Modern field guide to security and privacy

Podcast: Screenwriter Walter Parkes on how fiction can inspire change

The noted screenwriter-turned-film producer who’s behind many famous hacker movies – 'Sneakers' and 'WarGames' – discusses how fiction can encourage leaders to enact policy changes. 

Richard Shotwell/AP­
Executive producer Walter Parkes participates in the "He Named Me Malala" panel at the National Geographic Channel 2016 Winter TCA on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif.

When screenwriter Walter Parkes recently found out that former President Reagan issued the country's first national policy to secure information systems because of his movie "WarGames," he was filled with pride – and relief. 

Mr. Parkes had long worried whether he and Lawrence Lasker – his cowriter on the 1983 box-office hit – inadvertently inspired malicious hackers by sensationalizing computer attacks in pop culture. "WarGames" stars Matthew Broderick as a young hacker who taps into a North American Aerospace Defense Command supercomputer and almost sets off World War III. 

"I've asked myself: 'Did Larry and I kind of turn people who are in many cases very destructive into heroes?'" Mr. Parkes said on the latest episode of The Cybersecurity Podcast. "In other words, is there sort of a hacker iconography which is not necessarily a good thing?" 

However, as it turns out, after seeing the movie at Camp David, Reagan reportedly asked his senior military personnel if something like that could really happen. When he found out the systems were indeed vulnerable, he issued a new national policy seeking to secure them.  

Parkes himself did not know his movie was ultimately part of the development of the first cybersecurity laws until he was interviewed by Fred Kaplan, a journalist and author of "Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War," which came out earlier this month. (An article by Mr. Kaplan about the Reagan decree appeared in The New York Times.) 

"That's the grand daddy" example of how fiction can impact real-life policy, Parkes told the podcast cohosts, Passcode's Sara Sorcher and New America's Peter W. Singer.

Parkes says he has been pleased to see, decades later, that WarGames and another cybersecurity hit he wrote, "Sneakers," seemed to "inspire people to get into the field" of cybersecurity and "didn't just create the forerunners of the Sony hack."

The noted screenwriter-turned-film producer on the podcast also talked about the hacker archetypes depicted in pop culture, why these movies resonate with this community, and whose cybersecurity work he finds most fascinating.

All episodes of The Cybersecurity Podcast are available for download on iTunes and on Stitcher. You can find more information about the podcast on Passcode's long-form storytelling platform. Bookmark New America's SoundCloud page for new episodes or sign up for Passcode below. 

Also joining this podcast this episode, which was sponsored by Dell, is Ben Heyes, chief information security & trust officer at Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

They discuss the changing landscape of cyberthreats, navigate cultural differences when operating in many countries, and compare the way US financial institutions and Commonwealth – the largest bank in the entire Southern Hemisphere – approach cybersecurity. 

Previously on The Cybersecurity Podcast, retired four-star Gen. Michael Hayden, who formerly led the National Security Agency and CIA, discusses why he thinks unbreakable encryption makes the world safer. Joining him is outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill, who talks about "Privacy Shield," the new agreement governing transatlantic data flow agreement between the US and European countries – and why Europeans think America is the "Wild West" when it comes to privacy policies. 

All episodes available for download on iTunes


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