Teaching Hollywood How To Hack

by Matthew Braga
"Their Only Crime was Curiosity"

It took a police raid in 1987 to finally scare Dave Buchwald straight. Well, mostly straight. He wouldn't claim after to have completely reformed after the incident – remaining hatless, his words – but he certainly wasn't interested in ever going to jail.

As a member of the hacker group Legion of Doom in his late teens, the raid was meant to scare him. It was a warning, a slap on the wrist. But while Buchwald was never actually charged, others weren't so lucky. The Chicago Tribune the following year reported on a hacker named Shadow Hawk who was alleged to have stolen "an artificial intelligence program that had not even hit the market." It reads today like something out of a William Gibson novel.

Shadow Hawk pleaded guilty. He was fined and served his time. Being a hacker in the eyes of the government, especially as the 1980s drew to a close, wasn't exactly something that earned you a gold star. But for a young screenwriter named Rafael Moreu, that animosity was exactly what made the misunderstood community that Buchwald and others were a part of a story he wanted to tell.

By the early 1990s, Buchwald was working for a private investigator, using the skills he picked up hacking in a more, let’s say, constructive way. He was attending monthly hacker meetings, organized by Emmanuel Goldstein, co-founder of a hacker quarterly magazine called 2600. And it was there that Buchwald met Moreu. Buchwald, it just so happened, was looking for consulting gigs, and Moreu happened to have some work.

When the film Hackers was released in 1995 – an oddball tale of a still-nascent net, starring a then-unknown Angelina Jolie in one of her first Hollywood films – Hacking Consultant was Buchwald's credit on the film.

Contrary to what the quality of popular film and television might have you think, yes, these people do exist. They are people, like Buchwald, who have worked behind the scenes to ensure that Hollywood gets its depiction of hackers, computers and cybersecurity mostly right – to translate the technical complexity of science and technology into something that casual audiences can understand.

And it's a good thing, too, because there are countless memorable cases where film and television get things so terribly wrong.

Open the Pod Bay Doors

"Computer hacking is long, arduous. [It's] time spent sitting behind a computer, looking up information in your books, now looking up information online, making phone calls, testing things out," Buchwald explains in an interview. "In real life it might take four hours of trial and error."

Try making all that seem exciting in a scene that's twenty seconds long.

Instead we get hotshot hackers breaking into military mainframes with the rote casualness of ordering a morning Starbucks venti. Or scenes where passwords are cracked and phone numbers traced, always one character at a time, flipping into place like an old analogue clock. We get films where the web is visualized with tunnels and tubes and, sometimes, literal nets.

"It's about suspension of disbelief and the art of storytelling," Buchwald says. "People don't like Star Trek and Star Wars because they do a good job of showing what space travel is like. People like it because it's thrilling and it's sexy and exciting."

This isn't a problem unique to hackers or technology or cybersecurity, of course, but one that spans myriad technical fields. There are just as many films – if not more – guilty of bad science and bad math. In any case, the trick is finding a way not only to be accurate, but, as Buchwald says, thrilling, sexy and exciting.

There is perhaps no film that does better at this than Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 1968 film is iconic in part for its depictions of space travel, cryogenic sleep and artificial intelligence, years before any of these things were remotely possible, and it's easy to see why. "The list of organizations providing scientific or technical advice for 2001 dwarfs such input for any other film before or since," wrote author Dr. Kirby, in 2011 book from MIT press called Labcoats in Hollywood.

Over 65 private companies, government agencies, university groups and research institutions were consulted during production of 2001.

Over 65 private companies, government agencies, university groups and research institutions were consulted during production of the film.

Whereas most productions, even today, may involve just one or two consultants over the course of production, 2001 was and still is an extreme case – but, "the result was completely authentic and immersive," John Underkoffler says. And he can relate. The former science and technology consultant and his team were asked to do something similar for Steven Spielberg in 1999, working with the director through all stages of the filmmaking process on the groundbreaking gestural interfaces in Minority Report.

Sometimes scriptwriters might only need to clarify a few details within a much larger plot – say, how long it would take to send a manned mission to Mars, or the average lifespan of a cancer cell in the human body, or how cryogenic sleep would work – things that can generally be settled over the course of a phone call or an afternoon coffee. "What you probably don't get in those cases is additional fabric for the narrative," Underkoffler explains.

But when writers and directors want the latter, that is where a consultant's job can get more involved – from participating in the scriptwriting process to spending time on set ensuring that input is accurately followed through, much as Underkoffler did for Ang Lee's The Hulk, Iron Man and Aeon Flux. Whether that level of accuracy and involvement can be justified, however, often comes down to cost.

"If they manage to find budget to pay for someone to portray things well, that itself is a huge statement," Underkoffler believes. "That's probably something the writer or director or the producers or production designer had to fight for."

Not everyone can afford to – certainly not on the level of 2001, or even Minority Report. Indeed, "It is tempting to view 2001 as an outlier regarding its utilization of science consultants," Kirby writes, "Not every film can, or should, approach the level of accuracy found in 2001."

But there are some who, to a lesser extent, still try.

“Does it have any Gibsons?”

Do you know who Barrett Brown is? You might know him as the independent journalist who has been under arrest and gag order for the past 18 months – in part for simply linking to leaked documents that were obtained illegally by hackers online.

But there's a chance you might only recognize Brown's name from the U.S. adaptation of House of Cards, referenced in a few episodes over the course of the series' second season.

