Hollywood’s take on cybersecurity

It can be tough going to the movies as a cybersecurity expert. From the soapy stolen-identity flick “The Net” to the slick, punchline-packed take on surveillance depicted in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Speed,” films handling the very real issues of internet security and modern computer science are overwhelmingly unrealistic (and far too reliant on Sandra Bullock).

Cybersecurity experts are a small and elite group, and, more often than not, feel the same way watching movies about our field that genuine medical doctors do as they watch Patrick Dempsey and Kate Walsh trade flirtatious one-liners over a flat-lining patient’s body on “Grey’s Anatomy,” or how forensic pathologists feel when watching CSI. It’s entertaining, perhaps, but not enough to counter the cringe.

This baseline frustration explains some of the crazy hype for “Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s hotly anticipated take on the most famous government whistle-blower of our time. Even the story of the film’s evolution is fascinating to those of us who work in the same fields as Snowden once did: Director Oliver Stone was so paranoid about the National Security Agency interfering in his project that he packed up cast and crew and moved the entire set to Germany — and even in Europe the long fingers of the U.S. government continued to stymie him throughout filming.

Snowden, the bashful, bespectacled geek who has single-handedly become both the hero and the villain of a global debate over internet surveillance, is enough of a figurehead today to draw in crowds for this film. The star-studded cast, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, also doesn’t hurt.

But as we get our tickets and popcorn ready, it’s a good time to take a look at the rare handful of film and TV projects that actually got hacking, and the complicated business of security in the cybersphere, right.


The ultimate geek-geist flick, this 1983 classic wasn’t just a great film — it was a real-world game changer.

The film stars Matthew Broderick as a brainiac teen who manages to hack into the NORAD database. But when President Ronald Reagan saw the movie a few days after its opening, he was concerned. He gathered his chiefs of staff together and asked the magic question: Could this happen in real life?

The answer, troublingly enough, was yes. As Fred Kaplan laid out in a recent article in The New York Times, “WarGames” was the direct cause of the United States’ first-ever national directive to secure its computer technology.

If that’s not enough box-office trivia to get the geek set salivating, I don’t know what is.

Mr. Robot

Modern television audiences have two things going for them when it comes to tolerance for hacking plots: They are finally starting to understand that cyberattacks are real threats and cybersecurity matters, and, their taste, thanks to the injection of Netflix and Hulu originals into the marketplace, is becoming more sophisticated.

So it was good timing, last spring, when the USA Network debuted its ambitious new drama “Mr. Robot.” The program, about a cybersecurity expert and hacker battling both a global corporation and his own mental health issues, soon developed a cult following and nabbed a Golden Globe for Best Drama.

Who among us hasn’t considered using our powers for evil, not good?

So what sets “Mr. Robot” apart from the other hacker series that have flooded the market in recent decades? Realism. This isn’t a sugar-coated, watered-down version of hacking made digestible for audiences who hardly know how to check their own email. This is edgy, gritty television, the kind that delves with equal boldness into the depth of mental illness as it does into the intricacies of cybersecurity’s back doors and secret passageways. Audiences were ready to be shown hacker life like it is; as a result, the fan base grew and grew.

Halt and Catch Fire

The personal computer revolution of the early 1980s was one of the most important time periods in the history of American technology, and no television program captures it better than “Halt and Catch Fire.”

The problem is that, despite being accurate, razor-sharp and genuinely entertaining, hardly anyone watched the show. And that’s a shame.

The show is just as good at exploring the relationships that people have with each other as they do with machines, and today — 30 years after the PC revolution, when our lives are absolutely owned by our iPhones and our tablets and our smart TVs, there is phenomenal material to be mined from this subtle period drama.

“Halt and Catch Fire” has had two strong seasons on AMC and is set for a third. If you haven’t watched it (and the numbers alone mean that you most likely haven’t), it’s time to tune in.


“Is Blackhat the Greatest Hacking Movie Ever?” asked Wired magazine’s Cade Metz last year. “Hackers Think So.”

In pride of place on this list of TV and film programs that get cybersecurity right is Michael Mann’s smoothly executed 2015 thriller, which was all but ignored by the masses but continues to be eagerly watched, dissected and re-watched by cybersecurity experts across the globe.

A black-hat hacker, of course, is your bad-guy geek, the kind who brings down financial systems and charges through security back doors just for his own malice and personal gain. Mann’s film, in addition to having the classic Hollywood trifecta of good-looking actors, thrilling cliffhanger plotlines and a globe-trotting, costume-shifting script, is refreshingly accurate and hits close to home. Who among us hasn’t considered using our powers for evil, not good?

It’s that careful dance of good versus rotten, of power struggles played out both in real life and across the map of a keyboard, that makes “Blackhat” such a fantastic film. It’s fun and witty and unfailingly authentic. So while you’re waiting for “Snowden” to hit the box office, check it out — you won’t be disappointed.

In fact, you might want to consider a movie marathon for team building and plain old fun. Some of the classics draw blank stares, but that seems like a great excuse to pop a bag of fresh popcorn and get the entire crew together for a movie night.