Top 10 best hacking scenes in movies

Geeking out and complaining about inaccuracies is fun. But it is like junk food. Too much is bad for your health. We’ve done the Top 10 worst portrayals of hacking in movies/TV as well as a Part 2 due to high demand. Now it is time for the good stuff. Take it in and feel those healthy positive portrayals revitalizing your brain.

Here are the Top 10 best portrayals of hacking, based off your comments and feedback. Be sure to let us know what we missed, because there are probably some good ones that got left out.

10 Real Genius — Ice coin trick.

Dry ice in the shape of a coin. Seems feasible with the vending machines shown. It is smart and funny. However, I haven’t ever actually seen real proof that this works, so maybe I’m mistaken in including it.

09 NMAP in movies.
Dear movie making people. It takes 5 seconds to as the nearest IT guy “name some tools people use for security”. Then take a few screenshots of those tools. Not only did you save money on graphic designers, your movie suddenly just gained some added credibility.

08 Social Network.
Everything looks fairly legit, if possibly in Fast Forward.

07 Bourne Ultimatum
Someone did some homework! We see postfix, SSH, NMAP a BASH shell. I believe there’s a scene where he changes the MAC address of a router too, but I can’t find it.

06 Real Genius — [Laslo] games the game
Often dismissed as an overly hokey ending, [Laslo] arrives at the end of the movie with a trailer full of winnings from a sweepstakes.  It is a bit hokey, but it is also based off of true events at CalTech. Some students at CalTech in 1975 noticed there was the following line in a sweepstakes being held by McDonald’s “Enter as often as you wish.”. And that they did,  1.2 MILLION times. Ultimately winning $10,000 worth of prizes including a car.

05 Wargames — paperclip payphone
Yeah, remember payphones? Well many of you probably remember actually doing this exact thing. Causing a bridge between the speaker housing and the coins lot would result in a free phone call.

04 Flight of the Phoenix
The movie release was pretty cheezy. However, the core story is true. A plane crashed, and from the rubble a new plane arose.

03 Sneakers.

great examples of social engineering. Nothing is more effective than pizza and balloons.

02 Wargames
War-dialing exists.Though it existed well before the movie, the name was quickly adopted.

01 Macgyver
Yep, he’s silly, but some of his stuff works. The name has become synonymous with cobbled-together-stuff though, so he wins this round. If you’d like to browse through every single hack he pulled off and see which ones you think are possible, you can find an entire list here (doesn’t work in my FireFox for some reason).

89 thoughts on “Top 10 best hacking scenes in movies

      1. Just wanted to say this was a pretty solid list, you guys picked some fun ones. I see you might have been a little too quick with the Phoenix one, but some good stuff there.

        I’d like to throw in the red boxing and such from Hackers, if even as a redemption from being on the previous, worst-of video (which it did also earn)!

      2. While 2600 produced Freedon Downtime lambasted the movie and presented much of the actions attributed to Mitnick to be false, Mitnick himself admitted many of those actions after the statute of limitations has passed. That’s not to say that he should have been locked up without a trial, or even that his activity warented punishment at all.

  1. Umm flight of the Pheonix was all myth. Never happened not based on a real story. No one ever excaped the dessert in an airplane mad of half the plane they crashed in. Worst part was the idea having the passengers lay on the top of the wing and then to put up wind screens. That would have killed most of the lift just like a spoiler does.

      1. I just got around to the wall wart USB mouse hack and wow there are some ugly people out there. Please understand I meant for my correction to be good spirited and I am in no way bent of offended by your error :)

    1. Although a myth as an actual story event, in the original movie with Jimmy Stewart, the Phoenix was actually built from a C-119. The plane was flown by stunt pilot Charles Mantz, who was unfortunately killed while landing the plane.

  2. My personal favorite scene in Real Genius is when they are in the airplane attempting to break the password for the computer. If you look close, you can see that they were attempting to brute force it with AAAA, AAAB, AABB …..

  3. I’m curious about the dry ice coin, too. Would a chunk of dry ice in the shape and size of a quarter have the same weight as a quarter? Surely it would have less density than metal and hence less mass?

        1. But Real Genius came out in the early 80’s. Back then they used good old mechanical coin mechs, which only check the width of a coin (via a physical gate) and in terms of weight it just needs to be heavy enough to hit the microswitch (which doesn’t take much heft at all).

          So while it would be incredibly hard to cut a chunk of ice the right width, yes, this would be possible to do!

