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Top 10 hacking failures in movies

It had been requested that we make a short video covering the top worst hacks in movies. Being the community that we are, it seemed like an interesting request. We asked for your input, and you were happy to deliver! However, the proposition of creating a “top 10″ list turned out to be quite difficult. There were just SO MANY horrible scenes that I started thinking about how to even categorize them. We could probably to a “top 10″ in any of the following categories without even having to dig too deeply:

  • hacker lingo
  • mocked up interfaces
  • fake input devices
  • virus screen-takeover moments
  • access denied messages
  • hardware taped together

Honestly, after breaking it down in such a manner, making the top 10 movie hacking failures, felt painfully general. It is like making a list of “top 10 animals that ever existed”. The state of technology portrayal in movies is frankly abysmal. It is obvious that the only people who know less about tech than “hollywood” are the people making laws about it.

So, lets take a look at this list and see what we ended up with.

10.  The Core

There’s a scene where they have to get through a door and it won’t budge. To open it, they’re going to have to crack into the control panel and hotwire the the thing. What do they find inside? A breadboard.  Ok, well, we all know that in that environment, you wouldn’t be finding any breadboards. Then again, I’ve seen some duct taped together networks in large corporations that might convince me that this one isn’t a failure at all.

9. Jurassic Park

I’ve heard so many people point out this scene as a failure, and it is usually for the wrong reason all together. The young woman sits down at a computer and announces to everyone “hey, I know this, it is unix!”, while the camera switches to a 3d rendering that looks like a physical layout of a neighborhood.

“aha! that’s not a real interface!” is usually what I hear from people, but they’re wrong. It was called FSN and did actually exist. No one really used it though because, while neat, it wasn’t a great way to actually work.  Tons of people loaded it up and played with it, but it never really caught on. I actually wouldn’t have been surprised to see a super gratuitously funded IT department loading stuff like this in their spare time because they had convinced the boss man that they totally needed that SGI for… uh… network security or something.

The real hack failure is the fact that her simply recognizing the operating system means that she now has full control over EVERYTHING in the Jurassic park network.


8. Firewall

This one is fun because it gets into a little hardware hacking. I LOVE improvised devices, so it caught my interest. It turned out pretty silly though. In the movie Firewall, [Harrison Ford] needs to get data off his screen to someone far away. To pull this off, he rips the scanner head from his fax machine and attaches it to an ipod. He remarks that the ipod won’t know the difference between “10,000 files or 10,000 songs”.

This is where the hackaday crowd really comes into play. Many will recognize that it is wrong, but only here will you find people that might actually figure out how it would have to really work.

First, you need something to read the data from the scanner head. Then, it needs to be converted to an actual file that is compatible with the ipod. Then you would have to initialize the transfer onto said ipod. That means that there’s got to be a decent amount of hardware and code going on in between the two items. To be fair though, they do show something there as an interface, so maybe I should have left it off the list. However, I challenge anyone to pull this off as fast as he did.

7. Goldeneye

In the beginning of the movie Goldeneye, they are establishing just how fantastic [Boris] the hacker is. After an “access denied” screen that could easily be part of another list, [Boris] proceeds to hop into the network of the CIA. When he’s caught, he simply issues this magical command: SEND SPIKE. The nasty security guy who caught him is immediately disconnected. Wow. I don’t even know where they were going with this. I guess it was just supposed to be another notch on the “[Borris] is amazing ” tally sheet.

6. Hackers

This movie always comes up when talking about hacking. Some people love it, some hate it. The accuracy of the movie is about as divided as the fan base as well. They do a decent job of showing how tedious and silly hacking can actually be, but when they show the 3d renderings of the data, it all falls apart.  However, this movie was released in 1995, and at that time we really had high hopes for the immediate future of 3d interfaces (see FSN).  It is like our generations version of “jet pack disappointment”. I was promised spacial file navigation and I’m not upset that it hasn’t been delivered.

5. Swordfish

Swordfish came out in 2001. It has no excuse for 3d renderings of data. By this time we knew that the 3d interface of the future wasn’t really very usable (again, see FSN). Not to mention the gratuitous blow job/ gunpoint uber hacker scene that made my beverage attempt a quick escape out my nasal passage.

4. Skyfall

In this latest installment of the James bond series, I was incredibly let down. As a child, I found [Q] to be one of the coolest things ever. I wanted that job, bad (this job is slowly turning into that actually). When I heard that the actor who played him passed away, I thought they would take this as an opportunity to do a resurgence of gadgetry with the new [Q]. Unfortunately they continued their slow slide toward an entire 2 hours of sullen looks and knees to the ribs.

