What are the best hacking documentaries?

Continuing with our series of best and worst portrayals of hacking, we’re gathering our resources to bring you the top 10 Hacking Documentaries. Again, we feel the strongest resource is the hacking community, so lets hear what you think should qualify.  While it would be fantastic to only have documentaries, if there is a hollywood movie that you feel fits, go ahead and let us know. If you’re up for a challenge, find us something dealing with hardware hacking instead of computers/phones!

Just for reference, here were the top 10 worst portrayals of hacking in movies as well as part 2. What you see above were the top 10 best, though admittedly I screwed up #4.

 

103 thoughts on “What are the best hacking documentaries?

  1. I enjoyed The Secret History of Hacking, especially the phone phreaking stuff and the discussions between Crunch, Wozniak and Mitnick.

      1. Yeah this one was definitely one of the great ones.
        We usually knife through some bits and compile a short to show every time registration day comes around at the local College.

    1. Here’s my fun little list:
      Hack Attack (1994) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMZSvko-7NA
      Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age (1986) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StdK0icKLkQ
      Web Warriors (2008) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93B5FTmeQJg
      Technopath (1989) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuPS4ZWiCKA
      Hacks – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VqJnHHwd8s
      Hippies From Hell (1989-1993) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-SGfoSH-GY
      Unauthorized Access (90’s) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9Z0TZSFg88
      Cybercops – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEdSowzmjq4
      Walk on the Wild Side – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVlcZ9agDzo
      Hackers 95 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfP1OH6l_48
      This page has a documentaries section: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_about_computers

  2. And I hope Pirates of Silicon Valley does not make it to the list, though someone will probably try to suggest it, it is not a documentary, it’s fiction very roughly based on reality.

  3. What about Triumph of the nerds? well, it’s not really a hacking documentary and surely is outdated in this day and age ( a lot has happened since then) but it’s a nice experience overall…

    1. The book Cliff Stoll wrote is also excellent. The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (ISBN:0385249462)

  4. So… I’m seeing the wrong video. I’m seeing the best movie hacks (compared to best documentary). Duplicate post or is Youtube messing up?

  5. Hackers 2: Operation Takedown needs to be mentioned somewhere on this list. As hard as the first sucked at portraying the hacking community, the sequel at least tried that hard to make up for it. It didn’t, but I think they tried. A testament to how misunderstood hacking is. However the two movies together are the favorite digital bookends in my collection. They both do horrible injustice to the hacking communities. Also check out Freedom Downtime by Emmanuel Goldstein to see how nervous we really make the rest of society.
    Also, Caleb, I despise you for how cool the RB box o’light looks on your desk… FYI.

    1. Seconded for Takedown. It was one of the better hollywood portrayals and had a good mix of energy and enough nerdiness for the in crowd imho. I still use the line “Cell phone tumbling. That’s tired old hacker bullshiat.” when referring to any one of a number of my projects lol.
      Outside of the voodoo people tape battle in the first one, I feel it is more akin to Real Genius or Weird Science in the whole “computer is magical” kinda deal. I feel two honorable Disney mentions are DARYL and The BRAT Patrol. Paramount gets a nod for The Explorers, one of my faves :)

        1. Oops, John Markoff was not the agent, he’s the journalist that worked at the NYT that covered the story in the news. my bad.

      1. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0159784/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

        Just Takedown, although I did hear someone call it Trackdown. The funny thing is that I saw this movie years ago, but could never find mention of it, let alone find it for purchase. My brother worked at a video store and had a screener copy for a while. The whole “Hackers 2″ bit was added by the world at large, and really has nothing to do with the movie “Hackers”.

  6. If a vending machine has weighing mechanisms like those archaic payphones, then maybe with some ice hacking skills you could score a free soda. Quarters have a mass of 5.67 g.

    1. i think vending machines also have something that compares volume too. so to get a weight of 5.67g and a volume of 0.80 cm^3 you would have to have a density of 7.09 g/cm^3, so it would need to be made of some alloy which will give you the same density and the same volume (zinc, unsurprisingly, has roughly the same density, ice however has a density of 0.92)

    2. Depends on the age of the machine. Really old ones just make sure its thickness and diameter are within tolerance – The roll it over a slit that starts narrow, and gets wider. If too thin or thick, it would drop early or late.

