How to portray hackers in the media

I spend a lot of time complaining about Hollywood movies on this blog. Especially about the way it portrays technology which is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. There are several posts here that complain about this – for example this rant, or this review of a horrible movie. Every time I post one of these articles someone in the comments calls me on it and says something among the lines of:

“Ok, Mr. smarty pants. How would you portray hacking in a movie in a way that doesn’t put people to sleep? The reason why hacking tends to look like some psychedelic Tetris game in most movies is because showing a person type commands onto a terminal window is boring.”

This is an excellent point and one I wish to address in this post. Let’s assume I am a movie writer/director or a producer of some sort and I am working on a multimillion dollar production about that feature about an irreverent, rogue cop taking on a high tech organized crime group which is backed by some awesome haxx0rz they utilize to steal money, spy on law enforcement and wreck havoc. You know – the standard block buster movie formula. Lets also assume I do not know that much about computers or hacking. Yet I know that these are major elements in my movie. Here is what would I do.

Step One: Research

Before having a single line of script written, I would sit down and try to learn as much about real world hacking as I could. And by that I don’t mean I would actually try to learn how to do it. I would want some high-level, general overview of what hackers can do and what they can’t. Being a film maker I wouldn’t necessarily have deep knowledge about stuff like technology or medicine. So if I was making a movie taking place in a hospital trauma ward I would totally want to look up some medical terms, common types of injuries and recovery prognosis of each. Same with technology – I would want to know what do hackers commonly do, how do people track them, how do they get caught and etc.. I would probably sit down with a security expert and bounce some questions of of him. For example, I would ask him if a hacker could break into pentagon, steal a harrier jet and have that jet chase the main hero through the streets of New York. That sort of thing.

Step Two: Jargon

I would hire someone to write me some tech dialog using real world jargon. And I don’t mean just pulling out buzzwords from the dictionary to have my characters create a GUI interface in visual basic to track an IP address. No, I would bring a tech person in and tell them that I want him to figure out few lines for a hacker to say while he is trying steal some money from a bank or whatever. Each line should be then re-phrased in layman terms because he will need to explain these things to his girlfriend, his boss and etc..

The idea is that realistic tech jargon will sound just as incomprehensible and intimidating to an uninitiated viewer than bunch of made up techno babble. So why not take that extra step to ensure authenticity and realism? While most viewers won’t know the difference it certainly can’t hurt can it?

Step Three: Use Real Tools

When doing post production and special effects I would go to Youtube and watch some of those hacking demonstration videos. You know what I’m talking about, right? When people break into their own machine using a password cracker like Hydra, snoop on passwords using Ettercap and Wireshark, break WEP using aircrack, scan ports using Nmap and etc… I would then bring someone in for one day, to set up few demonstrations like that for me and have them filmed and used in the correct context in the movie.

Once again, these scenes would basically flash past the screen at high speed. People in the know-how would instantly recognize them. Others would simply assume that the characters are doing some incomprehensible hacker stuff. I mean, showing a guy rotate a 3 dimensional cube made up from zeros and ones isn’t much more telling than showing scrolling text output from Nmap of colorful packets flashing by in Wireshark.

Step Four: Space Bar

After doing all this research I would realize that hacking revolves around using various software tools that are executed either by using short commands or have GUI interfaces operated via mouse. I would then resist the urge to instruct the actors to type really, really fast. Instead I would have them type something in (making sure they hit the space bar several times) and hit enter. Then stare at the screen for a little bit thinking, then type something else. Then do some mouse clicking. Rinse, repeat. I would also make them look stuff up online while hacking.

Step Five: Access Denied

Let’s face it – if I was a movie maker, I wouldn’t know how breaking into a bank would look like. Neither would most of my audience. So I could just have the computer screen flash “ACCESS GRANTED” in big letters and leave it at that. But that would be contrived, and unrealistic. Why make stuff up if I could stick to the stuff I know. For example, I know people. I don’t know how a hackers screen would look like after he successfully accesses a remote system, but I could totally imagine how his face would look like. It would be an expression triumph and relief. The hacker would read the output on the screen, and he would slowly start to smile. The smile would turn into a big grin. Finally, he would do some sort of victory dance or something.

