Modern field guide to security and privacy

‘Hackers’ at 20

How a 20-year-old, mostly inaccurate flop predicted the future, reshaped sci-fi, and won over the real hacker community.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

Hackers: Their only crime is still curiosity

It’s the 20th anniversary of “Hackers,” one of only a handful of movies in the cybersecurity film canon. It occupies a strange place in an information security community that doesn’t traditionally suffer technical inaccuracy — “Hackers” is both beloved and technologically ridiculous. Two decades after characters Crash Override went swimming with Acid Burn, we’ve asked actual hackers, engineers, social critics, filmmakers, and even “Hackers” director Iain Softley to reflect on the movie’s influence and lasting appeal.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

Quotes have been edited for clarity.

Dave Kennedy, founder and principal security consultant, TrustedSec, and developer of the Social Engineering Toolkit:

For security people, it’s a classic. It’s a movie that captured that curiosity drives most hackers — that most hackers are interested in the challenge of hacking but ultimately only want to do the right thing and protect people, rather than be a danger. “Hackers” turned me into who I am today. It captures the excitement of hacking, the ability to figure out systems, and to turn things that haven’t been done before into big puzzles. It’s near and dear to a lot of our hearts because it was our entrance into hacking.

Julie Bush, screenwriter for “Sons of Anarchy” and the upcoming Robert Ludlum film adaptation “The Sigma Protocol”:

I had never seen it when it first came out, and I watched it just for this. It’s one of those things where I should have seen it — it’s totally in my space — and I was thrilled to have an excuse to watch it.

This movie is incredible.

Iain Softley, director of “Hackers”:

If you told me 12 months ago I would be doing screenings in Germany, New York, and the West End of London celebrating the 20th anniversary, I wouldn’t believe you. None of this was orchestrated by me or a studio — the 20th anniversary has been far more successful than I could have expected. It was all done organically, underground by fans. Which, when you think of it, is a very hacker like way of it coming to happen.

Julie Bush:

It anticipates not only every major trope that exists in film and television for hackers, but also in the real world. These people who made this film were geniuses. I don’t know who Iain Softley is, but I’m pretty sure that’s because he’s been locked deep in the basement of Google and he’s working on the technology of 2100. These people, they invented everything. They anticipate the idea of an anonymous like decentralized hacker army — Hackers of the World unite! They have a Google Glass-type device, hackers reading manifestos on viral videos while wearing anime get-ups, SWAT teams sent to pick up hackers at home. I thought all this stuff started three years ago. It’s a movie from 1995.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

'The pool on the roof has sprung a leak'

Seven years after an 11-year-old Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller) was convicted of programming a virus that simultaneously crashed 1,507 computers and the stock market, he moves to New York with his mother, where he connects with his high-school’s electronic dance music-loving crew of untouchably cool hackers, who wore futuristic clothing, including rollerblades. Lots of rollerblades.  

Dave Kennedy:

We used to screen this at the nerd group for hackers at our high school, and the movie was one of the first things that said, “Hey, it’s cool to know computers.” Culturally, I mean, computer people are no longer uncool — I suppose some of them are.

Iain Softley:

The last movie I had done was “Backbeat,” about the early days of the Beatles. I wanted to portray hacking as the new underground culture that parents didn’t understand.

Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of Veracode, former member of hacker think-tank “The L0pht”:

Even though the L0pht were from Boston, we were friendly with the people from New York — People like Emmanuel Goldstein [The pseudonym of Eric Corely, the publisher of the hacker magazine and meet-up group 2600] and Phiber Optik [celebrity hacker Mark Abene]. We heard about “Hackers” from them when they told us some guy making a movie about hackers came to a 2600 meeting to talk about what hackers do, what hackers are like. So there was all this anticipation that the movie was going to be good because we knew the people who were consulting on it.

I think the point that the movie got right was the hacker mentality. It’s curiosity; a cat and mouse game with the adversary, the fact that the hackers were in it for a challenge and not for criminal activity. That’s some of the core hacker values. But some of the fashion things were kind of ridiculous — especially everyone traveling everywhere by rollerblades. Hackers wore black jeans and black T-shirts, occasionally someone would add some flair by wearing a mechanic jumpsuit. But nothing flamboyant. No one ever saw a hacker on rollerblades.

Iain Softley:

The clothing and the rollerblades were meant to separate the hackers from their time. It connected them with a cyberpunk future beyond what people they interacted with were doing, and at the same time gave the hackers a way of identifying each other by sight. We had gone to hacker conventions. We knew what hackers were actually wearing.

Rebekah Farrugia, associate professor of media studies at Oakland University, author “Beyond the Dance Floor”:

It was also one of the first movies that used an EDM soundtrack.

Chris Wysopal:

It definitely captures the music the hacker community listened to — techno, Prodigy, stuff like that.

