How authentic should portrayals of hacking be? Is the tech in movies today an accurate prediction of what we can expect in the future?
Movies are one of my favourite forms of escapism – after a long shift at work you can settle down for two or so hours and escape to the past with gladiators, or fight for survival in a dystopian future surrounded by zombies.
An essential part of any silver screen escape is the suspension of disbelief – you need to believe the unbelievable, sacrifice logic and never really question why Rambo never runs out of bullets.
However, a shift towards authenticity has hit Hollywood in recent times, especially when the narrative concerns technology. As technology and cybercrime takes an ever bigger starring role in our lives, people are calling for more accurate portrayals of technology, as Marc Rogers recently discussed at a movie night hosted by Kaspersky Lab.
Rogers, a hacker known as ‘Cjunk’ and a principal security researcher for CloudFlare, has many movie and tech credits to his name. Among his achievements, which includes a Head of Security role at DEF CON, hacking the Tesla Model S and work on the BBC series ‘The Real Hustle’, Mr Rogers is also a technical advisor to Mr Robot – a hacker drama whereby the protagonist works as a cyber security engineer by day, and a vigilante hacker by night.
Since the show first aired in 2015, the hacking community has been positive about the authenticity of the hacking depicted in the show. However, some viewers may be unaware of how real the actual hacks are, with Mr Rogers explaining:
“One of the things people don’t realise about the hacks on Mr Robot is I actually do them. When you see a hack take place on screen I will have built that hack at home. You’ll see little groups of people forming on Reddit, taking a look and dissecting what we’re doing, so everything has to be real.”
However, this raises serious questions about how authentic is too authentic. A film or show does not want to add to a hackers’ arsenal, giving viewers-turned-hackers new code to play with and ultimately deploy for malicious purposes. There is also the glamorisation of a criminal group of people – a regular complaint levelled at Hollywood which extends past hackers and has been applied to gangsters and other criminals. David Jacoby, cyber security evangelist at Kaspersky Lab, argues that it is not the code on screen that should be the worry, but the portrayal of the hacking protagonists:
“Just as a movie about basketball might inspire someone to start playing basketball, a movie about hackers could easily have the same effect, especially as those who do it are often portrayed as smart rule-breakers. I think individual characters within films and TV, like the gang in Hackers or Elliot in Mr Robot, are more likely to inspire someone to explore hacking than the huge overblown activities of Die Hard, for example.
“However, movies show just fragments of actual hacking practises so we don’t need to worry about people learning hacking skills from them, just that they might be inspired to join the bad guys rather than learn these skills for good.”
Movies are restricted to only showing fragments of hacks, as Jacoby states, because one key factor which really drives the movies business – the visual. A movie cannot show hours of coding with a hacker sitting silently at the computer – there has to be action, explosions and tech which the audience can actually see on the big screen. This is why some portrayals of security or tech are slammed by viewers – the hacking in Skyfall for example. However, what once was visual and requiring suspension of disbelief, is now becoming real.
Who would have thought that the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey would have any semblance of truth nearly 50 years later. HAL 9000, the sentient computer that controls the spacecraft in the film, is capable of speech, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, and automated reasoning, among other capabilities. How far away is HAL to today’s Siri with its natural language interface, or to the recent breakthrough made by Microsoft researchers in speech recognition?
“2001: A Space Odyssey was ahead of its time when it came first out,” said Adam Laurie, director at Aperture Labs and another panel member at the Kaspersky movie night.
“You can still watch it now and it looks and feels eerily believable. What’s interesting is that back then it was raising questions around what is now starting to become a reality – self-aware computers – and, again, approaches it in an extremely realistic way.”
Past technology predictions made by movies are seemingly coming true. Think of the movies that involve robots, genetic engineering, biometrics, virtual reality – all of that tech is now not just feasible, but is being deployed in everyday life. It makes you think of what could become a reality in the next 50 years – could we live in a world like Westworld? Will we need to travel through a wormhole to save humanity like in Interstellar?
For the experts at the Kaspersky movie night, anything is possible. Yes, movies will still need to have a balance between the authentic and visual, but we may very well be viewing the future of technology and cyber security in the next big blockbuster.
“I believe in the next 50 years that the kind of androids we currently see in sci-fi will start becoming part of our families and companies, and as indistinguishable from real people as those in Blade Runner,” concluded futurologist Dr Ian Pearson.