After all, what happens on his computer screen is irrelevant. It does not matter. What matters in the movie are the characters. We want the viewers to connect with them. Showing the hackers face at the moment of his triumph is much more human, evocative and emotionally engaging way to do this than a generic “Access Granted” graphic could ever be. It allows the viewers to connect with the character and share in his happiness.

So I take something that I don’t know and replace it with something I do – I play up my strengths and hide my lacks of knowledge. I have no clue why Hollywood fails to do this so often.

Step Six: Keep Hacking in the Background

Since my movie is not about hackers or hacker culture but about cops chasing bad guys, I would try to keep the tech stuff in the background and away from the plot. After doing all this research I would probably revise some of my ideas and perhaps change the scene in which hackers take over a harrier jet by breaking into it’s on-board computer using an iPhone to something less insane. For example, I could perhaps have a bad guy, or a corrupt pilot paid by the bad guys fly it.

Instead of showing actual hacking on the screen, I would have characters talk about it. Instead of showing it I would show the outcome. For example, have a bank teller log into a computer the next day, look confused, go pale, then grab a phone and say “Sir… We have a big problem”. You know – that kind of stuff. Show people and reactions rather than computer screens.

Conclusion:

I believe all of the above would generally make for a better movie without actually sacrificing anything vital. Most of my suggestions are either common sense or cosmetic changes. Film makers should do research before making a movie about something they don’t understand or know about. Using real jargon and real tools is not that big of a deal. The former can be taken care of at the script writing stage, while the latter one can actually save money in post production. I am pretty sure that filming existing applications while they run some fake test scenario would be cheaper than having the CGI team animate some funky 3d sequence.

Finally, I believe that showing people’s reactions instead of made up screens is a good film making advice in general. After all this is what the viewers care about the most – the characters and their little triumphs or failures. Concentrating on them instead of some made up user interfaces can’t be wrong, can it?

So this is how I would do it. Making hacking more realistic does not require making it more boring. In fact, I would venture a guess that my suggestion to shift the attention towards the characters would have the opposite effect: make the film more interesting and approachable. What do you think?

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13 Responses to How to portray hackers in the media

  1. Well, I think I know how medical examiners feel when they watch shows like CSI.

    Don’t forget that movies like Matrix Reloaded and Antitrust got most of the details correct. Then again, those were targeting the geek crowd to begin with.

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  2. Adrian BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Problem is that the audience thinks it’s cool to be a hacker. Or something like that. So Hollywood will project the really cool hacking as something flashy and actionpacked. Which forces them to actually show the hacking/cracking.. Which makes them make all the mistakes you named up.

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  3. tash UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    So you mean the movie Hackers wasn’t an accurate portrayal of hacking? Crazy!

    Seriously though, I’m glad you made a post about this. It’s always bugged me, and kind of makes me cringe whenever I’m watching a movie and see some kind of crazy 3d interface that’s supposed to represent hacking. Or showing how programming is like a 3d puzzle game. I don’t think I know anyone who gets as excited about coding as the guy in swordfish does when he’s playing his 3d programming game.

    I agree with most of what you said; it’d all make a much better movie. At least, it would to the IT/Geek crowd.

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  4. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I agree.

    It can’t be so hard to add some kind of realism to the computer systems.

    But this is so far my biggest /facepalm moment I have had: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2rGTXHvPCQ

    The 1337-speak part on it is just so dump…

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Craig A. Betts:

    Antitrust lost me when they revealed that the Bill Gates analogue was using hidden cameras to steal open source code. That made me face palm so hard I blacked out and I don’t even know how the movie ended. :P

    @ Adrian:

    True, but isn’t the “awesomeness” of hacking more about the results rather than the process? I mean, whether you show a character typing commands into a terminal or playing 3d Tetris should be irrelevant as long as something cool happens as a result.

    What makes hackers cool is the image they project themselves – not the actual process, which on the screen is incomprehensible anyway.

