How Hollywood Glamorizes Hacking – And Why This Is Deeply Wrong [Opinion]

Ryan Dube 25-05-2012

hollywood hackingI 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 Learn How to Hack From the Best Websites and Tutorials The six hacker websites in this article can help you learn how to hack. Our article explains which sites are the best and why. Read More . 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.


hollywood hacking

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.

hollywood hacking movies list


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.


hollywood hacking movies list

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.

hollywood hacking

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 Facebook Opens Registration For The 2012 Hacker Cup [News] Facebook has opened registration for its second ever Hacker Cup. Facebook’s Hacker Cup is aimed at finding the best hacker in the world, with a first prize of $5,000, not including flight and accommodation at... Read More .

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.

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  1. Altra Attestor
    October 15, 2012 at 11:51 am

    if it can be used it will be useful to the world.

  2. dragonmouth
    October 10, 2012 at 11:51 am

    The assertion that "Hackers" or "Wargames" inspired individuals to be come hackers is as ludicrous as the assertion that "Goodfellas" or the "Godfather" movies inspired individuals to become mobsters. By the same logic, reading "Wall Street Journal" or "Investors Business Daily" would make one a financial wizard.

    This, and other similar assertions, are an example of "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" ("Since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.") fallacy.

    • MagGenerator1
      June 25, 2017 at 3:00 am

      I agree that movies did not inspire groups to be hackers based on the logic that you provide. I do believe that it will inspire the 1 in 100-thousand or 1 in a million who lack a moral compass and have the necessary aptitude or genius. I don't think that the future government job scenario is widely accepted as public knowledge and usually requires being punished first. Facebook would be a prime target for these few individuals, and may have been a target in the past. What better way to know the hackers and their patterns, methods, and skills than allow them to come in the front door with the potential to win a prize, rather than coming in the back door?

  3. Random Reader
    August 2, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I don't totally agree with this article.
    Sure Hollywood is an easy "Push to Blame!" Button but lets be honest... people get ideas on their own. And with an industry as huge as technology of course there will always be people trying to exploit it. While I don't think that stealing a persons information or what have you in any way is right, there is always a fine line between "Good" and "Evil" I suppose. For example... Whats the best way to defend yourself from an attacker? Learn to fight like one. That principle applies to several situations technology related or not. So to give a hacker a job at lets say, Google, to best defend against a malicious one. is in fact, not only a great idea. But the best way to continue improving the system to ward it off. There is a good and bad side to everything, no straight lines. When it comes right down to it, we all learn right from wrong and those choices belong to only the people who've made them.

  4. Mani Ahmed
    July 18, 2012 at 11:17 am

    the article leaves me with the looming query of what and how should we deal with genius curious kids who tend to become addicted to the idea of challenging a system and finding back doors. i remember wars sites used to be heaven for people like me from the developing countries who cant purchase high cost softwares and piracy was our only option to learn and advance.

  5. Dave Kaufman - Techlife
    June 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Love the article, in my syndicated column Techlife I linked to it.People need to realize how hacking impacts their daily life with something as simple as their password. - How to Hide Your Password In Plain Sight -

  6. TtfnJohn
    June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Before going on I gave to say that I'm weary of the mainstream media term "hacker" being used where, in these cases, even the movies, "cracker" is the correct one. There, now that that is off my chest.

    Hackers are the people that brought us Linux, the Web, the Internet and even large parts of MS Windows and Apple's OS. They're the people who say that "I can do this better" and whack off code to do just that.

    Crackers are the folks we're talking about here. Black hat, if you must, but crackers.

    On and off that was my job before I retired to try to break into systems beloved employer said couldn't be done. I've yet to meet a program that can't be cracked but once there most of what I can see is gibberish because almost all the data is 256 or 512 bit encrypted and really not worth my while as an employee. We all know that encryption can be cracked if you're willing to try hard enough but once I'm into a system I left it to corporate security to figure out how weak or strong the encryption actually is.

    The cracker looking to make a buck or a million will spend that time, of course, but all it takes is one or more encryption keywords and the cracker is in and harvesting.

    While some, like Anonymous tend to stick to defacing sites they have a political or social problem with others are far more dangerous. That said, the Hollywood version of cracking always seems to be accompanied by screens filling up with data or source code and the mandatory yelp "I'm being hacked!!" to the nearest expert who is often the best looking guy or gal in the cast who miraculously stops it all by typing wildly onto a keyboard with the CPU running at 100%. At which point said character actually hacks (white hat) around the rootkit/virus/trojan/whatever and everything is wonderful in the 90 seconds or so the scene ran.

    Kinda like the bank robbery movies of the past where the bad guy was glamourized beyond belief even if they did end up with more holes than swiss cheese by the over glamourized law enforcement types. Bonnie and Clyde.

