Quick: What's a hacker? A pimply faced teenager in a dark bedroom trying to start World War Three, or a thirtysomething professional with mad computer skills?
Although today's hacker is more likely to be a professional software developer or security expert, that pimply faced teenager image persists. To help understand why that is, Damian Gordon has watched more hacker movies than perhaps anyone in the world. And now he's written an academic paper for the International Journal of Internet Technology and Secured Transactions looking at the way hackers are portrayed in the movies.
Gordon, a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, studied 50 movies, produced over five decades. The results amazed him. In the movies, most hackers aren't teenaged whizkids. They're professionals, over 30 years old, who work in IT. "Generally they're presented as good guys, not bad guys," he said.
So why the pimply teenage sociopath rap? "There were a few really seminal movies that stuck in people's minds that were slightly different," Gordon said. "'War Games' is a perfect example." In 1983's War Games, Matthew Broderick plays a teenaged hacker who inadvertently brings the world to the brink of nuclear war after hacking into a military network.
"Once 'War Games' took off, that was a kind of bogeyman that the media hung onto," he said. "Even though we know that most hacking is done by people who are sacked from their jobs who have the passwords."
Panned by the critics, Superman III actually contains a pretty accurate portrayal of a hacker, Gordon said. In the movie, a character played by Richard Pryor, uses what's known as "salami slicing" to skim thousands of dollars from his employer."Computers rule the world today, and the fellow that can fool the computer can rule the world himself," villain Robert Vaughn tells Pryor during the film. Last year, Michael Largent, a real life criminal, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for pulling off a salami slicing scam.
In the past, researchers have looked at how Hollywood has presented science in the movies and found it lacking.
Similarly, Gordon has problems with the typical hacker movie. Filmmakers always want to jazz up the way that hacking software looks, and they often make it unrealistic. And hackers usually do what they want way too easily. "They will open every computer system or they'll hack into anything," he said. Of the 60 hackers portrayed in his 50 movies, 44 of them (73 percent) the hackers were good guys. They were bad 17 percent of the time, and in-between 10 percent of the time. Only 20 percent of the hackers were students. 32 percent were computer industry professionals, 20 percent full-time hackers and 20 percent came from other professions.
Gordon, a former computer programmer, started the research because he wanted to get a better idea of whether hacking movies would work as a teaching tool. But his love of hacking flicks dates back to childhood. "I blame my parents. When I was a child, the only movies we got to see were Tron and War Games and things like that," he said. They were the kinds of movies I looked at as a child, and lo and behold when I grew up I did a degree in computer science."
In the course of his work, Gordon discovered that hacking movies are older than most people realise. The oldest movie cited in his study is 1968's Hot Millions, starring Peter Ustinov. In the film Ustinov plays a criminal who uses social engineering techniques to impersonate a computer programmer and steal money, using a variety of fake identities.
Gordon nearly included Desk Set, a 1957 Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie where Hepburn's character discusses ways that she and her staff might destroy or hack into a computer system called EMILAC. But since they don't actually do any hacking, the film didn't make the cut.
Gordon's five favorite hacking films, in alphabetical order, are:
- Hot Millions - " A really excellent representation of how hacking goes."
- Independence Day - "A Mac hacking into an alien operating system and loading a virus. That's Steve Jobs' dream: The power of the Mac"
- Sneakers - "You have to love Robert Redford."
- Tron - A sentimental favorite, it was the first hacker movie he saw as a child. "Because Tron 2 is coming soon, that's a source of great excitement."
- War Games - "A big fun one… It will always be remembered as being very important."