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Hacking the Gibson, Then and Now: Lessons from “Hackers”

In the 1995 movie “Hackers“, young cyber rebels, portrayed by actors such as Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, infiltrate computer systems, outsmart corporate security, and ultimately save the day. The movie, while dated in terms of technology, surprisingly remains relevant when it comes to its depiction of cybersecurity threats. In fact, it seems that despite the massive technological advancements we’ve seen in the past 30 years, many of the ways Crash, Burn and the gang use when hacking the Gibson are still commonly used today.

“Hackers” is a pop culture touchstone for many in the tech industry, remembered as much for its over-the-top portrayal of hacker culture and early 90s futurism as for the famous faces that populated its cast. The film follows a group of high school hackers and their involvement in a corporate extortion conspiracy. The narrative combines elements of a heist, corporate espionage, and coming-of-age story, all framed within the nascent world of cyberculture.

As someone passionate about cybersecurity, I adore this movie, in spite of, or perhaps because of its technical inaccuracies and over-the-top visuals. Its bold style, energetic soundtrack featuring artists like Orbital, Prodigy, and Underword, and vibrant characters create a distinct experience that’s hard to forget. It somehow manages to capture the imaginative spirit of hacking, bringing a sense of fun and rebelliousness to a field that can be overwhelmingly complex.

The story revolves around Crash Override, a prodigious hacker played by Jonny Lee Miller, who’s been legally banned from touching a computer until his 18th birthday due to a hacking incident he was arrested for as a child. Upon reaching 18, Dade moves to New York City and falls in with a group of likeminded individuals, including the fierce and talented hacker Acid Burn, played by Angelina Jolie. This group of young hackers share a passion for exploring the cyberspace and exposing the weaknesses of the system.

The plot thickens when Joey, one of their novice companions, inadvertently hacks into a supercomputer belonging to the Ellingson Mineral Company and downloads a fragment of a program. This catches the attention of the company’s head security officer, Eugene Belford, known online as “The Plague”. Belford, played by Fisher Stevens, is an insider who’s written a malicious worm program to embezzle funds, and Joey’s intrusion threatens to expose his nefarious plans. The Plague frames the hackers for the crime to cover his tracks, setting in motion a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.

As Crash and his friends realize they’re being set up, they decide to fight back. In the climactic finale, the young hackers band together in a virtual showdown against The Plague. They rally the global hacker community with the goal of hacking the Gibson at EMC again, and eventually succeed in exposing The Plague’s scheme to the company and the law enforcement. The movie culminates with the hackers clearing their names and ensuring justice is served, proving the power of unity, smarts, and their unwavering belief in righting the wrongs in their own rebellious way.

Also Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie’s characters fall in love. The two actors fell in love as well and were married for a few years after production of Hackers wrapped.

Let’s look at the four key types of hacking techniques portrayed in “Hackers” and their relevance to the current cybersecurity landscape:

  1. Weak Passwords (Joey’s attack): In the movie, Joey, a novice hacker, breaks into a supercomputer by guessing the system’s password, which was simply set as ‘god’. In the present day, despite advanced authentication technologies, weak or reused passwords remain a common entry point for hackers. And while love, secret, sex, and god are no longer the top passwords 123456, password, qwerty aren’t much better. Common sense password policies and education education coupled with the use of password managers and strong MFA are crucial for strengthening online security.
  2. Malware Infection (It’s not a virus, it’s a worm): After hacking the Gibson, Joey downloads part of a garbage file onto a disk, which unknowingly contains a part of a malware worm. Similarly, today’s users may inadvertently download malware or other malicious files, leading to compromised systems. Conventional wisdom states that regular system scans, patching, and careful internet habits can help prevent such infections, but even 30 years later we’re still grappling with malware. New, more resilient systems like iOS, and ChromeOS have come a long way in reducing this threat by greatly reducing the system’s ability to run unverified software. That said, I don’t expect we’ll see ChromeOS Server edition any time soon.
  3. Social Engineering (Hacking OTV): Crash Override calls OTV late at night and let’s Norm the security guard know that his “BLT drive has gone AWOL” in order to trick him into revealing sensitive information, a classic example of social engineering. Modern phishing attacks employ the same tactic to trick individuals into revealing personal data, passwords, or banking information. This is a human issue rather than a technology one, but we can still build systems that expect human error and insulate us from the risk.
  4. Ransomware (The Plague’s plot): The Plague’s scheme to create a financial crisis and escape with the money while leaving the hackers to take the fall is a large-scale, dramatized version of a ransomware attack. Modern ransomware attackers encrypt victim’s data or systems, demand a ransom for decryption, and often cause extensive damage.

While the movie’s depictions of these hacking the Gibson may seem cartoonish, they are almost prophetically reflective of today’s cyber landscape. But let’s not be dismayed, instead let’s take this as a wake-up call to keep pushing forward in our efforts to enhance cybersecurity. The movie “Hackers” may have been about a group of kids saving the day, but in the real world, that responsibility falls on us, the cybersecurity community. It’s our job to make security simpler and build resilient systems, without sacrificing usability. As the movie tagline goes, “Their only crime was curiosity.” And it’s our curiosity and constant learning that will keep us one step ahead in this cybersecurity game.

Hack the Planet!

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