      Next thing that got added was a hook to make sure it didn’t have a hole in it (washer detection). Then they added a simple balance. Now they use magnetic means to deflect it/slow it down. Plastic – no bending, ferrous metal, too much bending. in between, and its likely real. Not sure vision systems are cheap enough yet that they include them.

    1. Thanks for that link, it was one of my favorite shows, that barely got aired in the US. I have some nephews that need to see them. (I would add nieces to that list, but the sibs never produced any)

      (I found out about it, when someone saw our Junkyard Wars audition video, and accused us of copying the episode they did about sewing machines. Our intro even manged to independently invent a line they used “but the parts are too small to get our camera’s into….”)

    2. Thanks for the link. Its really too bad that show never got much airplay in the US. At least I can now show the sib’s kids.

      I heard about the series when someone accused our Junkyard Wars audition tape of copying the show. It was just a case of parallel evolution. (when I finally got to see it, I was surprised that we had even managed to come up with the same intro line “but the parts are too small to get our camera’s into….”

      (our example is http://youtu.be/bAhmYzmkvcY )

      1. You’re welcome, I’ll check your link later.

        It was my 2nd favorite tech program when I was a kid in Europe. Nothing beats “C’est pas sorcier” (it’s not witchcraft) but it’s in French. Jam-packed with knowledge and for youngsters. There’s also the Christmas lectures from the BBC, kids are part of their target demographic and they tackle physics and science subjects.

        1. Ah yes, The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Every xmas a respected scientist gives a series (I think 3) of talks about a particular subject. Has it always been aimed at kids? The last few have had an audience just of kids. But it’s still very educational and interesting, aimed at adults and SMART kids! Nothing dumb, and lots of really great demos. A recent one had a coil sending magnetic pulses into a guy’s brain while he tried to do various things.

          They’ve shown them on British TV the last few years.

  7. The Dark Tangent (organizer of defcon?) has been working on a hacker documentary folder and I’m pretty sure it’s still available on bittorrent. One documentary that really captured the information warfare / late night hacker feel is “The I-Bomb” which is a BBC Horizons series. It had Winn Schartau, Alvin Toffler and a bunch of other information warfare people and crypto guys in it. I collect documentaries and “The I-Bomb” is hands down my favorite one; One problem, I lost the VHS and it’s not available anywhere! And I’m even willing to pay for it! I offered a guy a free cellphone jammer on /r/cyberpunk if he could find it for me… nothing…

    1. After a certain amount of funding, physical hacking is development…and the Manhattan project clearly surpassed that amount hundreds or thousands of times over.

      I don’t know if this actually qualifies, but MythBusters deserves some kind of honorable mention or something…they have done hundreds of hacks over the years.

  8. I think The Secret Life of Machines deserves a mention; especially this episode where they make magnetic tape out of scotch tape sprinkled with iron filings and record sound on a band saw

  9. My faves are:
    “Hacks” by Christine Bader

    From defcon website:
    “Hacks is a 73 minute European documentary exploring what nature of “Hacking” is in a social context. It can range from traditional hacking, to artist communes and environmental activism. Well done.”
    Many real, famous hackers, mostly around the CCC, it really gets the gist. Though it is old, it is contemporary.

    “Revolution OS”

    Movie about free software, especially GNU/Linux. Though it is actually not really hacking but free software, the people shown reflect, at least partially, the mindset of hackers.
    Some people in there are Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens, Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond.

    “No Copy”

    Short documentary (10min) on copyright and copyleft, mentions MITs AI lab and software cracking aka. the scene / demo scene.

  10. I’m surprised no one mentioned The Manhattan Project – not the actual project, but the movie in 1986 about a high school student that decides to build an atomic bomb for a national science fair. Besides being a fun romp of a film, there are a lot of awesome hacks both in the Sneakers and WarGames vein. Now that I think back, there’s a non-tech hack that I’ve subconsciously carried through to this very day – in one scene the protagonist’s date was trying to get frozen OJ out of the can by using the old butter knife and prayer method. He grabs a can opener and pierces the other side of the can, then blows into it, letting the air pressure push the frozen lump of OJ out. Not 100% geek-worthy, but still something novel and dare I say cute.