    Btw, the only “hacker” movie that does not annoy me that much is Hackers which ironically has all the silly video-game like hacking sequences I love to complain about. But, they did get a lot of things right – they got the jargon down for the most part, they show real books and real techniques (dumpster diving, social engineering, visiting the office dressed as a repairman and writing down passwords from sticky notes attached to monitors).

    Oh and it did have young Angelina Jolie.

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  6. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I think while Holywood movies miss the point entirely, some good old TV shows get it quite right. I love how it is done in Criminal Minds, for instance. Of course, it is sexed up a bit (way too many screens and too much fast typing too), but in general, they show fairly normal stuff like googling things, breaking passwords with small utilities and so on. And most of the time, they show the face of the IT girl doing it (can’t remember her name) and not her redundant screens.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ tash:

    Ok, I admit – I had moments when I would do some of the stuff he did while coding. Admittedly not as ostentatiously – but I’ve been known to throw my hands up in the air, and do a little victory dance upon fixing some annoying bug that I have been tracking down for the last 2 hours. Or go “come on, come on, comeoncomeoncomeon!” while watching something compile.

    But yeah.

    @ k00pa:

    Girl: I speak 1337.
    Guy:That’s so hot!
    Me: ಠ_ಠ

    Seriously!

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  8. Agree on the character thing. Case in point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXW02XmBGQw (I might have uttered “I am hInvincibol”(sic) a time or two myself after that).

    I wonder if all the worlds fencers are up and about raving and ranting, complaining about every swordfighting scene ever made… ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Flynning )

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  9. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’d agree with you, but I think presenting hacking the “real” way would confuse viewers more than anything else. The audience has been used to these weird 3D animations that don’t make sense or serve any purpose, and not just for hacking, but for anything computer related. Every computer in TV shows/movies has its own custom operating system that doesn’t resemble anything real. When a tech wants to prove his point, he can instantly fires up a 3D animation of the scene and make adjustments in real time.

    Showing things any different would look either dull or confusing to people who wouldn’t recognize what’s real and what’s not anyway. About the whole “show actors instead of screens” thing, I think they already do that. Hacking scenes I’ve seen rarely focused on the computer screens for more than a minute and usually ended in a victory dance, or at least a smile of satisfaction. Having a big green “ACCESS GRANTED” flashing on a computer screen in the background just serves to give this smile some (more) context.

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  10. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    i think the biggest problem is Hollywood’s obsession with “epic” scenes, hackers might be able to do a lot of things but none of them will set anything on fire so they will keep portraying them like ridiculous underwear models punching keyboards Zoolander style while blowing up huge alien spaceships running windows me.

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  11. road UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Nice post. This reminds me of something that’s been driving me crazy for about 20 years: Every time somebody is talking on the phone and the person on the other end hangs up, it goes strait to a dial-tone. This is so common in movies that you usually don’t even notice it, but if you think about it, THIS IS NOT WHAT HAPPENS. What happens when the person you’re speaking to hangs up is that it goes ‘click’ and then silence. NO DIAL TONE.

    I don’t understand why every film-maker does this. Maybe the phones in Hollywood work differently. But as you said, it’s no harder to make it realistic than to make it unrealistic!!! The only thing it does is snap my attention away from the scene for a moment and make me think about how it’s not a real phone. Drives me crazy.

    Rant over.

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  12. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    @ k00pa:
    That video gave me near fatal facepalm attack. 1337-speak made me go – wtf? “Yeah I can listen to them, but only in 1337-speak.”
    @ Luke Maciak:
    Yeah Hackers is without doubt best movie involving hackers.

    @ road:
    Never thought about it that way, but now it makes sense. Damn you, now I’ll be going crazy too.

    But the biggest annoyance in any movie ever, was Independence day. Lets send a virus to spaceship from another galaxy, because surely all universe is running windows 95.

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  13. Jerry P. UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    It’s done the way it’s done because most people don’t know the difference or much less give a shit anyway and all the research you suggest costs money and last but not least, it doesn’t usually affect the story line of the movie. Besides, are you trying to tell us that to hack a high security system a dialogue box that says “type in super secret password here” doesn’t really show up?

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