Iain Softley:

“Backbeat” had a soundtrack that was done with a grunge all-star band covering the Beatles-era songs — Dave Grohl, who was in Nirvana at the time on drums, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Mike Mills from REM, so I surprised the studio by using the electronic music when they thought it would be more of the grunge people were listening to at the time. Nowadays, those types of bands, like Massive Attack, do a lot of soundtracks. At the time, no one thought that teenagers would go for the music we chose. We could only get a small British label to put out a soundtrack. It was so successful, that we needed to put out a “Hackers” soundtrack part two and part three.

Rebekah Farrugia:

If you think about the way electronic music was being made, especially by the pioneers at that time in the 80s and early 90s who dealt in the Afrofuturism style, it was very much, “Here’s this machine that’s meant to do one thing, but I’m totally going to disregard that and turn it into a whole different kind of instrument that reflects me and how I think and my goals.” So there is some conceptual overlap between hacker culture and electronic music culture.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

'Congratulations, man ... you just made an enemy for life'

The hackers meet at a high tech, psychedelic teen dance club where Dade sees the girl of his dreams playing a video game. In an attempt to impress her, he defeats her high score at the game — only to be told by his friends that that girl is accustomed to winning battles of one-upmanship. “Hackers,” the movie, had similar troubles impressing both critics and hackers, the people — groups that, like Dade’s dream girl, would eventually come around to love it.

Iain Softley:

I remember critics being mixed about the movie when it came out. There were some positive reviews, but I don’t think critics really knew what to do with it. More recently, whenever I talk to the press about new projects, I get the sense that people more grounded in the Digital Era are much more enthusiastic about it.

One thing that critics had trouble with was that the movie was targeted toward teenagers. There wasn’t “Twilight” back then. My niece was 13 at the time, and told me that everyone in her class had seen the movie multiple times.

Rob Vincent, producer and panelist of hacker radio show “Off The Hook”:

In the hacker community, there was a division around the movie. The scene in general was still trying to be shadowy and mysterious and preserve this mystique we still had. People took themselves very, very seriously.

When the film came out there was this big sense of “Oh, God, look at the zooming graphics. It’s all cheesy. Look at what they’re telling people that hackers can do. It’s going to get all the posers who see this film to try to become hackers.” And it did, to an extent. Any fad brings in people who see it as easy rebellion. But one thing that was undeniable — one thing that would get a lot of people, looking back in retrospect, was that it while it did get a lot of people who wanted to be in the glamour of the movie, it also brought a lot of people who ended up actually contributing to the hacker community. It’s much the same you hear people who became real life scientists and astronauts say they did it because they watched “Star Trek” as a kid.

Iain Softley:

I wasn’t trying to make a technically accurate movie. I was trying to make an urban fairy tale. In the end, I think the reasons “Hackers” had such staying power were some of the reasons people were put off by it in the first place — the nonliteral view of technology ages better than realism.

Rob Vincent:

MTV did a special about hacker culture in 1999. They sent someone to the 2600 meeting to interview people. There was a lot of clenching about whether or not we should talk to her. Some people did. But what happened was that they basically got punked by a couple of individuals who dressed up like they were in Hackers. They even arranged a swap of a floppy disk in an alley at night, and all kinds of ridiculous stuff. MTV focused on those people, because it’s really good television. There was a huge collective groan throughout the community — there was even a panel at the next Hope [hacker] conference called something like “MTV: How did that happen?”

Chris Wysopal:

Over time, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving of the parts I didn’t like about it. People really didn’t want people to think hackers were really like that. But the things they got right stood the test of time. And the ridiculous stuff is so over the top now, because now it’s ridiculous, futuristic, and dated.

Rob Vincent:

Pretty much every 2600 meeting that I’ve been at over the past 18 years has had one quote from the movie belted around at it.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

'RISC architecture is going to change everything.'

Dade Murphy is overconfident, but Kate “Acid Burn” Libby, played by a young Angelina Jolie, provides the perfect foil. She challenges him in video games, escalating pranks, and battles of wits. One night, at a party, they flirt while arguing over which one of them has the computing skills to fully take advantage of Libby’s high-end laptop. In their first moment of solidarity, they agree the laptops futuristic RISC [reduced instruction set computing] processor is the way of the future, leading to Libby giving what has become one of the movie’s most derided lines of technobabble: “RISC architecture is going to change everything.”

Karu Sankaralingam, associate professor and principal investigator, University of Wisconsin Vertical Research Group:

RISC changed a lot, but I don’t know if it ever dominated the landscape the way people thought it was going to. At the time, Intel had 486 processors and Pentiums, which were both CISC [complex instruction set computing] but people thought it would be really hard to build a high performance processor that used that ISA [instruction set architecture]. They predicted you needed a new ISA with more efficient instructions — a reduced instruction set ISA. Companies that had a RISC ISA were supposed to take over. What happened was people figured out they could build a high-performance processor that internally incorporated a RISC-like ISA and still get all of the benefits of a RISC ISA.