    I don't see the problem with some firms hiring the best of the best of the crackers, after doing their time, to test their own security. Why not? In corporate speak these people are "subject matter experts" and that's what you'd want. Right?

    Somehow going from operating in the dark and setting your own hours to be tied at the hip to MrBigCorporation and working from 8-4 doesn't sound glamourous to me.

    Certainly TV and movies show the cracker in an idealized, glamourized way but just as importantly shows them doing things that are impossible such as screens endlessly filling with code and data or getting into a NORAD computer for any length of time without being noticed.

    None the less if it makes we nerds somehow sexy and desirable instead of the butt of endless jokes and draws people towards tech as a profession/trade/craft I don't see what harm is being done.

    • Saikat Basu
      June 9, 2012 at 7:48 am

      Your point of view is an insider's perspective if I can call it that, since you were into it. I do agree with your thought that Hollywood has made it look glamorous and theirs a good side to it. In many countries for instance, you have full-fledged specialized courses on hacking that stand apart from those on computer security. So, I guess it's pretty much mainstream now.

  7. Luke
    May 28, 2012 at 12:49 am

    "How about a movie with the tagline “Hackers” in 1995, featuring the sensual Angelina Jolie."

    The movie's _title_ was "Hackers". It's taglines were "Hack The Planet!", "Their only crime was curiosity", "Boot up or shut up!" , "You thought your secrets were safe. You were wrong.", "There is no right or wrong, only fun and boring" and "Mess with the best, die like the rest."

    • muotechguy
      May 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm

      And furthermore, it's a goddamn awesome movie. I'd even go so far as to say it inspired me to dig deeper into the programming side of things at a point when I had basically become just a gamer and hardware tinkerer.

      • Ryan Dube
        May 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm

        Ah, yeah, Angelina Jolie has that sort of "inspirational" effect on guys...

        • muotechguy
          May 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm

          Also, random pseudo claim to fame: Johnny lee miller went to the same secondary school as me (though at a different time); and he was in the same house ( like in Harry potter - yeh, that's a thing we actually do!).

          Alright, it's a weak connection, but still... :)

  8. dernals
    May 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    I was going to write a response but its obvious this article is meant for the masses of traffic that don't know better.

    Do you even know Mitnick's Story?

    • Ryan Dube
      May 28, 2012 at 2:33 am

      I would be interested to see you bestow your vast knowledge upon us mere mortals.

  9. SecurityCult
    May 27, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Hacking is the new weed.

    This fairly harmless activity which, by being harmless, allows various people to invest huge amounts of ego to play out scenes of philosophical and moral self-gratification while real people go to prison and a fearsome private prison industrial complex is funded.

    This is wrong. Peddling 3rd grade moral narratives as ground breaking is wrong.

    It is dishonest.

    Let me simplify it: Is it wrong for Hollywood to hype various values throught its movies and media?

    Yes, because it only promotes those ideas so the true consumers of Hollywood (the people who ask for the plots to be written) can make a living off the limited number of people who are subconsciously influenced by them.

    I know some people want this to be about how "Hollywood is making you an evil person" but that's idiotic.

    Sitting in front of the TV and getting fat and apathetic is what's responsible for evil, not limited influence through pathetic plots.

    • Ryan Dube
      June 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      I'm not sure I completely agree...look at how much of society is influenced by media. Look at how many kids up through college-age emulate the things that superstars on movies and in the music industry do. Much of what happens on the big screen becomes the "trend" - or what is considered cool. Remember the sunglass craze after the Matrix? Look at all of the best selling video games based off of blockbuster movies. The list goes on - media and the big screen most certainly drive social trends.

  10. Uberlet
    May 27, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    I think we are better off drawing these up and comers into the white hat community and keep them gainfully employed rather than send them off to prison. Of course, real attackers who act maliciously should be dealt with severely, the issue I see is that there are talented people out there who just love to hack, I'm one of them, I hack web applications for the financial sector (and then teach the devs how to fix their code). So my point is, why let the talent go to waste, or worse, let it go to the dark side. Why not pay people with this passion to hack legally in order to fix security problems.

    I do agree that there is a fine line between good and bad, and that we should not condone criminal hacking or cracking. Just keep in mind that any hacker who is worth their salt can make tons and tons of money using their skills in the underground. Why not give them a worthy alternative and pay them to make all of our data more secure.

    • Ryan Dube
      June 12, 2012 at 1:42 pm

      Agreed - I guess to your point, they are going to turn to hacking (or cracking?) anyway, so why not lure them over to the "good side" to use the force for good....

  11. Flying Squidwolf
    May 27, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    I expect to see another article of "How Hollywood Glamorises war, and why this is deep wrong".

    • SecurityCult
      May 27, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      thank you.

      this premise on hacking was very difficult to swallow.

      people are paranoid.

