It doesn’t take serious writers long to learn we need to be fanatical about quality with every element of our stories. So why, when we demand quality everywhere else, do we embrace Hollywood hacker stereotypes?
Hollywood hacker characters are usually young, misfit, computer geniuses. The main difference between good guy Hollywood hackers and bad guy Hollywood hackers is, bad guys chose a life of crime after people treated them badly while good guys overcame it. Bad guys usually break in to important systems and hold the world for ransom. Good guys typically save the world by guessing the secret password in the nick of time. Hollywood hackers tend to be the smartest people in the story, but awkward in social settings, and the world would be a better place if only they weren’t so misunderstood.
Sometimes Hollywood hackers need a grownup with common sense to rescue them from terrible trouble.
I want to thank the people who bring us the TV show, NCIS, for showing the world how unplugging a computer monitor will make everything all better. I’ll sleep well tonight, armed with that nugget of knowledge. Does anyone still not know the difference between a computer monitor and a computer?
Famous Authors and Hollywood Hacker Stereotypes
The President is Missing, by former President Bill Clinton and James Patterson, features a large-scale cyberattack that threatens to turn every single device that ever connected to the internet into a brick, which, in turn threatens to shut down all power, water, commerce, and everything across the United States. How did somebody compromise everything? By poisoning the BGP routing tables between internet service providers. Somehow, nobody noticed. Apparently in Patterson’s world, only idiots work at ISPs.
The classified portion of the US military network connects to the public internet in this story. And so the attack also threatens to shut down the entire US military around the world. Good to know, if I want to send a super-secret message to a general commanding an overseas operation, I do it over the public internet. We should maybe re-think that.
But suspend disbelief and pretend this premise makes sense. How do they resolve it? Well, the malware is so serious and so deep, none of the best experts in the world can crack it. Only a 23-year-old boyfriend and girlfriend who wrote it know how to crack it, and naturally an evil terrorist murdered the girlfriend who had the secret code to disable it. And so the President of the United States and his most senior advisers must disable this cyber-weapon before it destroys the world by – get this – guessing the secret password before it’s too late.
I’m not kidding. That’s how they do it. They guess the secret password and save the world.
In his acknowledgements, Patterson credits four people, including Richard Clarke, who served four presidents as a security and counterterrorism advisor, “for their invaluable assistance in technical matters.” Which reinforces my suspicion about how much our national leaders really know about how technology works.
Here’s another one. Thriller author, Brad Thor has a recurring computer genius super hacker dwarf character. Seriously, he’s a dwarf, and a recluse who keeps two big dogs and an arsenal of weapons for protection.
In Blacklist, Thor’s-dwarf hacks a major hotel network and changes the security video feeds into a recorded loop to cover up his upcoming secret meeting. He does all this from an SUV in the parking lot. It only takes a couple hours. With no recon. And no prior knowledge of what the hotel uses for all its security systems. And Thor also manages to misuse the term, “access point” in the process.
In Thor’s world, secret government agencies use Skype over the public Internet for secure communications. But it’s okay, because they do their Skyping from behind a TOR proxy. Secret government communication over the public internet seems to be a common theme in Hollywood hacker stories.
A multi terabyte USB memory stick holds the secret to saving the world. That’s not a typo. It’s a multi terabyte USB memory stick. Of course, it’s encrypted, but this isn’t a big deal because the dwarf computer genius, working with a beautiful female accomplice, eventually guesses the password before all is lost.
Because that’s what good guy Hollywood hackers do—they guess passwords and save the world.
Using a Hollywood Hacker to Find stuff
Need to find personal information about somebody? Just hack into the DMV. It’s easy. Just guess the password. Need to stop a bad guy Hollywood hacker? Bring in a good guy Hollywood hacker to send a cybernuke. Seriously? A cybernuke? Who comes up with this stuff?
Maybe good guys need to see Evilcorp’s database, where bad guys keep their master plan to take over the world. To access it, the good guys need to breach several firewalls and face a gauntlet of cyber-stalker programs, all designed to destroy their laptops and ruin their credit.
Why do we keep producing this stuff?
I know, it’s fiction. We’re supposed to suspend disbelief. But, come on, is this the best we can come up with? Our laziness has consequences. No wonder the public thinks we’re all sitting ducks for every smart attacker who wants to take over the world. The public deserves better. We can deliver better.
Let’s talk tension
The real world offers plenty of technology-fueled tension. In 2015, two terrorists murdered fourteen people at a San Bernardino Christmas party. They died in a shootout and left behind an encrypted iPhone. The FBI wanted into that phone and threatened to bankrupt Apple unless Apple built a software update to bypass the security safeguards. Think about being in the middle of that game of Chicken.
Remember Stuxnet? The Israelis and United States NSA will not confirm they introduced malicious software to Iran in 2008 to sabotage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Kim Zetter chronicled it in Countdown to Zero Day. Imagine discovering an international software weapon. Tension? Drama? You betcha.
In my day-job in the software industry, I encounter real-life situations that threaten to shut down the world all the time. I also see smaller cyber victim scenarios that break my heart. Fiction writers should salivate at dramas like these. They all come with terrible trouble, layers of conflict, a deadline, and an unlikely hero at the grass roots. These stories smoke any cheap Hollywood hacker nonsense.
As writers, we’re supposed to entertain, educate, inform, and inspire the world. Why not insert some realism around technology? Forget the dumb stereotypes. There’s gold in them-thar technology scenes. Learn how to mine it. Your readers will thank you.
Since most writers aren’t technology professionals, how do we build realistic technology scenes? It’s no different than any other writing challenge. Do your homework. If you want to hack into the DMV or disable a video surveillance system, plan and execute a realistic attack. It should take about five minutes to figure out why using Skype for secure communications is a bad idea. And for the sake of audiences everywhere, research what firewalls do, and don’t do.
Instead of making up tech gibberish, engage a few real-world technology professionals. Ask questions. Use us as beta readers. If you can’t find anyone near you, contact me. I’ll help.
Want more? Enjoy this Publisher’s Weekly editorial and Three Cybercrime Cliches that will Kill Your Writing Dead.
Show some respect for the professionals who keep the world running. You’ll end up with a better story for your trouble. And, of course, a shameless plug. if you’re looking for existing stories where you don’t have to suspend disbelief, take a look at my novels, Bullseye Breach: Anatomy of an Electronic Break-In and Virus Bomb. They’re both pretty good stories if I do say so myself.