The scene that really almost caused an aneurism was where [Q] proclaims that the only way to look at the data on the computer is to attach it to their network (wow, really?). Then they proceed to look at the encrypted data as a giant 3d sphere. This trope is already bad, I mean why would you look at encrypted code as a sphere? On top of that, [James Bond] recognizes a word in plain text. This somehow unlocks all the encryption.

What comes next is the really painful part. We are looking at encrypted CODE. When you decrypt code, you get code. Sure, you might be able to then RUN that code to get some kind of a visualization, I guess. What you don’t get is your encrypted code morphing into a visualization of a map.

3. Live Free or Die Hard

Hackers don’t put bombs in peoples computers. If they did, they wouldn’t set them to initialize using a keystroke.  I mean if you can remotely make their screen go all wiggly, can’t you just detonate your damn bomb?

2. Enemy of the State.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I didn’t know if this was a joke. [Jack Black] does that bit where you rotate an image in a direction that is physically impossible. [Jack Black] is a comedian. Admittedly I didn’t see this movie till after [Jack's] career was more established, so maybe it wasn’t as obvious back then.

1. Stupid Crime shows on tv like NCIS, CSI, BONES, etc.

Yes, I know it isn’t a movie. They’re just so amazingly horrible that I couldn’t leave them out. It has become this massive joke just how horribly incorrect they are. It has actually gotten to the point that I’m convinced they’re doing it on purpose. While I can understand a tiny bit of writing being targeted for audiences that aren’t familiar with the technology, some of it is simply too much.

The example of “two idiots one keyboard” is one that stands out. It is conceivable that you or your audience may not be familiar with hacking, or don’t know what a believable game would look like, but every one of you has used a keyboard. The script was probably written in a word processor using a keyboard. Hell, this is older than computers themselves, typewriters have them. Two people can not type on a keyboard simultaneously. It doesn’t work and everyone on the planet knows it.


  1. Richard says:

    The “young woman” in Jurassic Park is a 12-year-old girl. In English, the word “woman” is only used to refer to an adult.

  2. Sean says:

    The best hack I’ve seen in a movie is in The Matrix: Reloaded. Trinity used nmap (a real-world port scanner), and sshnuke (a real attack tool) to exploit a then-recent vulnerability.

    Details can be found at the official nmap website!

  3. jerobillard8 says:

    I don’t know if anyone has posted this major flaw yet? It bugs me when you see expensive cutting edge technology that has not made it to the market yet, in a present day police departments. This leaves me wondering why do they complain about budget cuts when they can afford to install clear glass monitors that can be used in the middle of the day, into SUV’s.

  4. Teck-Freak says:

    well, the part about two persons typing on the same keybord: it was ment to show that Abby and Timmethy were like soulmatched. some time later in the german version Di Noso says sth. equal to “first they finisch each others sentences, then they even type each others words. It frightens me a bit.” BUT I give you a point in that: it was way over the top. Fine video you made. I hope for some others.

  5. John Riggs says:

    NCIS is likeable for it’s characterization not it’s technology. Abby could not possibly have that many levels of expertise in her 22-23 years whereas Gibbs, Abby and McGee are likeable. Having spent years as a programmer I grind my teeth when I see McGee and Abby or characters on CSI and CSI:Miami activate complex programs with one or two keystrokes; but enjoyable for the characters.

    • Mike Skoczen says:

      But Activating Complex programs with a couple of keystrokes is easy,
      there are may macro programs that allow that kind of thing. I use is AutoHotkey for my macros.

  6. chris says:

    Not to mention the CSI image enhancement used by many TV crime shows.
    A picture with enormous blocky pixels becomes a smooth and recognisable image by magic. People really believe this is possible until you explain that it really isn’t.

  7. re multiple keyboards: It is possible to connect two keyboards and have two cursors, there’s even some software for Linux to do it, but you either need to use some fairly advanced software or hack X

  8. PK says:

    I’ve got to say the biggest offender is the show “Bones” in which someone is able to perform impossible feats of hacking using a computer that runs on vacuum tubes and library books. Fail.

  9. Matt says:

    What is the white monster can on the desk ??

  10. Mc says:

    Red drawf “back to earth” not sure which of the 3 episodes, but theres a great “zoom in enhance rotate ” bit, (it is meant to be bit of a joke ) but good!

  11. culexus says:

    Operation Take Down is the best hacker movie ever :)

  12. Kevin says:

    When I was a kid I saw ‘Weird Science’ and thought computer programming looked really fun. Those ‘Access Denied’ screens were pretty scary with the skulls. Now that I’m older and have a little experience with Visual Studio, I’m going to try to figure out how to avoid those screens and finish up my Kelly Lebrock making application.

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