Forty years of hackers at the movies

There are two definitions of “hacker” the first is the one we geeks mean when we call someone a hacker – a person skilled in using technology, particularly computers, who enjoys understanding the inner workings of that technology, perhaps for personal education. The second is the colloquial definition that refers to someone engaged in breaking through computer security, often seen as a disaffected teenager, lurking behind a green-glowing computer monitor that clicks with every keystroke.

Are the movies to blame for the hacker stereotype? Damian Gordon of the School of Computing, at Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, is not so sure. He has homed in on the hacking in live-action, non-documentary movies from the last four decades and come to some interesting conclusions. Here’s a list of the hacker movies made before the World Wide Web…

Hot Millions (1968)

Peter Ustinov plays Marcus Pendleton, who uses social engineering techniques and disables security systems to create fraudulent identities, in order to send numerous claim checks to himself

The Italian Job (1969)

Computer expert Professor Simon Peach, portrayed by comedian Benny Hill, hacks into the Turin traffic control system in order to create a massive traffic jam as a diversion for a massive gold heist.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

Robot R2D2 interfaces with the Death Star computer systems and hacks in to locate Princess Leia in the Detention Block, and controls the garbage compactor to prevent the heroes of the movies from being crushed to death.

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

While under attack the captain of spaceship U.S.S. Enterprise wirelessly hacks into the enemy spaceship computer systems in order to lower its shields.

Tron (1982)

Jeff Bridges, playing Kevin Flynn, hacks into his former employer’s computer systems to prove he was wrongly fired from his job. First mention of the term “hacking” in the movies.

Superman III (1983)

Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) uses his computer skills to embezzle a large sum of money from the company payroll. Hacking involves a salami slicing attack.

War Games (1983)

High school student David Lightman, played by Matthew Broderick, accidentally hacks into a military supercomputer and almost starts World War III.

Prime Risk (1985)

Julie Collins (Toni Hudson) forges ATM cards to steal money from a bank in revenge for it failing to give her a job and inadvertently stumbles on big-time international hackers attempting to ruin the Federal Reserve and destroy the US monetary system.

Real Genius (1985)

Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) is building a chemical laser system and meets Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) who uses his computer skills to discover an unscrupulous professor plans to use the laser as a weapon.

Weird Science (1985)

Two teenage computer hackers, Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) design the perfect woman on their home computer and then hack into a US Government mainframe to create a simulation of their woman. A bizarre electrical storm leads to a real woman being created with hilarious and poignant consequences (yeah, right).

Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)

Encrypted comms and password cracking embroil Terry Doolittle (Whoopi Goldberg) in an international spy story.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

High school student Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) hacks into the school computer to delete his many absences.

Terminal Entry (1986)

A dropped candy bar leads high school hacker Bob (Patrick Labyorteaux) to uncover a terrorist network.

Bellman and True (1987)

Computer expert Hiller (Bernard Hill) loses his job and sells a “worthless” computer tape to bankrobbers who kidnap his son, force him to decode the information on the tape, which turns out to be a map of the National General Bank security system.

Die Hard (1988)

Alan Rickman playing “German” terrorist Hans Gruber commands technical henchman Theo to hack into a computer system to open the vault containing millions.

In addition, Gordon discusses 20 hacker movies in the 1990s including, of course, The Matrix, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Sneakers, and Hackers. The 2000s had 15 hacker movies, says Gordon, among them Takedown, Swordfish, Foolproof, Storm Watch, Die Hard 4, and a remake of The Italian Job.

Of the fifty hacker movies on which Gordon focused in his complete list, 8 were hacker specific, 5 were heist, 18 heroic, 15 sci-fi, and 4 true life. 21 hackers were portrayed as 25 years old or younger, 37 hackers were portrayed as 25 to 50, and just 2 movie hackers were 50 to 75 years old. 19 hacker characters work in the computer industry, 17 were “full-time” hackers, 12 students, and 12 hackers with other professions. But, the most telling statistics come when you look at the morals of the movie hackers. 44 hackers were good guys and a mere 10 were the bad guys.

The stereotypical definition of a hacker is a corrosive one as it pervades popular culture and could even blind policy makers to genuine threats to computer and communications security as well as lowering scientific literacy and comfort levels with computer use at work and at play for many people.

It is clear from Gordon’s analysis that the popular cultural image of a hacker as being a teenager in their bedroom is not being generated from the movies that feature hackers, Gordon explains. “In fact, the majority of hackers in movies are good guys between 25 and 50 years old who work in either the computer industry or is a full-time hackers.” This matches the hacker’s own definition of what a hacker is, rather than the popular stereotype and, concludes Gordon, could help the good-guy hacker community shake off the stereotype.

Following a comment on this blog, I asked Gordon about the male to female ratio:

Apparently, of 60 hackers listed (in 50 movies) just 7 were female,
although this is about 12% which is, he says, “a reasonably good reflection of reality”.

The characters were:

  • Toni Hudson in Prime Risk (1985)
  • Sandra Bullock in The Net (1995)
  • Angelina Jolie in Hackers (1995)
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ (1999)
  • Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix (1999)
  • Kristin Booth in Foolproof (2003)
  • Nikki DeLoach in The Net 2.0 (2006)

You can find a full listing of all the hacker characters here.

Gordon added that, “I will just note that on TV there are a lot more female hackers, here is a Powerpoint on that. Perhaps that is a result of the fact that on TV men stereotypically do the action and women do the passive stuff.

Research Blogging IconDamian Gordon (2010). Forty years of movie hacking: considering the potential implications of the popular media representation of computer hackers from 1968 to 2008 Int. J. Internet Technology and Secured Transactions, 2 (1/2), 59-87

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.