  11. The real process of hacking doesn’t make for entertaining viewing, to portray it accurately is like showing a magician spending hours preparing a trick back stage that takes moments to perform on stage. That said these suggestions are worth looking at, not because they portray active hacking, but because their makers embody the spirit and mindset behind hacking…

    Steal this Film 2 – Is about file sharing in the context of human nature and history going back to the printing press to the present. It includes interviews with the creators of file sharing sites TPB and mininova and some insightful thoughts from many others including the late Aaron Swartz.

    The Information Revolution – by Dr. Aleks Krotoski interviews almost everyone prominent in the information industry, this ambitious 4 part series discusses the psychological effect the information age has had on humanity in the past 20 years.

    1. Aleks Krotoski got a PhD then? She used to present a video game review show, late-night low-audience, called Bits, on Channel 4 in the UK. She was pretty cute 15 years ago!

      1. Yeah, I fondly remember her from Bits as someone who had an unusually extensive knowledge and love of retro computer games, was always more than just a pretty face IMO. She got PhD in psychology but still works close to technical topics. she had a radio series on BBC also that was about topics raised in this doc in a lot more detail.

  12. Not documentaries, but the hex dump/edit/eprom burn scene of ‘Real Genius’ comes to mind. Also some of the things depicted in ‘Sneakers’. For the person looking for ‘Hackers 2′, search Amazon/IMDB for ‘Takedown’ and or ‘Kevin Mitnick’.

    1. I agree, the hacking process seems to be best portrayed at conferences and presentations (and HaD summaries), Caleb should do a top 10 of the best conf talks… or a top 100 as there are so many greats to choose from.

  13. Since someone mentioned Mythbusters as an honorable mention, I think Junkyard Wars/Scrapheap Challenge also should be noted. McGyver without the tv magic, we really did use junk to build things.

    For my fellow American’s, when you go seeking torrents, use the Scrapheap title used everywhere but the US. The series continued for 5 more seasons in the UK, that weren’t shown in the US. TLC thought “what not to wear” and “19 kids and….” to be a more valuable use of their air minutes.

    Disclosure: I founded the first US team to appear. (and as it turned out, the last one as well, they had us back in ’06 to do a special episode. It never aired in the US). Some details at http://the-nerds.org

  14. Boy, Caleb, this series rocks so much I need to actually watch an episode every day! It’s really a great component of an already awesome website!

  15. In line with the Amiga documentary on youtube, there’s The Deathbed Vigil by Dave Haynie about the final days at Commodore HQ in Pennsylvania.

    1. This film was so sad, I felt like I was there with them on their last day as the entire team of commodore was made redundant. all the half finished products lying about, next gen amigas and CD32 version 2 prototypes, everyone getting drunk and remembering the good times while also angry about being cut loose by the owner holding the purse strings.

  16. Hate to post a “movie” rather than a documentary, but this post reminded me to watch Micmacs (http://micmacsmovie.com) again… In french, but with subtitles I feel it really captures the “hacker” mentality. How can you not like a flick who’s theme is “but it’s recycled… it’s old!”

    If it’s not in the running it’s still worth taking a look at for a good time.

    1. Loved that movie. Had to wait a while before it made it up to a theater in Boston?? Its out on DVD now, got a copy last Christmas.

      It would have been great to build some of the gadgets they had as just background entertainment in their scrap yard “lair”.

      For that matter, I am drawing a blank on the name of another movie, featured an early french movie maker (the guy we can thank for the Verne image of a giant shell stuck into an anthropomorphized crescent moon) Featured a kid hiding out in one of the big Paris train stations, crawling thru the ventilation system, repairing and winding the station clocks, and tinkering with a human figured mechanical automaton that would draw a picture once he got the key needed to trigger it. (if anyone recognizes it, I would love to know the name, so I can put it on my wish list for next Christmas.

  17. Wow, I mention “Takedown” the last time and it goes unnoticed. This go around and it gets discussed. Must be because of the “Hackers 2″ bit… -_-?

    1. Respect you for knowing its relevance even we didn’t see/get your reference. Never understood why they added the “Hackers 2:” when I watched it…but knew that the Mitnick story would make it a good watch. Props yo.