          1. Same situation with War Games. Grounding to the vault worked, but wasn’t a viable option some time later. Same with red box calls in Hackers… it did work, though it rarely did with cassette (Radio Shack memory version dtmf dialer mod was perfect), and it didn’t work with later phones. You used to be able to assume that the newer ones with volume buttons wouldn’t work, when those started replacing the older ones. War dialing used to find stuff, occasionally, though this depends a lot on when we’re talking about. Techniques changed a bit, but you could still find interesting hits in the 90’s, so this kind of thing was interesting. Simple versions of listening in on cell calls like you see in movies worked pretty well, even into the late 90’s. The list goes on…

          2. The mechanical coin mechs I worked with checked the weight too. It was a see-saw type lever, and if it spun at the wrong speed, the coin would miss the right slot. These were late 80’s and 90’s arcade games.

            And diameter was very strict. While waiting for the thickness to thin by evaporation would also change the diameter.

          3. The best and most devious part of the hack, IMO, is that the dry ice effectively disappears after any single attempt. So, as long as you didn’t dump kilos of dry ice in the vending machine, you were free to try again later. And, unlike metal slugs, no finger prints.

            Also, the vending machine in the movie appears to be an old cigarette machine that went out of ‘style’ (and got repurposed) in the 60s and 70s. Only slightly ahead of the ‘coin on a string’ era.

            With the number of people who reportedly use washers as slugs at unmanned toll booths, I have trouble thinking this hack couldn’t or hasn’t been pulled off. My concern with the scene is putting several dollars worth of time and energy into ripping off a vending machine for $.50.

      1. The dry ice coin wouldn’t work, it would have the wrong velocity down the coin shute, vending machine use eddy currents to ensure the coin is metal, and measure its composition, they can tell the difference between each coin by its velocity down a ramp.

        1. Now they can, but they couldn’t back then.

          Check my reply above… this would work!

          Also velocity has absolutely nothing to do with coin detection, although different sized slots and current values are often used. ;)

          1. Old coin validators had several tests. The coin slot on the front would prevent a too-wide or too tall coin from entering. There was a ramp the coin would roll down that had a narrow bridge, and too-thin coins would fall through. The ramp was mounted at an angle and had a hole on the side so coins that were smaller than the right diameter would fall through. On the side of the ramp was a magnet to catch steel slugs. At the end of the ramp the coin fell and had to bounce off an angled plate to land in the collector. Too heavy, too light, or the wrong material would cause it to bounce incorrectly, and the coin would miss the collector. Finally, there was a pin on the side of the collector that would catch washers or foreign coins that had holes in the middle.

            It’s unlikely the dry-ice disk would have the proper mass or elasticity to pass the bounce test.

            The coin return lever had a wiper that swept objects off the face of the magnet and ramp, retracted the pin, and dumped the rubbish in the coin return.

            The first pay phones had a circular hole the nickel had to fit into, and once it entered the phone the coin was dropped onto the internal bell. The operator would count the ringing of the bell to count the nickels being deposited. A fake coin (aka “wooden nickel”) wouldn’t sound right, so the operator wouldn’t count it. After the operator counted the correct amount of real coins, she’d press a button to momentarily drop the current to the phone, and the solenoid keeping the coins out of the vault would retract, collecting the money.

          2. Yes, coin velocity was detected “back then”. I attended an Atari video game repair seminar back when they only had Pong and a driver game. A US quarter developed a 25mS pulse, the detection of which was incorporated in Pong itself. At that seminar it was mentioned by a guy from northern Idaho or Montana that they had to degauss the coin mech magnets to accept Canadian quarters to avoid service calls. Coin detection was strictly based upon pulse developed by coin past a fine wire on a microswitch.

        2. The [pop/soda/tonic] machine we had in the early 1970’s also had little weights mounted on stiff wires, I believe these were used to “gate” coins of the proper weight
          into the counting mechanism.

    1. Half true story. The LiOH can adapter is very true (and actually became part of the emergency procedures for the remaining moon missions).

      But the scene in the movie where the guy comes into the room and says “We’ve got to make this fit into this with all of this” and indicates the table filled with materials aboard the spacecraft never happened. The engineer in charge of the life support systems had already conceived the general design in his head while he was driving in to work.

      It was a simple, but extremely effective trick. Find some place in the Lunar Module where the air was circulated with a fan and attach a hose to a fairly airtight box with the LiOH canister from the Command Module. A similar not-cobbled together from spare parts mechanism was made by NASA and given to Russia for the Mir space station so spare LiOH cans not needed on the space shuttle flights which visited Mir could be stored on Mir as backup Carbon Dioxide removal devices.

