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Why can’t Hollywood hack?

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.

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?

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I share your frustration; but a good part of the problem is that anyone who has a PC at home, and has managed to use it successfully a few times, immediately thinks they understand all about computers (they think "how difficult could it really be?"). Most of these same people also seem to think the computer was invented in about 1980 (seriously). Only the likes of you and me (and hopefully your other readers) even care if the movie got it right. And, the vast majority of the audience wouldn't even know if what was portrayed in the movie was plausible; and Hollywood knows this.
Hoolywood probably follows the line they do to avoid having to pay royalties to someone who either was the person that the incident was based on or who wrote about the incident. The other probable cause of Hollywood's avoidance of incidents based on real-world incidents is to avoid getting sued for libel by either the victems or perpetrator of the real-world incident. Such a wonderful world of unintended consequences from lawyers being allowed to run around loose.