…Dispelling the Hollywood Hacking Myth

Allow me to paint the scene, not that you haven’t seen it a million times before:

Dude with Gun: [Nervously, under pressure] Come on Phantom*, this door ain’t gonna unlock itself and they’re onto me. Don’t fail me now. (*Phantom, of course, being the stereotypical hacker name)

Phantom: [Typing away furiously, somehow never using the 5, 6, t, y, g, h, b or space keys because you don’t need the center of your keyboard to hack, let alone a mouse] Nearly got it… [Deepens frown, types even faster and looks all over the screen like he’s tripping balls] Yes! I’m in. Well, you’re in.

DwG: [Relieved, begrudgingly grateful] Took your time, Phantom, I thought ghosts could breeze through doors.

Phantom: [Wryly] We can, it’s you heavies that hold us back. [Smug grin]

[DwG enters the corridor like he’s stalking his high school crush before he sees a problem — there’s a security camera down the hall!]

DwG: [Ducking for cover behind a wall but then shoving his entire head back out to talk] Uhhh, we got trouble. Security camera at the end of the corridor.

Phantom: [Looking to the second of approximately twelve monitors, three of which are displaying animated wallpapers of Matrix text] No problem, I’ll just spoof an IP, log into their internal security server, root their systems and take the camera offline. Give me a second.

DwG: [Serious again] I trust you, Phantom. Make it snappy.

Phantom: [Troubled, eyes wide] Nuts. Their server was coded in Visual Basic, I learnt C++.

DwG: [Confused but concerned because ignorance is never bliss in action sequences] How long will it take you to crack their password?

Phantom: [Stumped, ponderous] I don’t know. What if… maybe… I made a program a couple of years ago that hacked door passcodes because I had spare time. I wonder if I can align the algorithm to crack their GUI. It’s a long-shot but it might work. [Hunches over monitor four, pulling up a program that looks like a command terminal which begins cycling through letters]

DwG: [Sees someone approaching and ducks back behind the wall] I’ve got company. If you take out the camera soon I can take him out before he raises the alarm.

Phantom: [Furious typing followed by an illustrious smashing of the enter key] Done. Their eyes and ears are ours now. I’ll delete any other footage from today just in case.

DwG: [Springs into action] You’re almost as good as me, Phantom.

Everyone’s seen this scene, it’s a Hollywood favourite. The hacker pulling strings from base with his fingers dancing all over the keyboard.

You see, the problem is that hacking is nothing like that. First of all, what the “hacker” is actually doing is called ‘cracking’. My biggest issue, however, is with the language. There are two types of people: the first group will understand the language the hacker is using and the second group won’t. The people who understand the hacker will know the gibberish he’s spouting makes no sense. The people who don’t understand also think it’s nonsensical gibberish. The net effect is a dialogue full of gibberish.

It makes me cringe to the point where my eyebrows end up below my eyes when I hear TV and/or movies try to talk ‘leet’. Protip, screenwriters: Every single (cr/h)acker in the world is lazy, efficient and organised to the point where they’ll avoid typing wherever possible. As such, the language is a string of initialisms, acronyms and abbreviations. And that’s after they’ve used slang terms. For example, someone new to the game (a newbie -> newb -> noob -> n00b) is pejoratively called a script kiddie. That gets shortened to skiddie, which in turn becomes skid. Now, if I hadn’t explained that, how many people would know what a ‘skid’ is? This, of course, is assuming the hacker would take the time to actually explain what they’re doing. I mean, movies don’t have doormen saying “I’m opening the door. I’m shifting my weight mid-opening. The door’s open.” every time they need the audience to know what’s happening.

Finally, something so comically preposterous that I’m sure it doesn’t need explaining. Neither hacking nor cracking are done in front of a small wall of monitors within mere seconds. They definitely aren’t done without a person’s wrists moving. In a general sense, they’re done over many hours with constant research breaks. No-one hacks through a bespoke security system on-the-fly, life doesn’t work like that.

Basically media, I admire your attempts to make the stereotypical nerd the hero of the piece but you’re going about it all wrong. Instead, you end up making them look like fools. You make yourselves the laughing stock by being so wrong that people like me can’t help but laugh at you. I know nothing about women’s make up so do you know what I do? I don’t pretend I have a clue about it; I admit I have no clue. It’s only been 20 years but it’s worked well for me so far: no-one’s pulled me up on being excessively vocal in my ignorance.

Could you stop getting hacker scenes so tragically wrong? I’d really appreciate it, thanks. They were so bad that they became funny and that was nice. The problem is they’re now becoming a bit soul-destroying and I’m running out of shows to enjoy that haven’t been butchered by a hacker scene.

It’s 2012 anyway. I’m neither a hacker nor a cracker yet I’m fully aware of how this works. Can we try to avoid making this another stormtrooper aim thing? If you can’t use hackers properly I’m going to have to confiscate them and no-one wants that now, do they?