We are all surrounded by technology, it is everywhere we look, and it should come as no surprise that the films and TV we enjoy are similarly obsessed.
However, it is not to say that they get it right when it comes to portraying tech accurately, and some of their worst areas are computer hacking...
The operating system that only seems to exist in the movies (let's call it MovieOS) is quite fascinating, there is constant beeping, and the clicking with every keypress, the impossibly long progress bars, and not to mention the ability to zoom in forever on digital images without the image pixelating?
But it is the hacking scenes that we all should pay attention to.
Expectations vs. Reality
Hacking is most often portrayed as a frantic exercise, with fast-paced music to raise the tension while boxes flash up on screen. In one episode of the fantasy series Arrow, the protagonists are able to continue "hacking" despite not being able to see their screens, and eventually, this ridiculous hack-war turns into a tennis match with both hackers sending power surges back and forth until the antagonist’s computer is blown up.
It’s pretty far-fetched but hacking as a means of destruction isn’t fictional and it has been portrayed better in the 2015 tech drama series Mr. Robot. In one episode, the protagonist, Elliot, uses a planted device to upload software onto backup energy storage devices owned by the shadowy corporation, ECorp. This software is then used to trigger explosions – entirely reasonable as these gadgets usually use lead acid batteries which can emit explosive hydrogen gas when overcharged.
Most of the time though, MovieOS capabilities do not accurately reflect the abilities or uses of real-life operating systems. Being able to blur a line between fantasy and reality is useful in film, but it can also cause problems when dealing with people’s expectations of computers and their understanding of how hacking works, particularly common hacks that non-technical people are vulnerable to.
The ability to make Hacking look realistic
Aside from operating systems used on the Hollywood movies, which is usually custom designed as a series of screenshots or animations. A real "hacking" program such as Linux is one of the most beloved operating systems of set designers. There’s loads of typing involved, the software prints obscure-looking outputs and it’s frequently used by "real-life" hackers.
One of the more popular programs to show for hacking purposes in a film is Nmap; a scanner which can detect who is using a computer network. Nmap is popular due to the fact that it can produce reams of text which scroll past in the way we’ve become used to seeing any complicated computer wizardry, and it can theoretically be used for a wide range of hacking activity, such as looking for open ports that might be exploitable, so it actually has some legitimate "geek credit" too.
Mr. Robot offers the most accurate depictions of what hacking is because it recognises that humans are frequently the weakest links in security. E-mail phishing scams, impersonation of staff or other manipulations of social norms and expectations are often more successful than technical efforts and, with the costs of phishing attacks often significant, it’s no wonder they are used so frequently.
In a reasonable effort at what the realistic outcome is of Hacking is the film Blackhat (2015), which attempted to show how email phishing could be used to get someone’s password, but it’s unlikely someone working at the National Security Agency (NSA) would fall for such a scam.
Still, when this kind of social engineering is shown accurately in films or TV it can raise awareness of common methods and help people recognise attempts before it’s too late.
Careful not to be too accurate...
Portraying the accuracy of hacking can cause problems... After Wargames came out in 1983, the US brought in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1984) out of fear that hackers might attempt to replicate attacks made in the film.
When The Matrix Reloaded featured the realistic use of Nmap in 2003, the Scotland Yard Computer Crime Unit in the UK released a press release warning would-be hackers away from emulating the film.
The depictions of hackers up against "The Man" or a large company with dubious moral values set up a romanticised view of hacking, which remains illegal and, generally speaking, unethical. A recently updated set of ethical guidelines for computing professionals states that people should "access computing and communication resources only when authorised or when compelled by the public good", noting that if the latter reason is used as justification that "extraordinary precautions must be taken to avoid harm to others."
Hackers like Elliot in Mr. Robot may indeed have some moral high ground to take on big corporations, but as we’ve seen throughout the show, his methods can also have disastrous impacts on innocent people.
So while it’s good to have realistic depictions of hacking, it’s sometimes better to just laugh at how terrible they are. Mr. Robot is definitely the frontrunner here, but there is room in TV and film for more realistic and critical views of technology and society.