Hacking Truth : Reel vs Real

Hacking in Movies: If all the hacking shown on the silver screen were realistic, then the internet would crash everyday, and we would live in an Airstrip One-like society.

Hackers in popular culture are very different from hackers in real life, and we do a bit of myth busting by comparing the portrayal of hackers on screen to hacker activity in the real world. Technology seems to run very differently on screen than in real life. Movies have generally moved on from showing blips of information on a voyage through cyberspaces to showing almost real windows, and real terminals, but they still have a long way to go before reflecting the ground reality of technology. We look at some of the biggest misrepresentations of technology on screen.


In Untraceable, the regular, run of the mill FBI agent sitting behind a console has almost god-like powers over the internet. Jennifer Marsh, the FBI protagonist, can shut down a site at a click of a button (called black holing), get the username and password for any web site by just asking for it, and look at the Wi-Fi ranges of any router, in any home, using something that looks suspiciously like Google Earth. In the very laughable opening sequence, a hacker gets into a virtual machine trap (a honeypot) and steals passwords. As the passwords are stolen from a single text fi le, individual passwords are seen to get typed out on an on-screen keyboard! Mid-way into the movie, her own daughter downloads a “backdoor Trojan” in the form of a game that was e-mailed to her by a friend. Apparently, FBI agents should go through our Internet Security Suite test. The movie has long boring sequences where a hacker on the internet shows someone dying on webcam, as long as the site with the webcam keeps getting hits. Every time the FBI black holes the web site, the web site switches the hosting IP to another machine.

The FBI agent who has not heard of an internet security suite

Eagle Eye

Another movie that assumes that given enough money, technology can give you divine powers. The security agency that likes to pick names based on Norse mythology has a great operating system that breaks into cool waveform like transitions every time it wants to switch from satellite view to a live camera view. Also, if you look at the maps carefully, random parts of countries seem to glow for no good reason. We wonder what is so interesting about the northern part of Arunachal Pradesh and the Rann of Kutch that it is dazzlingly brilliant, while everything else in India is dark. Cameras in the movie seem to have interesting shaped corsairs that don’t really serve any purpose. And the beeps. Why should a perfectly normal aerial camera beep like a hyperactive car alarm? There must be something going on in construction companies that the rest of the world does not know about, because they seem to have sprouted LCD panels, and cranes that can be remotely controlled. If there is a crane somewhere connected to a box that is online, we would like to get hold of the IP. While most LCD screens have a great color gamut, they seem to be wasted in movies, as the color of choice for any kind of readout or video stream, seems to be blue for some strange reason. Is it because it is creepier? More suspense? We don’t know if there is some cinema color theory going on here, but it sure does look unnatural. Notice we are carefully skirting the issue of the GLaDOS like wonder machine? That’s because it brings back painful memories.

Eagle-Eye is watching Gujarat

Ocean’s Thirteen

Ever noticed the kind of things that enters into consoles on screen? It’s almost as if the semantic web is here, but only accessible to some sort of elite crowd comprised either criminals or security agencies. A query string of “search for known associates” instantly throws up a screen of exactly enough hits to fill the screen, in order to smoothly come on in an orchestrated transition along with some gibberish on the side. There is always some random text scrolling in the background or along the sides that resembles the Matrix code in almost every movie that shows a computer screen. No one knows what it is doing there. Next step “Upload to WBANK” in the console. We really wish computers worked that way, uploading search hits the second we get it, directly onto remote hard disks, without needing to specify a location. Email, sometimes is an elegant solution.

Search results animated in a way that could shame Crysis, and random gibberish along the sides

Some South Indian Movie

You would expect South Indian movies to show a higher level of understanding about computers, considering that they have contributed verbs such as “Bangalored” to the global tech lexicon. Unfortunately, no such luck. In one memorable sequence, a hacker sips a steamy cup of coffee and hammers away on the keyboard while a storm rages outside, and the random text scrolls on screen. So far so good. Then things go to another level entirely, when the hacker gets into a database and views a profile, all within Windows Media Player, which can clearly be seen on screen. Come on, just a double-click, and you are in full screen mode. Maybe the director thought that the flashy buttons would be mistaken as an exotic OS shown in those foreign films.

