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Why hacker clichés are a cyber crime

Why hacker clichés are a cyber crime

Film-makers appear to have a spectacular lack of interest in what computer programming actually looks like

Film-makers appear to have a spectacular lack of interest in what computer programming actually looks like

Tim Martin | March 20th 2017

For about the first ten minutes, “You Are Wanted”, Amazon’s first German-language original series, conducts itself like a properly unnerving drama about data security and identity theft. Young dad Lukas Franke, played by Matthias Schweighöfer (who also produced the series), is halfway through his shift as manager at a posh Berlin hotel when the city suffers a power cut. As he deals with confused and angry guests, he is collared by a bleeding man who says he has tripped on a loose carpet and injured himself. Lukas offers the man his number, and later gets a message about compensation with a contacts file attached. By clicking it, he unknowingly grants a hacker access to his phone, then to his home network, then to all his data and passwords. He ends up being framed for the blackout, which turns out to have been caused by a cyber attack, and has to prove his innocence. 

In a year of information wars, and a week where Wikileaks claimed to have shared the CIA’s ferocious battery of surveillance tools online, the series’ launch could hardly have been better timed. It is plausible, too. Data breaches usually happen through inadvertency, and are normally slightly dull. Britney Spears, Barack Obama and Stephen Fry have all been phished with fake emails from Twitter. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, answered the wrong message about changing his password last spring and found his Gmail archive plastered all over Wikileaks. So-called social engineering often yields better results than any computer wizardry, and bluffing past people’s instinctive barriers of mistrust to make them believe you have a reason to be there (along with your innocuous-looking attachment, your password-reset link or your helpful little USB device) is frequently the most difficult bit of a hack. It’s also the hardest to guard against.

The writers of “You Are Wanted”, however, don’t stay on this path for long. Poor Lukas knows immediately that he’s been hacked not because he can’t get into his Twitter account or because his friends start getting hassled to buy cheap Viagra, but because his laptop’s screen starts displaying Matrix-like waterfalls of scrolling code which coalesce into the image of a winking figure. His tablets and phones flicker and misbehave. Anarchist slogans proliferate wildly across all his displays. Even reinstalling Windows can’t save him.

Straight from central casting “You Are Wanted” is plagued by familiar tropes

In a handful of minutes, “You Are Wanted” gets bogged down in Hollywood-hacker nonsense. Instead of submitting his laptop to the company’s IT department or the police, Lukas takes a midnight drive to his local hacker space, an underground dive lit with disco lights and festooned with cables where thumping techno music plays on loop. There he finds the usual central-casting suspects: an overweight man tinkering at a monitor, a suspicious, pixie-like woman, and a guy who yelps and howls while playing a violent first-person shooter. Later he meets a woman in skintight leather and sunglasses who rides about at night on a motorbike, like Lisbeth Salander crossed with Trinity from “The Matrix”. As Lukas tries to work out who has set him up, all the while trying to reassure his increasingly sceptical wife, the familiar tropes pile up. There are many lingering close-ups of webcams; many instances of that cinematographic trick where the screen flickers and sizzles as though your own television had been compromised. If you took a drink for every doddering cybercliché brought back from the dead in “You Are Wanted”, you would be watching its later episodes from the liver-failure ward.

Small wonder, perhaps. After all, the history of hacking on film is also the history of a spectacular lack of interest in what computer programming actually looks like. Hackers in cinema and TV are semi-magical trickster figures who move at will through the incomprehensible forests of data that our lives have become; “hackers” in real life are either people who’ve downloaded their tools to crack passwords or crash websites from the Pirate Bay, or whose working processes – tinkering with the text editors, splicing gnarly fragments of borrowed code – are so opaque as to be unfilmable. 

Naturally, perhaps, many producers would rather portray high-focus whizkids or cybernerds with edgy haircuts, who alert their victims by crashing their desktops and beaming an image of a grinning skull onto the screen as a calling card. The aesthetics of the early novels of William Gibson, written on a typewriter before their author had even touched a 1980s workstation, cast a long shadow. “Neuromancer” (1984) created the archetype of the geeky antihero: “Case sat in the loft with the dermatrodes strapped across his forehead, watching motes dance in the diluted sunlight that filtered through the grid overhead. A countdown was in progress in one corner of the monitor screen.” In the film “Hackers” (1995), beautiful teens on rollerblades flail at keyboards as 3D cityscapes flicker onscreen and comic animations of Pac-Man gobble up their targets’ data byte by byte. Even contemporary series such as the Golden Globe-winning “Mr Robot”, whose writers insisted that all the code make sense and that every computer exploit shown on screen must have a real-world equivalent, pay them overt homage. 

It’s traditional to explain the Hollywood Hacker either as a dismal con by lazy writers or as a conscious choice to show the fiction where the fact falls short. But there is another explanation. A few years ago a post surfaced online from an anonymous contributor to Reddit. Attaching proof of his Emmy award for screenwriting (or so it seemed) and claiming to have written for particularly egregious culprits such as “CSI”, he suggested a conspiracy among young, tech-aware writers to outdo one another with ridiculous howlers – “enhancing” a perfect HD image from a bundle of pixels, sharing a keyboard to “hack faster”, and so on. It’s unprovable, of course, and probably untrue. At moments in the first couple of episodes of “You Are Wanted”, however, I did wonder whether the mystery whistleblower might have started a German chapter as well.

You Are Wanted is available to watch through Amazon Prime

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