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Cybersecurity In Movies: Myths vs. Reality

Despite Hollywood’s take on the matter, hackers aren’t always geeky-yet-attractive dudes in hoodies who operate in underlit bunkers punctuated by evocative LED displays. Nor are they always smokin’ hot ass-kicking “chicks” who navigate the underworld with impunity.

In reality, with a few notable exceptions, hackers look and live like ordinary people. Hacking is more like solving a puzzle than flickering screens with flashy graphics. It’s 90% research, mapping out landscapes, trying automated tools, and trial and error.

Phishing and Wi-Fi snooping pose far bigger threats than outright hacking, but today’s shows still make some of the same basic mistakes Hollywood made in those heady first days of internet-enabled computers. So let’s look at a few TV myths vs. the reality of hacking that we (still) love to hate!


All Hackers have mad skills

Only a few hackers have the type of advanced coding skills that every hacker-type movie ever takes for granted. The ones who occupy positions near the top of the ladder combine their talent with automated hacking tools to discover weaknesses and probe their way past security walls, passwords, access keys, and encryption.

However, the majority of hackers aren’t exceptionally skilled. They are merely common criminals who can write a few scripts and spend their time renting attack software known as Malware as a Service (or MaaS). They buy stolen access codes and personal information from data breaches by more accomplished hackers.


Keyboard mashing and lightspeed typing

According to Hollywood, hackers can touch-type at the speed of light and never make a typing mistake. In reality, coding consists of stringing together very long commands containing numerous sets of complex instructions that must adhere to a specific syntax.

In truth, it can’t be done effortlessly, without error, while wearing gloves and hanging over the edge of a 60-floor-high building bleeding from a gunshot wound in your thigh and car crash injuries to your head. Or at gunpoint, while being delightfully entertained by a beautiful woman, as happened to Stanley (Hugh Jackman) in 2001’s truly memorable “Swordfish.”


Great hackers need no tools.

“WarGames” (1983) introduced us to kids who needed only a phone, modem, and the correct phone number to hack into the Pentagon in minutes. Thirty years later, we’ve never lost our taste for the Hollywood stereotype of the tech-savvy young McGyver-techie-type who can hack with practically bare hands. In fact, our protagonists are getting better at it. Now, they only need an exposed IP address or a game controller.

In reality, hackers increasingly use phishing emails, texts, or social media posts to dupe people into clicking on malicious links. Fake websites can trick you into divulging login credentials or downloading software that steals your data. It’s a far easier way to get into protected systems than thirty years ago. Even the FBI has fallen victim to schemes utilizing information from previous data breaches.


Cross-platform hacking

Most Mac users experience at least one sinking “Oh, that’s Windows software” feeling when they start. Software is not universally portable, and it may need months of coding to translate all the code necessary for an intrusion from, e.g., Windows to Mac.

Since 1996’s embarrassing “Independence Day,” when Jeff Goldblum’s character wrote an earthly computer virus that worked on the alien mothership’s computers, most shows avoid such egregious mistakes. Instead, perhaps reverting to type, earthlings nowadays use blunt force, projectiles, or good old explosions to wipe out alien intruders.


Hacking is usually a slow, tedious process.

Depending on the type of attack, it can take days, weeks, or even months to execute a successful attack. And while hackers are working on their game plan, security updates may remove the insecurities they were planning to target. A simple computer update may render their attack useless.

There aren’t exciting graphics or flashing lights for bored hackers to portray attacks and counterattacks with pyrotechnic displays. The cult favorite 1995 movie “Hackers” deserves a special mention for the hacker duel between “Acid Burn” and “Zero Cool.”


Hackers know all systems and platforms.

Contrary to Hollywood opinion, hackers can’t simply enter a new system and take in the complex system for “maintaining weather satellite software and launching missiles while controlling global air traffic control” at a glance. It’s tough to unerringly navigate a system in Russian Cyrillic script and unlock all access levels in the system while homing in on the file they want within seconds – all without checking the state of the existing system or downloading any supporting tools.

The “Jason Bourne” saga takes exceptional liberties with this theme, invoking the audience’s awe of three-letter agencies to blur the intricacies of instantly accessing exact information from a vast number of disparate systems across the world.


Instant password guessing

Most computer systems will lock out an attacker after several password tries. Account lockout can prevent hackers from using automated tools like dictionary-hybrid programs to keep guessing (sometimes hundreds of thousands of times) until they get it right. But in hacker movies, our hero always manages to grab the correct password out of thin air on the third try.

In reality, you can buy massive password databases from specialized websites and forums on the Dark Web.


One show gets hacking right.

Hollywood is known for drama, but we crave entertainment, so we hardly call them out over inaccuracies. But “Mr. Robot” deserves a special mention as one of the few shows that get hacking more or less correct. So, take a few notes on what is impossible and possible. Secure your smart home from cyberattacks before you watch the show from behind your TV VPN!