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Hackers at the movies

04 February 2010 Inderscience

Usually when we hear the word "hacker", we picture a disaffected teenager, lurking behind a green-glowing computer monitor that clicks with every keystroke, breaking into some top security computer system. But, this is only one side to the story, these hackers are on the "dark side", there are also hackers who are on the "light side" who are skilled in computers, and enjoy understanding their inner workings for the sake of learning. This ambiguity often results in confusion about what hackers do, and what their motives are. The mix-up is often blamed on the media for creating the negative view of hackers, but are the movies really to blame?

Damian Gordon of the School of Computing, at Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, is not so sure. He has homed in on the hacking in live-action, non-documentary movies from the last four decades and come to some interesting conclusions.

Writing in the International Journal of  Internet Technology and Secured Transactions, Gordon has analysed the characters and plots of a wide range of movies from the 1968 Peter Ustinov classic Hot Millons to Die Hard 4.0 by way of Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Matrix, and Jurassic Park.

In total, Gordon discusses 50 movies in which a character essential to the plot is involved in  hacking. Of the fifty hacker movies on which Gordon focused in his complete list, 8 were hacker specific, 5 were heists, 18 heroic, 15 sci-fi, and 4 true life. 21 hackers were portrayed as 25 years old or younger, 37 hackers were portrayed as 25 to 50, and just 2 movie hackers were 50 to 75 years old. 19 hacker characters work in the computer industry, 17 were "full-time" hackers, 12 students, and 12 hackers with other professions. But, the most telling statistics come when you look at the morals of the movie hackers. 44 hackers were good guys and a mere 10 were the bad guys.

The stereotypical definition of a hacker is a corrosive one as it pervades popular culture and could even blind policy makers to genuine threats to computer and communications security as well as lowering scientific literacy and comfort levels with computer use at work and at play for many people.

It is clear from Gordon's analysis that the popular cultural image of a hacker as being a teenager in their bedroom is not being generated from the movies that feature hackers, Gordon explains. "In fact, the majority of hackers in movies are good guys between 25 and 50 years old who work in either the computer industry or is a full-time hackers." This matches the hacker's own definition of what a hacker is, rather than the popular stereotype and, concludes Gordon, could help the good-guy hacker community shake off the stereotype.

"Forty years of movie hacking: considering the potential implications of the popular media representation of computer hackers from 1968 to 2008" in Int. J. Internet Technology and Secured Transactions, 2010, 2,  59-87

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