between the real world and a virtual construction in an alternate reality where robots have overtaken humans. But, even with these imaginative components, The Matrix Reloaded gets the technology portion right.

In the opening scene of the movie, Trinity is hacking into a power grid and she uses real-life methods in her exploit.

“It shows her using a UNIX terminal. She’s using Nmap to find a server that’s running SSH,” Pezet said. “Then she uses a real SSH exploit that was available for the SSH login process, and uses the SSH nuke utility to reset the root password to log in. While it looks like Hollywood role playing, it’s a real thing.”

While you can’t say this flick strictly adheres to real life, they certainly make the hacks realistic.

War Games

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An oldie, but a goodie, this film hails from 1983 and attempts to highlight the dangers of technology and its effect on the real world. In the movie, main character David Lightman stumbles upon what he believes to be a game, but actually turns out to be a military supercomputer used to predict nuclear war. Although our modern technology is clearly more advanced than what is portrayed in the movie, what they do show is an accurate reflection.

War Games is dated, absolutely,” Pezet said. “But a lot of what they demonstrated was groundbreaking at the time and we still apply those concepts today.”

Pezet can point to several places where War Games gets it right.

  • The presence of a supercomputer: Isolated devices for operations that involve extremely sensitive data
  • Security through obscurity: Leaving the phone line unsecured based on the assumption that no one would be able to identify and utilize it
  • War dialing: Now done with port scanners instead of phones
  • Phone phreaking: A method for getting free phone calls, which was the basis for a device developed by Steve Wozniak and sold by Steve Jobs prior to the founding of Apple
  • Physical penetration attacks: Stealing an ID to access an off-limits building

Although this movie is certainly not of the cutting-edge variety, the filmmakers based their plot around real-life methods and tools.

Looking for more cybersecurity in the movies?

Check out this video we did with @NetworkChuck.

Live Free or Die Hard

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It’s difficult NOT to mention this flick when talking about technology-based cinema. Live Free or Die Hard was a thrilling offshoot of the Die Hard franchise that depicts a modern-day attack via a large-scale hack on American infrastructure, something they call a “fire sale.”

The basic premise involves an attack on national infrastructure by a sophisticated hacker team. More specifically, a group of malicious individuals occupy an eighteen-wheeler and take control of public systems, such as transportation and the stock market. As the team systematically takes down all public systems, they wreak havoc on the The plan is powered by the slighted evil hacker genius whose real intentions involve stealing money from a financial transfer that was prompted as the result of a related attack on the FBI.

John McClane pairs with hero hacker Matthew Farrell to defeat the malevolent hackers and evil is defeated, giving us a classic, feel-good ending. But much of the technology is completely unrealistic.

“The idea that all our power grids, stoplights, etc. are connected on a single grid that can be controlled from the same place is just simply not true,” Pezet said. “Much of the hacks are unrealistic and not based in current technology capabilities.”

Despite the unrealistic plot and IT that is not based in reality, Pezet says that the movie’s plot “does highlight the vulnerabilities in our systems, and paying attention to the additional controls needed on those systems is a good thing.”

Swordfish/Hackers

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These movies are bundled together because they both contain sophisticated hackers gaining access to systems—and when those people perform their hack, there is a 3D representation of the virtual world.

In Swordfish, master manipulator and terrorist preventer, Gabriel, coerces Stanley Jobson, hacker genius, to use a hydra program to steal money from government funds. Amidst other thrilling moments and several scenes of misdirection, Gabriel gets his money and uses his talents to drive his boat into the sunset, laden with cash.

Hackers is a mid-90’s movie about an 11-year-old hacker who crashes more than 1,500 systems before the internet was readily available for public use. The crash causes a slump in the NYSE. Later, he finds himself stripped of his technical tools and on probation, forbidden from hacking. As he enters high school, he is faced with a band of teenage hackers who, through various forms of deception, become warring hacker factions, leading to a thrilling fight in the race to steal money.

“This is not what hacking is like in real life,” Pezet said of both movies. “There is no 3D representation of the virtual world, and hacking often involves a boring wall of text and code.” He cautions that securing a system doesn’t involve any flashy methods or colorful stunt work.

NCIS

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And to conclude epically with a truly and colossally bad representation of hacking, we end with one episode of NCIS. The 2004 episode “The Bone Yard,” depicts Abby, a savvy young forensic scientist who frequently uses her tech skills to solve crimes, responding frantically as her systems are being hacked. Abby tries to respond quickly to limit damage to her system. To help her in her race against time, a police officer joins her efforts and begins typing on the same keyboard to mitigate the damage. This scene is so outrageous, its titled “2 Idiots 1 Keyboard” when you search it on YouTube.

The idea here is that Abby can type faster with someone else helping her. Pezet says this one is “literally the most ridiculous portrayal of hacking” and says there isn’t even a glimmer of reality to this situation. Give it a try if you think otherwise.

And that’s a wrap! Remember that you can still enjoy a movie even if the technology isn’t necessarily based in real life, but it’s probably a good idea to choose a career by examining what it looks like in the real world.

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