It is undeniable that the art of hacking, for good or for bad, has become a core aspect to our culture. Not only in the form of threats, people have come to realize that hack culture reflects innovation, technology, and opportunity. What would social media be without hackers to challenge the status quo? How would your smartphone work if countless advancements in battery, signal, operating system, and screen technologies were never tried? How would we protect information on mobile and across the globe if there was no threat in the first place?
Early dramatization of computer hacking was rare, but it is much more common today. As anticlimactic and drawn out as real world hacking can be, in media it is always enveloped within a story. The industry portrays hacking in many ways, what follows are my unordered recommendations for the top films and series that capture the spirit of hacking, computing, and cybersecurity. (Light spoilers follow.)
My Top 5 Traditional Hacker Movies
- War Games (1983) – This was the first film that I saw as a young teenager that brought the audience into a world of computers. A teenage hacker who never hacked anything greater than his grades hacks into NORAD and World War III almost happens. For many like me, this movie was the first exposure to supercomputers in a cyber realm. It leaned on the notion that a computer could “learn” artificial intelligence, and it showed that a system could be remotely accessed (and hacked). I remember thinking vividly at that time, even as a young teenager, that all of this was very plausible.
- Sneakers (1992) – This is a captivating, funny, high-tech caper, way ahead of its time. It is star-studded, featuring Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, and Robert Redford, while also filled with early tech nostalgia. This one ranks high for fans of penetration testing. The technology as well as the characters are among the most realistic in any of these movies. The techniques they use are the techniques of the business, especially in that era.
- Hackers (1995) – An obvious selection based on its title, but essential in the sense that this movie drove to capture what it deemed as hack culture. It also introduced “phone freaking,” the exploits of John Draper (the famous “Captain Crunch”), and the phrase “hack the planet” (indirectly keeping plenty of security professionals up at night).
- The Matrix (1999 to present) – A new chapter of The Matrix is somewhere in production, but the original blew audiences away. Filled with parallels to existence, religion, power, politics, and fresh karate cinematography, The Matrix features a band of outsiders that hack into a reality that is established by an all-controlling computer program and a struggle to free humanity from its hold. The film continually plays with metaphors between what is real, what is perception, and who controls these things. Keen hackers will notice a realistic scene where a vulnerability tool known as Nmap is used to discover an SSH vulnerability.
- Independence Day (1996) – An invading race of aliens attempts to take over the world and enslave all of humanity. What they didn’t count on was Jeff Goldblum on a two-inch thick 1995 laptop and the brilliant idea of flipping the binary computer code from ones into zeroes and the zeroes into ones. Once uploaded to the alien mothership, the malware exploit was complete. Earth wins in what will probably go down as the most important and best hack in history.
Other Non-Traditional Hacker Shows
Some of us like to binge and follow a series. These next titles will take more than an afternoon to complete, but they are worth the investment.
- Revolution (2012-2014) – You are going to have to trust me on this one ,as the cyber plot emerges towards the end of the two-year series run. While the television series was discontinued, the cyber elements go a long way towards revealing everything that came before it. This show was ahead of its time, but it enjoyed a continuation in a series of comic books. It has Google executives, mixed with militia warfare, mixed with survivalist skills, and a high tech algorithm controlling the post-modern world.
- Mr. Robot (2015-2019) – I have met enough people in the industry that have not started this series or gotten past the first season, so I will not spoil it—but you must make the time for this. It is a fantastic series that incorporates practically every aspect of cybersecurity from insider threats, to APT, and everything in between. One of the features that this series is known for is its realism in hacking techniques. From USB drops to operating systems to encryption, the show’s technical advisors made sure that the technical audience could believe that this hacking was occurring. (And I am certain I’m not alone in that I keep a couple “Rubber Ducky” USB and “wifi pineapples” that I’ve used for physical pen testing and technical surveillance.)
You can see how the choices in cyber-themed entertainment have grown over the years. It comes up in unexpected places and you have entire shows dedicated to cyber forensics, for example. Even the most common sitcom series will feature some sort of tech-driven episode at some point.
These movies and series however are a standout moment in time, when through stories, something caught audience attention, causing a rift, or expressing how computers interact with our lives. As much as the cyber experience has changed our everyday real-world lives, it has changed the fabric of the stories we tell. Good hackers, bad hackers, or hackers with a heart of gold, computers have changed the way we think about the world. Enjoy these movies and I think you will agree—sensational stories and sensational inspiration make things possible.