RISC processors do dominate the mobile and tablet markets, but the reason is not necessarily that it is easier to build low-powered processors in RISC. Our lab compared the two architectures and found that, for most uses, it really didn’t make a difference in terms of performance or power usage. We didn’t investigate the really, really low-performance processors that go into devices like your fridge – those are places that a very simple ISA could make a difference. But in terms of real computing, RISC’s advantages are more that ARM, a company that makes RISC processors, makes it easier to license their technology for integrated circuits and ARM has always focused on low power processors rather than high-performance ones like Intel and AMD.

Rebekah Farrugia:

What resonated most with me was seeing a young woman who’s an active agent with technology. That lead me to become more interested in gender in technology, those representations and assumptions that we make. From there, I thought “I want to learn video production,” and “I want to talk to women DJs and producers and see why they do what they do and why there aren’t more of them.”

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

'Remember, hacking is more than just a crime. It’s a survival trait.'

The kids watch their favorite hacker TV talk show, “Razor and Blade,” who introduce the first instance of “phone phreaking,” the art of manipulating land line phone systems to place free calls. Though hacker culture was distinct from phone phreak culture, the two overlapped.

Rob Vincent:

When I was in the scene back in the in ’90s, I was definitely a phone phreak, and there definitely was a division between the cultures.

We all generally accepted we were in the same group and we all knew some of each other’s things. In those days, message boards where people discussed hacking were still hosted in BBSs [“Bulletin Board Services,” dial up computer services located across the country], and phone calls were still expensive, so if you wanted to learn about hacking you needed to call around the country, and you were probably a little bit of a phreak as well. We did a lot of the same things. But they did it in their cubbyhole and we did it in ours.

In the early days, computers were still very much an extravagance. Even at the time of this film, not everyone had a computer. The people that had computers, not all of them knew what the hell to do with it. There was the sense that, okay, these things are going to be really important. We’re seeing them more in day to day lives, probably using them at work or at school, but to have your own computer was still not everyone could do that, whereas the phone system was basically the biggest computer in the world and everyone could connect to it just by picking up an appliance that everyone owned.

I remember explaining it to one person I was hanging around with in the 90s, maybe ‘96 or so, and trying to explain phone phreaking. She knew hacking from TV and what not, but she was like, “What do you mean exploring the phones? It’s just the phone.” It’s like what next? Are you going to explore the plumbing?  That I think right there is the mindset that you had to have. Until cellphones, this was something that connected all of us.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

'A virus planted in the Gibson computer system claimed responsibility.'

Elsewhere in New York, an oil exploration company is hit by the “Da Vinci” virus, which threatens to capsize oil tankers unless a ransom is paid. It also threatened to strain real world hackers’ suspension of disbelief — many of the brightly colored visualizations, from the animated virus display to a psychedelic look at the transmission of data through the Internet did not play well with audiences.

Julie Bush:

People make fun of the movie because the parts where they try and visualize anything computery is laughable. That was a mistake, but I get it. As someone else who does this for a living, it’s really difficult to make computers and tech cinematic, and this was the dawn of doing it. It’s 2015, and it’s still difficult, believe me.

Dave Kennedy:

To show what actually has to go on, somebody sitting in front of a Kali terminal  for hours, it’s not quite as exciting as a talking virus. We hack into computer systems to show companies how to defend against it, and we always have customers who say “Oh, we want to come on site and see how it’s done.” And we have to say “Listen, you’re literally going to be sitting there for eight hours a day watching a terminal screen.” That is our life. We are processing an exorbitant amount of information, taking that in, trying to figure out how to break the defenses people have built in, or configuration flaws. It takes analysis. It takes a lot of time, and it’s not fun.

Julie Bush:

Showing technology is deadly on screen. Writing a script with technology is almost like dealing with a new form of the Hayes Code. In early Hollywood, they couldn’t visually show sex on screen, and had to work on creative dialogue and character ways of dancing around it. One thing we knew going into to “Sigma” was that we would absolutely not be showing anything technological onscreen. But we only know to do that because pioneers were brave, and tried to do these giant visual metaphors, and we got to see what works and what doesn’t.

Iain Softley:

We emphasized the use of psychedelic colors that the world of hacking was a mind-expanding experience for the kids. The club the kids go to was actually called Cyberdelia for that reason. It took two weeks to film the visualizations. Computer graphics hadn’t really advanced to that point yet, so we had to film them with what were basically stop motion cameras. I wanted to make the databases and the circuits look like New York, like a replacement of the physical space they were in and show it like a continuation of the connectedness  of the real space and the Internet.

People didn’t experience computers the way these kids experienced computers. I wanted to show how they did.

