Hollywood, Hackers, and HAL


With the release of Michael Mann’s new film Blackhat, the information security community will engage in an age-old ritual: mocking Hollywood hacking. The film may deliver an improvement on the cyber-lulz of past movies like Live Free or Die Hard, simply because of the involvement of private sector security specialist Kevin Poulsen as a consultant. But it also has the dude who played Thor hacking computers instead of swinging a hammer: hence the jokes to come.

The only thing more common than a technologically inaccurate movie is an aggrieved technologist complaining about it. Whether it is hackers mocking the insanely fast typing speed of movie super hackers, or artificial intelligence and computing specialists lamenting the perpetual Terminator image many have of their discipline, technologists have a beef with Hollywood. Not only does Hollywood butcher their professions and fields of study, but it also leads to popular fear that makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs. Unfortunately, in complaining about technology and art they also do not address the reasons why artists often misrepresent technology – and how they could potentially do better.

Why does Hollywood get it wrong and how and why can technologists help them if they want more technically accurate films? There’s no incentive to make technically accurate thrillers, and unless techies give Hollywood a reason to care about the details, movies will continue to make them wince and frown every time a new flick hits the local multiplex.

The Chuck Norris Theory of Action Movie Realism

First, let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way: Hollywood gains no extra premium from realism. The existence of chucknorrisfacts.com suggests that movie audiences see action movies in large part due to the expectation of over-the-top badassery, however ridiculous and improbable it might be. Audiences are ignorant of the technology anyway, so what’s the benefit of making a movie with technology anything more than good-natured escapism? For goodness’ sake, Chuck Norris killed terrorists with missiles fired from a motorcycle in Delta Force!

“But Adam, what about The Hurt Locker!?” you may protest. “Wasn’t that realistic?” Not if some veterans have anything to say about it. Cynically speaking, The Hurt Locker merely delivered a desired aesthetic for a more highbrow audience than your usual action movie fare. If mass market audiences want a hero who can kick ass and take names (and are willing to suspend disbelief to do so), Academy voters want something that imparts the aesthetic and appearance of realism without any of the messier aspects of war and security.

In either case, a work of fiction will always have to take dramatic license. How much license it takes is a function of the desired audience – and neither Academy voters or the ticket-buying mass public really wants anything but something that can allow them to suspend their disbelief for two hours while they munch their popcorn.

So how can things be different? First, it will take recognition from technologists that the order of responsibility is reversed. Hollywood does not owe them better tech-themed movies. Hollywood only owes its shareholders consistent returns on investment and its executives a steady dream of big paychecks and Oscars to brag about. Technologists need to be able to help filmmakers achieve that objective otherwise they will be ignored.

Hollywood, Hackers, and HAL

To do this, technologists should help highlight aspects of their professions and areas of study that might fit with an existing set of movie tropes and/or genres. For example, action films and games often highlight particular things (such as a particular callsign, tattoo, or unit insignia) that distinguish a hero from his or her peers. Many computer programmers have dotfiles that help them customize their workflow in the command line. While this may seem like a minor – and excessively nerdy – detail, we know the likes of James Bond from seemingly quotidian things like the way he likes his martini (shaken, not stirred) and his default weapon (a Walther PPK). Surely there are equivalent details in the technical domain that might help personalize a key character.

Another practical detail of information security that could be grist for a talented filmmaker’s touch is the attack attribution problem. Most hacking movies have focused on the technical challenge of dueling virtuoso hackers or a mad super hacker. But consider that a garden-variety wiper program is the subject of a major international security incident. The government claims that North Korea hacked Sony, but many security experts do not believe them. The evidence the government presented to the public is weak and it is likely its intelligence was obtained via national technical means. What should Washington do? Sounds like Tom Clancy material, if you ask me, and none of it came from an LA screenwriter’s spec script. Anyone that can’t turn this into a pulse-pounding action thriller ought to personally apologize to the late Michael Crichton’s tombstone.

The human dimension of information security lends itself well to the needs of Hollywood drama. At heart, the Sony hack occurred due to the fact that the company was top-heavy with senior security executives and light on actual security engineers. Perhaps a fictional drama might include a frustrated, overworked engineering team akin to The Wire’s set of underfunded and incompetently led Baltimore cops and detectives.

And, for that matter, the professional and institutional divides in AI over what the nature of what intelligence is might be a source of plot and characterization. A more romantic and impulsive fictional researcher, for example, builds an AI system that acts quickly and does not include a deliberative component. An overly cold and rational computer scientist builds a robot that always takes time to fully plan for what it should do once given a mission. Both, however, end up failing in differing ways (the impulsive AI ends up wrecking the mission, the deliberative one takes too long to plan and lets the hostages die, etc).

Speaking of AI and action movie scenarios — did you know that philosopher Daniel Dennett’s argument about the “frame problem” in classical AI uses a bomb squad hypothetical? If you don’t believe me, take it from Dennett himself:

Once upon a time there was a robot, named R1 by its creators. Its only task was to fend for itself. One day its designers arranged for it to learn that its spare battery, its precious energy supply, was locked in a room with a time bomb set to go off soon. R1 located the room, and the key to the door, and formulated a plan to rescue its battery. There was a wagon in the room, and the battery was on the wagon, and R1 hypothesized that a certain action which it called PULLOUT (Wagon, Room, t) would result in the battery being removed from the room. Straightaway it acted, and did succeed in getting the battery out of the room before the bomb went off. Unfortunately, however, the bomb was also on the wagon. R1 knew that the bomb was on the wagon in the room, but didn’t realize that pulling the wagon would bring the bomb out along with the battery. Poor R1 had missed that obvious implication of its planned act.

Back to the drawing board. `The solution is obvious,’ said the designers. `Our next robot must be made to recognize not just the intended implications of its acts, but also the implications about their side-effects, by deducing these implications from the descriptions it uses in formulating its plans.’ They called their next model, the robot-deducer, R1D1. They placed R1D1 in much the same predicament that R1 had succumbed to, and as it too hit upon the idea of PULLOUT (Wagon, Room, t) it began, as designed, to consider the implications of such a course of action. It had just finished deducing that pulling the wagon out of the room would not change the colour of the room’s walls, and was embarking on a proof of the further implication that pulling the wagon out would cause its wheels to turn more revolutions than there were wheels on the wagon – when the bomb exploded.

As humorous and absurd as this may be, this is a very real (and foundational) scientific problem. Maybe movie audiences would find it interesting, if a talented director and screenwriter took a whack at it.

Cause this is [Techno] Thriller, [Techno] Thriller Night

Ultimately, making reasonably technically accurate movies and television series is not very difficult for a creative screenwriter. Perusing the actual real-world terrain of a scientific and technical topic yields an embarrassment of creative possibilities that come right out of the box for a writer to use. However, there is no incentive for filmmakers to really dig deep unless there is something in it for them: butts in movie theater seats and possible awarding of shiny statutes. The onus is on the geek to help the man or woman in the director’s chair make hacking, AI, and other technical subjects into thrilling – but accurate – Hollywood flicks.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: grendelkhan