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If a movie storyline involves some form of technology-based infiltration, it's a safe bet to assume they'll want to make sure that you – the viewer – see it, and that you see it hard. Show them a dark room with large, luminous screens; not just one – as many as you can fit in the room. Make sure the text is either neon blue or green. Heck, do both. Show them code – any code. Show them a big, shiny progress bar. Show them the nerd-designate tentatively turning his head around to the cross-armed head honcho in a suit, as quivering lips eventually give way, meekly spilling out the words “we're in.”
For perhaps the vast majority of viewing audiences, this is fine. For some of the more technologically inclined, this might cause allergic reactions ranging from severe, irreversible eye-rolls, to anaphylactic shock due to prolonged exposure to a Roland Emmerich movie. In any case, it doesn't quite seem like it's going to get any better any time soon.
There's plenty to write home about, but here are three of some of the most comically absurd depictions of hacking that's ever been played out in movies (warning: spoilers follow!):
Doesn't matter if it's infrastructure, power plants, governmental facilities, traffic lights, a toaster, or a box of paper clips – if it's got wires of some description in it, it's apparently hackable. Never mind the fact that not everything is online in a way that you can reach wirelessly or via the Internet in general (e.g., closed systems and air-gapped networks); if it's electronic, it can and will be infiltrated for the purposes of advancing the plot, regardless of real-world feasibility.
Some examples: Sneakers (1992) starring Robert Redford: they can access any electronic device, machine, and network using the film's central plot device – the black box; Die Hard 4.0 (2007), starring Bruce Willis and Justin Long; Eagle Eye (2008) starring Shia LeBeouf: construction cranes are apparently a part of the Internet of Things.
How often has a plot in a film relied on one of the protagonists creating a virus to infiltrate a network or system in order to move the story along, right then and there? We need to get the thing from the thing. We can use a virus to get the thing. On it! Here you go. In the real world, computer viruses are essentially software packages that are written to exploit specific holes in specific programs. This means studying the target, which in turn means you need to have access to its source code, a system to test it on, which lets the programmer run a variety of penetration tests on the software, and then he or she can start the actual work on authoring a virus. That's kind of an oversimplified way of describing it. It takes a skilled programmer a heckuvalot of time to be able to get this done – far from something that can be done overnight.
The Glorious One True Example: Independence Day (1996) starring Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum: In order to take down the invading alien fleet, Goldblum, on a whim, creates a virus to infiltrate it and disable their shields. Human computer having no issues interfacing with superior extraterrestrial technology? Check. “Uploading Virus” dialog? Check. Low-res, pixelated skull and crossbones graphic? Check. Glorious.
In similar fashion to the ease and convenience of silver screen virus creation, the way hacking is depicted in movies and television is often worthy of a Picard facepalm. We need to do this thing now! Rapid-fire typing. After a few minutes of loud, furious typing on a keyboard while tense background music is playing – “We're in!”. That, or hacking is depicted in some convoluted visual manner, because special effects pretty. Maybe a combination of both. In the real world, what people generally consider to be actual hacking is accomplished through relatively more mundane methods – as well as in some rather extreme, bleeding-edge ones – but with results that can be considered quite devastating if executed on a larger scale.
Some Examples: Speaking of facepalms, in the 1997 film Masterminds (which stars Captain Pica-- I mean Patrick Stewart), hacking consists of playing a video game with skeletons in it; Die Hard 4.0: The main antagonist hacked into NORAD using just a laptop, in the middle of a meeting, just like that. Bonus: you can stop an ongoing hack by having two people type furiously on the same keyboard at the same time (not from a movie, but this is great).
It's a bit hard to imagine a work of speculative fiction with a current-day setting destined for the big screen depicting technology as it actually is and the way it actually works – but if they can do that and make it work well… well, that'll be the day.
About the Author: Andre Salvatierra is a freelance writer who loves culture, technology, well-designed things, and great experiences. He also accepts your scorn – please don't hurt him. You can find him on Medium and Twitter.