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I grew up in the 1980s generation, when technology really started to become “cool”. You had Max Headroom, Tron and of course the very first video game console – the Atari. It was the dawn of the technology boom, when those that had to suffer through being a bullied as a 1980s nerd grew into adulthood and transformed into ultra-cool geeks.
However, part of that transformation included a fascination with hacking. For me, it started with the 1983 film War Games. It was a movie where David Lightman, played by young Matthew Broderick, hacked into the U.S. military supercomputer WOPR. What he thought was nothing more than a cool video game turned out to be a computer system capable of predicting outcomes of a cold-war nuclear conflict scenario.
By hacking, the kid nearly caused World War III. Of course, the fact that he could hack into a NORAD supercomputer system intrigued young, budding hackers around the world.
What if? What if you could hack into your school’s computer system and “tweak” your attendance record? That was accomplished in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, again featuring Matthew Broderick. What if you could hack into ATM machines? Prime Risk, 1985. Better yet, how about just hacking directly into bank accounts? Sneakers, 1992.
How Movies Spawned a Generation of Hackers
Did the movies during that generation glamorize hacking and encourage an entire generation of hackers? Most likely. All you have to do is take a look at Kevin Mitnick, one of the more famous hackers of the 1980s, who used social engineering to uncover user names and passwords to some of the most secure networks around the world.
Mitnick hacked into DEC’s Ark computer system in 1979 when he was 16 years old. After serving 12 months in prison for that crime, he almost immediately hacked into voice mail systems run by Pacific Bell.
Over his career, the accessed personal e-mail accounts, obtained material that helped him create false identification, cloned hundreds of cell phones, and obtained pirated copies of proprietary software.
Is this guy – considered one of the “original” hackers – locked away in prison for the rest of his life? No. He’s actually a celebrity. He has his own security firm, Mitnick Security Consulting, and he also has published a book titled “Ghost in the Wires”.
The tagline of the book? “My adventures as the world’s most wanted hacker.”
To Mitnick, his history as a hacker isn’t one of shame, but one of pride. It’s a pride built up over years of movies and other media that promote the idea that while yes, it’s a federal crime – it’s still really, really cool.
Hacker Movies in the 1990’s and Beyond
The glamorization of hacking didn’t stop in the 80’s or early 90’s, it just transformed to incorporate sexier and more elaborate technologies. How about a movie with the tagline “Hackers” in 1995, featuring the sensual Angelina Jolie. What better way to draw in hordes of young, testosterone-laden boys just dying to attract a girl like that. She’s not only sexy, but she’s a hacker too!
So in the 90’s, hacking started to get cool. Being a computer nerd meant that you above anyone else could get access to the inside – you could find out or somehow infiltrate the inner-workings of this new digital society that was forming. Not only that, but with the growing “tech bubble” helping so many young geeks build tech empires and become multi-millionaires overnight.
Suddenly, that little “four-eyed” nerdy kid that you just shoved down the stairs is the same guy that’s going to send you a fake Paypal phishing email that you’re going to click on and – like an idiot – type in your ID and password. Say goodbye to your Ebay spending money my friend – another hacker has struck again. Nerds rejoice, right?
Categories of Hackers – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Okay – that portrayal is not entirely accurate. Most likely, that brilliant bullied kid will become the IT guy that you go to when you’re crying because you can’t get your work done because your computer blue-screened. Or he’ll become one of those freedom-fighting Anonymous hackers that deface government web pages of dictatorship governments around the world for truth and justice.
The truth is, the movies that portrayed brilliant computer gurus as something to aspire to actually inspired generations of IT and engineering professionals that do a lot of good in the world. That’s the upside.
The downside is, with every advance in a technology, there will be a segment of the population that seek to exploit it for money. For example, with phones came the insipid telemarketers, who have plagued us ever since.
Likewise, the Internet and how thoroughly it has interconnected all of us has created this fertile ground for hacking. Email accounts, personal information on social networks, bank accounts….all of these things hold our identity and our sensitive information connected to the Internet.
Anyone that knows the inner-workings of Internet security – hackers – will at some point figure out how to get to that information. Is this the fault of Hollywood for glamorizing the hackers themselves, or is it just a symptom of new technologies, and the fact that there will always be an element of the human race looking for new and creative ways to steal from their fellow humans?
The Slow Response of the Security Community
You are probably thinking, with the arguments I’ve offered so far, that I don’t feel Hollywood is responsible for the proliferation of hacking today. You would be guessing incorrectly. I do believe that’s the case, but not directly.
The problem actually comes from the fact that so many films made the hacking danger appear as though it came from young, naive and relatively non-threatening teenage computer geeks. I don’t think it was until long after 2000 that at least U.S. security organizations like the FBI or the NSA realized that the threat was much larger and more pervasive than that.
In other words, Hollywood’s glamorizing of hackers put people at ease about the looming threat. A 2011 Huffington Post report revealed that the government was holding a security convention, hoping to attract 10,000 to 30,000 security experts from the nations pool of hackers.
This isn’t anything new – Homeland Security hired hacker Jeff Moss as a consultant, the Defense Department hired Peiter Zatko of the CDC and L0pht hacker groups, and of course Facebook and Google have also been known to hire known hackers.
But when you take a step back, this brings that hacker glamorization to a whole new level. Yes, movies are still telling kids, “Hey kids, if you’re a computer genius and can back-door any computer system, people will think you’re cool!” But now, the actions of companies and the government tells these same kids, “If you can figure out how to break through our security apparatus, you may very well find yourself a new job!”
Is that the message we really want to send to kids? And will the old generation of hackers that are defending our government and corporate information systems be as capable as the new generation of hackers that hope to take their place?
Offer your take – is the culture of promoting hacking good or bad? Or is it simply inevitable either way? Share your opinion in the comments section below.