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Cyberwarfare in the Media: The Evolution of Hollywood Hackers

Cyberwarfare in the media the evolution of hollywood hackers

On July 8, 2016, Alex Gibney (the man who directed We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Enron documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room) released his latest documentary, Zero Days. At a time when even anti-virus programs themselves are vulnerable to attacks, the Zero Days documentary uncovers a much deeper level of danger—multi-national cyberwarfare.

Despite the dark, serious tone of Gibney’s latest documentary, the world of hacking and cyber crime have not always been depicted so ominously in media. In fact, films from the 1980s all the way through the early 2000s seemed to take very real security threats and turn them into exaggerated fantasies bent on viewer entertainment.

Let’s take a look back at how hacking has been portrayed by the media in the past and see how it compares to today’s content in shows like Mr. Robot or Gibney’s Zero Day documentary on Stuxnet and cyberwarfare.

Media Didn’t Take Cyber Threats Seriously Until Recently

In the early days of computing, Hollywood made attempts to tap into a long-standing fear of a possible machine takeover. However, entertainment goals relegated hacking movies to mere science fiction and fantasy, leaving viewers with very little in terms of truly understanding how cyber attacks work. Three distinct examples include:

  • WarGames (1983): This movie has been critically acclaimed for years, but that doesn’t mean the portrayal of cyber warfare is as serious as today’s media. At a time when U.S. citizens were concerned about Soviet missiles, Director John Badham took advantage of an opportunity to give viewers an overblown take on hacking. After accidentally hacking a military computer system, the main characters begin playing what they think is a video game—but soon find out that their virtual plans are carried out in the real world. An excellent movie, but certainly not a source of accurate information on cyberwarfare.
  • Hackers (1995): Director Iain Softley attempted to create a more realistic representation of the hacker world in this movie. However, from the rampant use of hacker nicknames (“The Plague,” “Cereal Killer,” “Lord Nikon,” “The Phantom Phreak,” etc.) to a plot line riddled with swift arrests, the movie falls short of portraying the dark world of cyber crime. For companies that have experienced a cyber attack, it’s clear that attackers are not nearly as traceable as the movie would have use believe.
  • Swordfish (2001): Despite the star-studded cast, this movie couldn’t live up to critic expectations and certainly failed to provide a solid depiction of the hacking world. In one scene, the main character is held at gunpoint and forced to hack into a government system in under 60 seconds. While sophisticated hackers can quickly compromise home users, breaching a major government system with an APT takes more reconnaissance than people might realize. This movie did little to show that hacking isn’t as simple as clicking a few buttons on the computer.

It seems that cyber attacks have reached the point where even the media can’t help but recognize the seriousness of the topic. There are still shows produced that fail to portray hacking accurately (just look at the failure of CSI: Cyber), but the trend is increasingly toward darker tones.

How Zero Day Has Set a Standard for Media Portrayal of Cyberwarfare

Alex Gibney’s Zero Day dives into the story of Stuxnet, a dangerously complex piece of malware capable of replicating itself across a network of machines. In the documentary, subject matter experts explain the story of how the United States and Israel used the malware to sabotage Iranian nuclear development. The Operation Olympic Games campaign has ultimately, according to Gibney, opened the door for global cyberwarfare the likes of which we haven’t considered until now.

Interviews with Symantec head of security, Eric Chien, former head of counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, General Michael Hayden and more help Zero Day offers an entirely journalistic view of the deepest levels of cyberwarfare that the public has never seen. This has quickly become the new standard for hacking in the media—especially as television shows such as Mr. Robot and Dark Net grow in popularity.

In an effort to keep up with the latest cyberwarfare developments, we’ve put together a free white paper regarding the Stuxnet malware campaigns and the global events surrounding it. Download the white paper now and discover a deeper level of cyber threats that companies must be prepared to defend themselves against.