Hollywood hackers 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.
Hollywood hackers often find information unavailable to normal people. But sometimes, they 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?
Here are a couple Hollywood hacker examples from novels. And a spoiler alert.
First, the new book, The President is Missing, by former President Bill Clinton and James Patterson. The story 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. Brad Thor is a famous thriller author and he has a recurring computer genius super hacker dwarf in his books. Seriously, he’s a dwarf, and a recluse who keeps two big dogs and an arsenal of weapons for protection.
In Thor’s tech thriller, Blacklist, the super-hacker-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, super 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.
Need information? Bring in a good guy Hollywood hacker to break into whatever government database you need. 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?
Don’t even get me started on Die Hard.
Entertainment doesn’t need to be stupid to hold our interest. We should use fiction to present truth better than the news and we should care about the quality of our stories.
Don’t be lazy. Don’t resort to Hollywood hacker stereotypes. You can do better. If your story has technology, contact me and I’ll help you make your technology make sense. Or, if you don’t want to talk to a bald guy from Minnesota, then find another professional who knows about technology. I promise you, the people who work behind the scenes day and night to keep our digital infrastructure secure will appreciate the respect.
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.