Either way, you have Gregg Housh to thank for that. He was brought on board by showrunner Beau Willimon to shape the hacker subplot in season two. A high-degree of realism is something Willimon wanted, Housh says, and name dropping Brown is about as real as real gets.

"I think this is one of those outlying experiences that won't ever happen to me again if I do a hundred of these because I didn't. I was surprise by the level of support for the things I wanted in," says Housh.

If you look closely at Orsay's computer screens, you can see Tor, IRC, a Terminal window and a Bitcoin miner.

While there are always tradeoffs to make – and House of Cards does still get a few things wrong – Housh is responsible for all the things House of Cards did right. Jimmi Simpson, who plays the conflicted hacker character Gavin Orsay, is based on hackers Housh himself knew and experiences he had as a big player in the warez scene of the 1990s. If you look closely at Orsay's computer screens, you can see Tor, IRC, a Terminal window and a Bitcoin miner. Even the workstation itself – six giant screens, stacked bezel to bezel two displays high, is loosely based on Housh's own setup, right down to the poster on Orsay's apartment wall.

It was important to Willimon to get things right and accurate and grounded in reality, Housh said, even if the overarching narrative is fictional. Barrett Brown's inclusion wasn't just an invented back story, but a real, ongoing event meant to ground the series in authenticity. Housh attributes this to being involved early on, and every step along the way – providing input on the script, meeting with Simpson prior to shooting, and reading lines with the actor each day he was on set.

Of Hackers, says Buchwald, "A lot of the characters in the screenplay were kind of composites of different kids who went to the [2600] meetings and different people that [Moreu] met there. Even including some of their names.” But there were concessions to make here, too.

Buchwald's desire to make the technology as real as possible was, at times, less important to the filmmakers than getting the characters right.

There were certainly things the film got right, from the way phone phreaking actually worked to the way characters had to dig through so-called hex dumps – essentially the innards of a program or file – to find a computer worm. But Buchwald's desire to make the technology as real as possible was, at times, less important to the filmmakers than getting the characters right – and the two, he argued, went hand in hand.

"The technology was what drove the hacker community as it were," Buchwald said, and in reality, there was certainly no such thing as a Gibson – the infamous mainframe computer towards the end of the film that was portrayed, comically, as some sort of towering, virtual battleground of a city.

When Housh was approached by Willimon, "Does it have any Gibsons?” was the first thing Housh asked. Fortunately for us, the script didn't, and stuck a little closer to reality.

Roger Ebert, at the time, called Hackers "smart and entertaining ... as long as you don't take the computer stuff very seriously."

"I didn't," Ebert wrote. "I took it approximately as seriously as the archaeology in Indiana Jones."

Hackers for Hire

After the second season of House of Cards came out, and Housh could finally reveal his involvement, he received a number of messages from people he knew asking how they could do similar consulting too – "all the way down to the criminal hacker elements" he knew.

"Everyone was just amazed that it happened," says Housh. "I think the general tone from this side is that people don't even believe that anyone in hollywood wants to get right."

Indeed, in an email, renowned cybersecurity and cryptography expert Bruce Schneier categorized his interaction with hollywood as minimal. "Occasionally they call me, and occasionally I talk to them. I answer questions, then they disappear,” he wrote.

Neither Housh nor Buchwald know anyone else who has done similar consulting work. Buchwald says his name circulated around Hollywood after Hackers came out, but no one was interested in having him assume a similar role. Housh is consulting on a television pilot, but there's no indication as to whether it will be picked up.

"I would love for this to turn into a hell of a lot more work," he says.

"It would be naive to believe that scientists have as such control over the science in a film as the director or the production designer"

Certainly, the cost of having experts involved throughout the writing and filming process of a movie or television show is a factor, especially when working on a tight budget. And even when consultants are involved, Kirby in his book is reluctant to ascribe them too much influence. While filmmakers may seek their counsel, "It would be naive to believe that scientists have as such control over the science in a film as the director or the production designer," he wrote. Those in charge can simply choose not to listen if they don't like what they hear.

But Buchwald, Underkoffler and Housh speculate that generational factors could be at play too – that, we've yet to really to embrace a new generation of writers, directors, and, especially, investors, who have spent most of their lives in a hyperconnected, digital age. Recent efforts, such as Spike Jonze’s Her, is a good start – but such knowledge is the exception, not the rule.

When Hackers was released, e-mail addresses were still for Fortune 500 execs and university academics. Now even your parents probably have at least one or two. Being able to communicate via computer is no longer considered a mysterious hacker feat, Buchwald jokes – but, at the same time, we haven’t really been enlightened for that long.

"If it doesn't have that insiders passion, then it's kind of window dressing," Underkoffler suggests. "Or you're trying to approximate the fashion but you don't know how to recognize it."

There's value in getting it right, believes Underkoffler – and not just so that people on the internet don't complain about what a film got wrong. In fact, as the literacy of the audience improves, you could argue filmmakers actually owe it to their viewers to get things right. Technology isn’t something that exists on the fringes anymore, but is inextricably linked with our day to day life. The internet isn’t another world anymore, but part of it. There are stories to be told that aren’t necessarily about technology, but enabled and augmented by technology instead.

Underkoffler points to his work on Minority Report’s gestural interfaces as just one such example. “Those scenes weren't just a kind of technology sideshow, [or] a future tech petting zoo," argues Underkoffler. "It was a part of the fabric of the story. If you paid attention you learned important stuff that was forwarding the narrative.”

“And you could do the same thing in scenes where people are dealing with cybersecurity or with programming or hacking."