WMP, a part of every hacker toolkit


A crack team of hackers barge into a house, carrying loads of equipment. Then one of them gets out a LCD panel. Think about it, a laptop would do as well, and take up less space, and give little trouble over the wiring. Fortunately, seconds later, another hacker from the team gets out a huge briefcase full of - you guessed it - wires. Back in 2006, there seem to be a select few people who received an advanced invitation to Google Wave. The movie has a pretty amazing sequence where Harrison Ford is about to send out an e-mail. He types out a sentence, and is about to click the send button. Suddenly, the cursor starts backspacing on its own, and a hacker’s correction to the mail appears on screen. Midway into the movie, Ford hacks apart a Fax machine, and rips out the scanner head. Then he borrows his daughter’s iPod. He puts them together using a convenient circuit board made for that purpose lying around. The device does something complicated involving scanning a screen, an OCR program, and somewhere down the line - money. Seriously, someone should inform this guy about digital cameras. Or even better, the PrintScrn key. After the scam is done, the best way to dispose of this odd device that no one will suspect of being incriminating? Throw it in the trash can. Haven’t these guys ever heard of dumpster diving?

The iPod - fax scanner head camera


This movie is full of jargon from the Principles of Quantum Mechanics text book. Some of the hardware shown in the movie was really strange - a switchboard of around twenty switches, marked by single alphabets with something like five wires coming out of it. There must be some interesting permutation/ combination mechanisms here, but that was never really explained. We are sure someone actually working with whatever hokey brand of science the movie portrays would punch holes in all the complicated dialogues. We’ll pick a simple one that everyone knows. Russians never used a pencil to write in space, underwater or upside down. For those who believed that the NASA guys were suckers for spending a bomb on a pen that could do all that, bear in mind how easy it is for pencil marks to fade.

There is something going on here that we don’t know about


One really bad-ass guy threatens one really talented hacker to break into a US Department of Defense console protected with 128-bits of encryption. The machine is something like a laptop that has a login screen. Now what Jobson the hacker does with the machine is really incredible. The login screen just disappears, as he tries a number of ways to... bypass the login screen. Apparently the world’s best crackers can beat the encryption in under an hour. Not true, never been done, and never will be. The universe will never last long enough to decrypt that level of encryption as long as procedures are followed. Crackers have managed to circumvent specific implementation of the encryption though, and Jobson manages to do it, with a few dozen random keystrokes, and totally irrelevant text scrolling on the screen. The last time we checked, such hacks mostly involved giving a few commands and waiting. Actually, getting a USB drive full of magical software, and clicking a button would have been so much more real. The movie makes it look like you give a really good hacker enough money (and other incentives), then hacking takes no time whatsoever, which is just not true in real life. Hackers have to distribute work over a network to break a 64-bit key; the 512-bit one in the movie would keep all the biggest botnets in the world busy for a few millennia. Swordfish even takes us back to the old Ghost in the Machine days for a while, with a few glorious seconds of flying through cyberspace and tracking wires. Must watch for the long, animated demo on how to compile a worm.

Somethings are, last time we checked like cracking 512 bit encryption faster than it takes to put in the password

A Wednesday

The operating systems in this movie seem to have a magical interface that can be controlled mentally. With almost no related input, they figure out what is going on in the plot, and decide to take the appropriate actions. The Windows pop up on their own, showing the random text and icons whenever possible, and at strategic timings, a search bar, a voice waveform or a box that says “untraceable” keeps showing up. Most of the software in the movie, for example, Interceptor v2.0 don’t even have an interface of any kind, no buttons, no console, just a window that gives all the output that you might want. We really wish technology were this magical. Apart from the interfaces, the depiction of technology in this movie was pretty accurate.

The Interceptor doing its thing

Live Free or Die Hard

This is another movie that suffers from the blue screen syndrome, where most of the terminals prefer to show information only in blue. The operating System used in this movie is really strange sometimes, there are just the readouts without any input options or buttons available, and pop-ups from a browser window seem to show up from all the sides, instead of just one direction. What really takes the cake is the simple software based control over all kinds of grids in America that exists. One guy with access to a system can apparently send gas down any direction in a pipeline.

Ooh, so many buttons, this must be complicated

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