Technology has brought many positive changes to the world. Information is available at our fingertips. We no longer have to leave our homes to shop, bank, or communicate with others; including those who live on the other side of the planet. However, with every positive comes a negative. While an honest person can access information they need, dishonest individuals exploit the weaknesses in systems for their own gain. Hollywood has taken notice of this and has /made our worst fears come alive time and again. From films about identity theft to movies about hacking government systems, plots involving information security breaches frighten and delight at the same time.
The Conversation (1974)
Information is largely stored in computers, but once upon a time, surveillance was primarily carried out in person. The Conversation follows a surveillance expert hired to track a couple and record their words. After doing so, the expert, played by Gene Hackman, chooses to safeguard the couple by continuing to spy on them even after the initial client receives the ill-gotten tape. In the end, it is Hackman himself whose security is breached as he discovers his own home to be watched and bugged.
One of the first of its type, WarGames stars Matthew Broderick as a bored teenager with access to a computer capable of hacking into a United States military supercomputer. Thinking he is playing a game called Global Thermonuclear War on the supercomputer, Broderick’s character nearly ignites World War III. WarGames was a nod to the idea that video games, which were at the height of popularity in the early 1980s, could lead to violence in the real world. WarGames is also a Cold War hit, reminding the public how fragile the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union truly was.
Well before most people had computers in their homes, Hollywood began making movies about computer geniuses who could hack into networks and security systems. In this film, a team of security experts, led by Robert Redford, are tricked by rogue NSA agents into stealing and handing over a machine that is capable of massive decryption. In the end, Redford’s character bests his foes and uses the machine to hack into the Republican party’s funds. That money is then given to charitable organizations with no one else being the wiser.
The Net (1995)
Arguably one of the first identity theft films, The Net was Sandra Bullock’s breakout role as a systems analyst who has her life changed when she unwittingly becomes part of a terrorist conspiracy. Her social security number is reassigned to a woman with a severe criminal history, her credit cards become canceled, and her only friend is murdered when his computerized hospital records are changed. The film reflected the fright the public felt about sharing too much information online.
The internet was still new in 1995, which made a film like Hackers intriguing to general audiences. The story is about teenage hackers who use their skills to prank each other and high ranking officials until they accidentally uncover a corporate fraud scheme. At the time, the film grossed under $8 million dollars, far less than what its star Angelina Jolie now receives per movie role. Though it received mixed reviews then, it is now a cult classic.
One of the few films about information security breaches that is based on a true story, 23 is a German film detailing the exploits of Karl Koch, a computer hacker who became a spy. The film shows how Koch is able to hack into US military computers, gaining knowledge which was later sold to the KGB. After his activities became publicly known, Koch died under mysterious circumstances.
Office Space (1999)
One of the few comedies to employ information security breaches in its plot, Office Space is now a cult classic. The film follows the disgruntled Peter Gibbons as he, along with two co-workers, decides to infect the company computer system with a virus. The sole purpose of this virus is to deflect a very small portion of money at a time into a private bank account owned by the three friends.
The Matrix (1999)
This sci-fi thriller takes the idea of information security breaches and turns it around: What if the computers hacked us? This is exactly what happens in the original Matrix, which is the first in the trilogy. Computing systems use the energy from humans to power themselves while creating a manufactured reality in order to keep humans satisfied. Meanwhile, a rogue group is able to remove themselves from the program, infiltrate the system, and plot to free the human race.
A young computer programmer is given his dream job working for a software development company in Portland. Things soon take a turn for the worst when Milo Hoffman, played by Ryan Phillippe, discovers this dream is a nightmare. The company is stealing code from expert programmers, and then killing those programmers to cover their tracks. This code allows the company to infiltrate mainstream media as well as the Justice Department.
Another film based on true events, Breach details the story of Robert Hanssen, a FBI agent who gave national security secrets to the Soviet Union. Hanssen was brought to justice by a younger agent, Eric O’Neill, who managed to obtain information about his espionage through tracking devices and by breaking into his Palm Pilot. The real Robert Hanssen is currently serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Hollywood continues to make films about information security breaches on a regular basis. Hackers are often painted as misunderstood geniuses, as is the case of the title character in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy. Identity theft can be seen as comedy, as was done in the film “Identity Thief.” National security measures are explored with film heroes from Jason Bourne to James Bond. It seems that the public will never tire of watching security breaches in action, whether fabricated or based on actual events.