  18. Another great made for tv documentary was Longitude – the story of Harrison who slaved away for 20 years making incredibly accurate clocks, to meet a challenge that would allow ships at sea to get an accurate reading on longitude. Also included a bit about the guy that went whole OCD about restoring the instruments to functioning order, after they had spend a century or so in a governmental storage space.

    Harrison succeeded on his fourth try, when he switched from trying to get a pendulum clock to ignore the motion of a ship, to building what amounted to an over-sized pocket watch, using a rotating balance whee instead of a pendulum…

    If you get to the Greenwich Observatory museum just outside of London, you can see the clocks, with all but the big watch actually running. Since the watch is basically a sealed can, there isn’t a lot to see if they had it running. But the previous three are skeleton clocks, with all the moving bits (and there are a huge number of them) all exposed to see. For example #3 uses whats called a remontoire (french for “to wind”) that every Nth tick of the clock, transfers energy from the main spring to a much smaller system that actually powers the escapement (it does the transfer a couple of times a minute, I forget how many, and I am too lazy to google it.). That way winding the main spring won’t ever cause the rest of the clock to pause, and lose a few hundredths of a second when you wind it for the week.

    1. Not having a go, but OCD doesn’t mean obsessively driven by a project. It’s much more of a pain in the arse, and massively inconvenient in terms of getting anything practical done.

      I know “psychotic” is now in common language to mean someone who’s violently nuts (again, not true, much psychosis terrifies the sufferer himself), and “schizophrenic” meaning multiple-personalities (which it never meant, medically!).

      But OCD isn’t one of those savant-style mental illnesses where you get an upside. It’s just all-round pain in the arse that stops you doing some things, and makes you do other, pointless things.

      Sure there’s better ways of putting across your point. We just need better thesauruses!

      1. Yeah the actor in “Longitude” suffered a nervous breakdown…(not sure if that is what is also called a “psychotic break”?) One thing about that movie/mini-series, was they pronounced “Longitude” with a “hard G”. Jeremy Irons was one of the actors.

    1. That one sucked. I waste of time IMO, mainly because there is not much info in there. Plus the whole doc is base with interview (nothing wrong with that I agree) of a few random people… with random comments…

      Don’t expect to learn anything.

  19. It is not a hacking documentary per se, but in the larger realm of what we see here at HackADay I think it qualifies.

    Indie Games: The Movie

    What is more appropriate than a documentary about a bunch of dudes making games for fun, profit and stressing way the frack out about it.

  20. Moleman 2

    It’s about demoscene, or rather, people who actually know how the tech works and can and do prove it. Not yuppies or burnouts who war-dialed or made a led circuit..

  21. Just found a passable hacking scene tonight on *etflix. In the movie Battle Royale (Korean film, very similar premise to Hunger Games but with grit and gore) @ 1:30:ish there is a system attack that is shown to take preparation and time. Your score judges?

  22. TPB Away from keyboard
    have not been mentionned yet. Not about hacking, but it stay in the IT world and somewhat felt close the the hacking crowd. (which hacker doesnt know TPB?)

    Also, a very high quality documentary, even if it was made with kickstarter, the result feel very professional, I was impress.

  23. Flight of the Phoenix might not be strictly accurate, but there was a widely reported event last year when Emile Leray, a French electrical engineer was driving his Citroen 2CV across the Moroccan desert when suffered a major break down, 20 miles from the nearest town. So, Leray stripped the engine, gearbox and a few other bits and pieces and built a motorcycle from the remains of the 2CV, rode into town and rescue.

    1. A similar note: there was some goofy action movie about a Confederate warship carrying gold that was found in the Sahara Desert (I said it was goofy!)
      In one scene the heroes find a wrecked single engine plane in the desert. One guy wonders out loud if there is a tool box in it. The companion says something to the effect that “you don’t expect to get that to fly do you?”
      The next scene shows them using part of the wreckage as a land sail…

  24. One of the best hardware hacking documentaries I’ve ever seen is Space Hackers

    It’s about two italian brothers that intercepted Amrican and russian comunications during the space race.

    Unfortunatelly I just found it in spanish, sorry for that.

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