Hacker Movies. PHOTO: Cybercrime Magazine.

Hacker’s Love Letter To Hollywood

A nostalgic look at the movies that made us

David Braue

Melbourne, Australia – Apr. 8, 2022

Like most people who grew up in the 1980s, the movie WarGames was a transcendental experience for me — a thrilling movie about a computer nerd who figures out how to send the world to the brink of nuclear war by guessing a military computer’s password.

It was like a high-pressure game of Wordle, but with a global thermonuclear war as the prize — and it, along with contemporaries like Tron and Electric Dreams, helped trigger a technology-driven zeitgeist that hinted at the accelerating ubiquity of computer technologies that would completely reshape the world in coming decades.

Many of the movie’s pivotal moments will seem gratingly familiar to CISOs everywhere — like the scene where Matthew Broderick’s character, David, sneaks a glance at the paper note holding the handwritten password that lets him change his grades.

“That system probably contains a new data encryption algorithm,” says hacker Malvin, one of two hackers that protagonist David Lightman meets in a pivotal scene where he learns how to figure out the password that triggers the sequence of events that nearly starts World War III.

“You’ll never get in there.”

“I don’t believe that any system is totally secure,” David rebuts, leading hacker Jim to wax lyrical on the subject of back doors.

“Back doors are not secrets,” hacker Jim Lightman tells him. “Whenever I design a system, I always put in a simple password that only I know about. That way, whenever I want to get back in, I can bypass whatever security they’ve added on.”

Intervening years have seen technology improve exponentially — bringing new computing paradigms, cybersecurity threats, sinister plots melding computer concepts with ruthless industrialists, catastrophic takeovers of IoT-driven worlds — but nearly forty years later, some things still haven’t changed.

The new “Hacker’s Movie Guide 2022-23,” released by Cybersecurity Ventures, is a love letter to Hollywood’s long-running affair with technology — which started well before WarGames and continues to this day.

For a massive movie buff who regularly watches three or four movies per week, the list is dripping with both nostalgia and possibility — including so many films that I watched, loved, and no doubt internalised in a way that helps explain why I’ve spent more than 25 years writing about technology.

Swipe or scroll through its 143 pages and you’ll be surfing waves of nostalgia for films like Cloak and Dagger — the Dabney Coleman spy thriller that I remember mainly as a fun popcorn flick watched on some Saturday night on HBO — and Weird Science, which many will remember as the Citizen Kane of the hacker-nerds-develop-amazing-technology-and-summon-beautiful-women genre of the mid-’80s.

If these and other titles were well before your time, it’s OK; thanks to today’s streaming libraries, you can pick out some promising-sounding titles from the guide and start watching them within minutes.

The ’80s may seem antiquated to you, but they are nothing if not good fun; to get in the mood, try switching off your cell phone, unplugging your computer, and thinking about how you would still manage to organize a catchup with your friends.

Life imitating art — or vice versa?

Technology in all its guises morphed dramatically from the wide-eyed innocence of the 1980s, with the 1990s and early noughties spawning a laundry list of dystopian thrillers — the likes of Brazil, Enemy of the State, and Minority Report — that foreshadowed today’s privacy-challenged, high-surveillance, Big Tech-driven world.

Also worth watching are cinematic milestones like Westworld — an early consideration of the risks of autonomous thinking androids that was later explored in films like The Terminator, I Robot, Ex Machina and Her.

Many of the older films that feature early demonstrations of many of the technologies we take for granted today were already being imagined as futuristic possibilities decades ago: cf the voice-controlled technology of Demolition Man, and the self-driving cars of Total Recall.

Consider prescience of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, whose theme of genetic de-extinction is playing out for real as today’s scientists consider reviving the woolly mammoth and Tasmanian tiger.

And marvel — or cringe — at Disclosure, a taut 1994 thriller in which a key scene plays out inside an immersive virtual reality world that plays like a low-res version of today’s metaverse.

(Note to self: 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 was an early prototype of Amazon’s Alexa. Discuss.)

Over the years I have seen all of these movies, and so many hundreds more that explore the confluence of technology and culture — and span the spectrum from ridiculous to scarily accurate.

There are enough options in the “Hacker’s Movie Guide” to keep you busy for weeks, filling in gaps in your cinematic experience; for each of these movies that I have seen, the guide pointed out one or two more that I’ve heard of but still haven’t seen.

Laced with quotes from cybersecurity experts — and Cybercrime Magazine regulars — like Bruce Schneier, Keren Elazari and Roger Grimes — the book is more than just a list of plot summaries.

It also touches on widely discussed issues of desperate importance — such as whether Swordfish is authentic or just bubble-gum fantasy, or why The Matrix particularly resonates with hackers.

There’s also a foreword and extensive interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, one of the world’s most famous hackers, who talks enthusiastically about the history of hacking and his own love of movies.

“My inspiration came from books and TV shows and movies and other young electronic kids,” Wozniak writes. “Sci-fi and space adventure stories grabbed my full attention … we inventors want to test the ideas and even create prototypes.”

“We want to do what our movie heroes do,” he continues. “My whole life has been wanting to be like movie protagonists, who are younger, poorer and weaker, having to overcome Goliath, but having brains that think outside of the rules.”

“I have always been for the young and powerless, the consumers vs the producers. This is almost always the theme ascribed to hackers in movies … they are the good guys that all of us with brains want to be.”

Spanning the years 1956 to 2021, the “Hacker’s Movie Guide” is an engaging and surprisingly comprehensive trip through Hollywood history — filled with cultural touchstones that shaped the perceptions of me and millions of others, who watch movies like these with one eye on the integrity of their technological portrayals.

Whether you’re a movie buff or a casual dabbler, there’s something in here to make you smile, wonder, or worry. Dive in and see what new hacker movies you discover.

“I believe there is a hacker inside each one of us,” co-author Steve Morgan, publisher of Cybersecurity Ventures, says in introducing the new edition. “Watch a movie and release your inner hacker. It may change your life too.”

David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Go here to read all of David’s Cybercrime Magazine articles.