    1. I’d like to give a “shout down” to “Big Bang Theory”. While early episodes had the gang doing geeky things and talking about intelligent topics, the current stories are incredibly formula and insulting to geeks. Sheldon keeps reminding everybody that he’s incredibly intelligent with two PhDs. But he acts like a moron with no capabilities of interacting with others (instead of being portrayed as a geek or nerd he’s being portrayed as a dork). Imagine if you had a mentally handicapped character who didn’t have any social skills. That’s a pretty good description of Sheldon, but a mentally handicapped idiot would not be acceptable on television now, so they make it acceptable by constantly having Sheldon remind everybody that he’s got 2 PhDs.

      “Big Bang Theory” promotes geeks about the same way “Amos and Andy” promotes interracial relations.

  4. It was mentioned in one of the worst hacking videos, but I believe the Firewall hack was actually one of the best movie hacks. The reason for this is that Harrison Ford’s character could not interface with the machine in any way other than the keyboard, and the server was sealed out of reach. Therefore, the only way to steal the information was through some sort of analog screen capture.

    Even though the movie did depict an unreasonably quick interface between the scanner camera and Ford’s Ipod, the concept was sound, and could have been made to work, given enough time.

        1. Which was *really* necessary. Early Microcomputers were incredibly noisy and would broadcast practically every bit of data. With a sensitive enough antenna and receiver you could easily read whatever the computer was doing.

          The DoD (DARPA I believe – not NATO) instituted a set of R-F standards and it was strict. Many computers were heavily modified with grounded metal shielding to meet those qualifications. I think I still have any old Tempest-qualified Appletalk adapter (early Macintosh networking hardware) in a junk box.

        2. TEMPEST ideas are still around, though more in safe IT practice, not so much shielding . Computers or IT devices that deal with classified data have to be separated by at least 18 inches to prevent RF bleedover. DoD has teams that do sweeps inside classified storage areas to make sure they’re safe.

          The real shielding comes in with HEMP(Heavy Electromagnetic Pulse) -protected sites, they have really thick walls with Faraday cages built in, I remember having to clean the contacts on the doorframe of one facility with an eraser to make sure the cage was grounded when the door was shut.

          Fun stuff.

        3. TEMPST is still used in theMoD in the UK. Everything electrical placed onboard a Naval vessel has to go through some form of tempest test, especially if it is installed near or involved with transmitters.

    1. I would like to see the book “Underground” made into aq miniseries. I don’t think a movie could do it due diligence. For sure, Mendax(Assaunga) was a major part of the story, but I found the the story of Par and is various close calls as a fugitive to be a gripping part of the book.

  5. The vga radiation sniffing is called Van Eck Phreaking. When I was in the airforce, I worked in the top secret comms room. The techs would periodically come around with a rack of Van Eck stuff to see if our monitors were properly shielded.
    Also, Real Genius is one of my all-time favorites for so many reasons.

  6. Apollo 13 should be included on the list as it was the first space hack.
    There was several things in it the could be considered hacks.
    Using the Earth as a sight for the correction burn to put them back on free return.
    They had to figure out how to make the LiOH cansitor from the command module fit the LEM using things they had on hand.
    Here duct tape really did help save the day.
    Towards the end of the mission they had to figure out how to make the LEM detach it’sself and move away this had to be programmed in.
    Normally the CSM does this but the service module was dead so no translation thrusters.

  7. I will also throw out the Hackers red boxing. I remember a seen where a hacker uses a cassette recorder to make a call. I was under the impression that he called a number using pre-recorder dialing tones, but its been a while since I saw the movie so maybe those of you stating it was a red box tone are correct. I can’t remember if he dialed afterwords. The basic idea is that older payphones left the microphone on and you could generate the tones. I actually tried this with a landline and 90s tape recorder and it worked. Can’t speak for period accurate payphones with a tape recorder though. Since Hackers was on the worst of hacking in movies list, might as well list the few accurate things.

    1. Yeah – I was a teenager back when MacGyver was popular. I used to watch, take notes, and then go find the chemicals to try out whatever I saw in the show. Ammonia gas and the gas given off by glacial acetic acid really do make a cloud of smoke! All it took was a visit to a photo store and the local drug store to try it out.

  8. Apropos of nothing, and probably not even interesting: Jon Gries played Lazlo in “Real Genius”. He also played Uncle Rico in “Napoleon Dynamite” cp{pXkPS6h*mV>hT~CARRIER LOST (sorry had to do it)

  9. What about ’23’? Okay, maybe its not known to anyone, since its a germane movie, but its still an awesome movie! I dont know if there is a english dubbed version, but if there is: GO WATCH IT :D

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