    • Luke
      May 28, 2012 at 12:57 am


      Followed by "How Hollywood glamorizes street racing..." ,
      "How Hollywood glamorizes crime..." ,
      "How Hollywood glamorizes witchcraft..." ,
      "How Hollywood glamorizes vampires..." ,
      "How Hollywood glamorizes drug use..." ,

      • Ryan Dube
        May 28, 2012 at 2:32 am

        Haha...great ideas. Except this is a tech site, so we don't write about street racing, crime, witchcraft, vampires or drug use. We write about hacking.

        • Cliff Mccullar
          June 8, 2012 at 12:02 am

          You say you write about hacking, yet this is now the 4th article ive read from your so called experts...that dont have a CLUE. I know this statement is slightly inflammatory but i view it this way: If your taking a math class and your teacher is teaching you 2+2=5, shouldnt you be pissed off? Have you people ever been to defcon or hope? have you even opened a copy of 2600??? because in any number of the issues, at any of these conferences you will have people talking about what got them into it, and what a hacker actually is. I've never ONCE heard "i became a hacker because of sneakers!". Not to mention the sheer impossibility of it, as i can think of one movie hollywood has EVER produced that actually showed real hacking/cracking. (Note: it didnt tell you how. just showed real actual hacks, that only a computer expert would recognize as actual hacking/cracking..and not this stupid flash some weird pictures on a screen while actor bashes face on keyboard that hollywood thinks is hacking.)

          However more importantly than that you persist it the impression that "hacking" is some sort of dark satanic power. That you have to read the blackest of books and sell your soul to gain the power of "hacking". This is not the case. hacking or being a hacker really comes down too one thing: knowledge. Knowledge about computers and electronics in particular.

          want to be a hacker? want to know what a hacker knows? read a book, and by that i mean read the dos 4.0 manual, learn programming languages, read a A+ book, etc etc etc thats all a hacker is. someone who is knowledgeable about computers. ANYONE with as much knowledge as i have is a hacker, but this doesnt mean we are bad people, or that we gained the knowledge because of hollywood. Or for that matter that we have ever done anything malicious WITH IT! just because you know how to fire a gun does not mean you are a murderer. also would you please stop referring to crackers (re malicious hackers) as hackers? it really pisses us white hats off.

        • Ryan Dube
          June 8, 2012 at 11:56 pm

          This is true, although I'm pretty sure the article makes it clear that the classification of "hacker" is not all negative. With that said, I was unaware the white hats have put together a term to classify bad hackers as "crackers" - that's interesting!

  12. Scutterman
    May 25, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    There are a multitude of different reasons people hack. To narrow it down to just three I would say the most common are "For money", "To cause grief", and "To be cool / to explore boundaries / for fun".
    I'd much rather be working against the hollywood-inspired third group than either of the others, and if I had the choice I'd absolutely hire one from the third group so that someone from the other two has a more difficult life.

    I know this is a drastic oversimplification, but I think it's better the devil you know. And plenty of people within organisations have the power to bring them down with a few clicks, there's a level of trust between employers and employees.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 28, 2012 at 2:31 am

      Great points - I tend to believe the "for money" is a big section of the "bad" hacker population. Then again, I suppose that's why those will also be so quick to take job offers...if they're doing it for money, then why not do it for good at the same time?

  13. NoSco
    May 25, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    I think that there will always be a good and bad side of hacking and IT field, just like there were sherifs and outlaws in the old west, but now instead of riding horses and shooting guns we have computers.

    So wile some people are writing viruses and exploiting holes in security, there will be people trying to fight those viruses and plug those holes.

    FYI, I am inspired by movies such as "hackers", "war games", "the net" (as fake as that was, right? lol) so yes let hollywood encourage young kids to explore computers and maby one day one of them will prevent a huge computer virus or something.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 28, 2012 at 2:30 am

      True - inspiring kids to become "good" hackers can ultimately lead to people well-trained to defend the world against those that would do harm with their hacking skills. Great points.

  14. Andres Elliku
    May 25, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    "The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age" by Pekka Himanen.
    Read that book, even the free version that only has a few chapters will explain to you who are hackers.
    This article was about crackers. The word "hacker" has had more than enough bad press from Hollywood already.

    • NoSco
      May 25, 2012 at 5:33 pm

      I agree completly! I hate how the media and hollywood only shows the "bad" side of "hacking".

      • Luke
        May 28, 2012 at 12:54 am

        But they don't just show the "bad side of hacking".

        How many scenes from TV shows like "24", "NCIS", etc. show someone "hacking" or gaining access to computer systems or security systems to assist the "good guys" in getting information or tracking someone down.

        Hollywood (including TV) shows, in my opinion, people hacking for "good" and "bad".

        The media (by which I mean news) do tend to focus on "bad" hacking, but that is because "good" hacking, done under sanction from law enforcement, is not a crime (as such) nor would it result in a media release for reporters to cover as most agencies want to keep details of their capabilities quiet.