'You inquired about an employee of ours, an Agent Richard Gill? Our records indicate he’s deceased.'

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

After their friend Joey is arrested for the Da Vinci virus, and with their competition flirtation hitting its peak, Murphy and Libby compete in a battle of hacking skill to see who can cause the most chaos in the life of Joey’s arresting officer, Richard Gill. They cancel his credit cards, get him arrested, and even have him declared dead.

Chris Rock, chief executive of Kustodian:

In the scene where the hacker changes the secret service agent’s status from living to dead, it looks like he’s hacked into an accounting database to do it — he only kills him in accounting. There’s an easier and more thorough way to “kill” someone: Get the government to declare them officially dead.

You need two parties to get the certificate of death, a doctor and a funeral director. Both of those parties can register themselves online with very little oversight, using information they can either find online or just make up.

In America, every time you get a job you’ve got to provide your Social Security Number, and all those other details. If you want to get a bank loan, credit card, passport, anything you’ve got to provide those details. After a death certificate, once they do the lookup, Social Security says you’re being scrubbed off the system. It’s a living nightmare. You can’t do anything. You’re pretty much stuck.

Rob Vincent:

The back and forth scene where they are competing on how to best make the secret service agent’s life hell, that’s a really fun scene because it involves a lot of pranks that were easy to pull back then. We really did things like putting up classified ads in somebody’s name, saying all kinds of things and doing things to shut off people’s credit cards or phone service or whatever.

Chris Wysopal:

In the movie, The hackers attacking the law enforcement that were trying to capture them reminded me of how, around the same time “Hackers“ came out Kevin Mitnick was actually really doing that with the FBI agents who were trying to track him own

Rob Vincent:

When the movie came out, the bumbling Service guy was still how we saw the authorities. There was still this sense that you were hacking, the police and feds have no idea this is going on. Now they have people who know just as much as you, so the battlefield is completely different now.

But then, there wasn’t as much fear of the authorities. The view at the time is very much in line of the film: It wasn’t the secret service agents that was the antagonist — he thought he was just doing his job — it was the evil hacker who was pulling the puppet strings on the secret service agent, The Plague, Fisher Stevens’ character, who was actually the bad guy. The hackers weren’t directly fighting the police or the feds. They were fighting an evil hacker. It’s the secret service agent himself that arrests the bad hacker because he finds out that’s what’s been going on all along.

Even in the Kevin Mitnick case, there was the sense of it wasn’t the feds going after him, it was this other hacker who had it in for Kevin. I think that very probably inspired the film in some ways.

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

'A wake-up call for the Nintendo Generation'

Realizing that their crew is being set up as the cause of the Da Vinci virus, the hackers race to expose the real villains. They tap the oil companies phones and go dumpster diving to gain intel. Then race to a meet up location to hack their adversary, evading the police by hacking the traffic signals and causing crashes to trap police in traffic jams as they rollerblade on by.

Cesar Cerrudo, chief technology officer at IOActive:

Traffic hacking was not possible when the movie came out. But some things that you couldn’t do in the past are now possible now that software has been put in several places that had never used software before. It still isn’t possible to cause accidents the way they do in the movie by putting green lights in every direction at an intersection, but my research and research at the University of Michigan show that there are many ways to disrupt traffic. So now, that is something that is completely possible to do.

I researched sensors that detect cars waiting at red lights, which are used to determine the timing of the lights changing. For example, it can tell which roads have a lot of traffic and which ones don’t, and adjust the red lights accordingly. But the devices are insecure, so it’s possible to cheat the system to make it think there was no traffic when there was a lot of traffic, and trap people at red lights. The sensors are wireless, but they don’t use encryption. So anyone who knows how that information is sent can intercept it and modify it.

The vendor who makes these sensors says they have released a patch - I’m not sure about that. They didn’t allow me to test the patch. But that doesn’t matter if cities don’t install the patch. After the vendor said they released the patch, I tested the sensors in San Francisco, and they were still open to attack.

'Crash and burn'

“Hackers” cost $20 million to film. It’s box office returns were under $8 million. By traditional movie metrics, that would make it a flop. But it’s also one of the few movies that year to get a fully decked out nostalgia Blu-ray release: The 20th Anniversary Edition. In 20 years, it has gone from being a movie that only earned a 32 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes to being described by geek hub Nerdist as “seminal.” As always, the good guys win.

Dave Kennedy:

When the new Blu-ray came out we had a big, big party. All my friends from work and on-off. It was great. We had popcorn; we were all telling stories of what we were doing when the movie came out and what we were trying to accomplish, and a lot of us started just after them movie. A few people say, “Oh, this movie’s stupid,” but most of us respond, “Hey, this is what kind of got us started.”

Courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

Image credits

All images and screen captures are courtesy of MGM/United Artists.

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