Despite the fact that most Hollywood movies are the products of computers these days, no one in La La Land seems to have the first clue what computers can and can’t do. Or more accurately, what skilled hackers can do with computers. Exhibit A would be the egregious John Travolta vehicle “Swordfish,” which has the brilliant tagline: Log on. Hack in. Go anywhere. Steal everything. My personal favorite is still “Sneakers,” the Robert Redford-Sidney Poitier thriller in which Redford and his band of merry hackers are tricked into stealing a device that can decrypt any message created by any cryptosystem on Earth. It’s the NSA in a box.
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Now, we’re about to be treated to another installment: “Live Free or Die Hard.” In this one we find Bruce Willis chasing an uber-cyberterrorist all over the Eastern seaboard as the bad guy shuts down communications systems, unleashes anthrax scares and generally wreaks havoc from the safety of his broadband connection. Along for the ride is Justin Long, the guy who plays the Mac in those Apple ads. Here he’s a hacker who gave some secret code to the wrong guys and now they want him dead. (No truth to the rumor that Richard Clarke was a technical adviser.)
What I don’t really understand about these movies is why they don’t hire someone with actual computer security knowledge to help guide the writers. This is done all the time with cops, doctors and lawyers, so why not security professionals? Some of the things that hackers have actually done are just as impressive as any stunt the Hollywood types concoct. You don’t have to look any farther than the German hackers who compromised a number of Defense Department computers in the 1980s on contract for the KGB. You can’t make that stuff up. But then again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?