Cybercriminals in Movies and TV Shows

Frankie Wallace

Hollywood has long held a certain image of cybercriminals. What they look like, how they commit their crimes, and their motivations. However, like many things in Hollywood, the portrayal of hackers and cybercrime in general often misses the mark. A lone-wolf hacker takes on a corrupt corporation. They simultaneously drain their enemies bank accounts while plastering their screens with taunting images. Indeed, this certainly makes for exciting television and movie fodder. However the reality couldn’t be more different.

Cybercriminals Motivation and Characteristics

Films like “The Net,” “Blackhat,” and “Swordfish” portray cybercriminals as either criminal masterminds intent on committing a perfect crime or as solo hackers on the outside, intent on solving the mystery of some plot-driving cyberattack. In reality, cybercriminals don’t often fall into the loner profile. In contrast, many cybercriminals operate within hierarchical organizations amongst workers, managers, and even executives. After all, cybercrime is a profitable business, causing $600 billion in losses each year as of 2018.

Television and films like to portray hackers as a cybercrime wunderkind, capable of quickly performing complex attacks at the drop of a hat. In truth, nearly anyone is capable of becoming a successful cybercriminal and the most successful attacks are planned over long periods of time.

There are cloud-based cybercrime toolkits that anyone can access with a subscription. This lets someone with even minimal security knowledge execute a successful cyberattack. While television shows might show hacking outfits as ragtag groups of individuals with different skill sets, one of whom is repeatedly alluded to as “the best,” the truth is that effective hackers are a dime a dozen.

As far as motivation goes, while there are certainly “Mr. Robot”-esque cybercriminals who participate in hacktivism to either protest or further some agenda, things are not typically so clearly defined in reality. Theft, a sense of control, and even the mere challenge of hacking is often the primary motivation for many cybercriminals. While Hollywood likes to romanticize cybercrime, most cybercriminals have the same motivation as your everyday analog criminals.

Cybercrime Methodology

Another way that Hollywood portrays the activities of cybercriminals inaccurately is through the actual methodology that they use. Television shows and films often show hacking as a battle between two genius hackers, taking turns disrupting each other’s systems until inevitably one is victorious, turning the other hacker’s computer into a fancy paperweight. Possibly the most hilariously inaccurate portrayal of a “hacker battle” is from a now-infamous scene from the show “NCIS” wherein, for whatever reason, two people begin using the keyboard at once in an effort to out-hack the digital intruder.

There is also an unfortunate trend in television and movies that inaccurately portray graphic user interfaces. They are portrayed as everything from floating, amorphous techno-blobs in “Skyfall” to strange three-dimensional cityscapes in “Hackers.” It is easy to understand why Hollywood makes these stylistic choices when they portray hacking in action, as they are far more exciting in terms of pacing and visuals than what actually happens.

Attacks in Real Time

However, in the real world, hackers are not generally targeting specific computers in real-time. In fact, the truth is that cybercriminals are executing distributed denial-of-service attacks and ransomware attacks like the WannaCry worm, which affected 75,000 computers on the first day of its attack. These are large-scale operations that are done at the highest level of secrecy in order to maximize their effectiveness while reducing the chances that the cybercriminals themselves will be caught in the act.

The popular television show “Mr. Robot” is actually one of the few examples that shows hacking fairly accurately. When the protagonist hacks, his GUI is Nmap, an actual program that can be used for a wide variety of cybercriminal activity including looking for and exploiting open ports. Additionally, the hacking is done secretly without the affected party having immediate knowledge of the attack, hopefully ensuring that the damage caused is not immediately identifiable.

Anyone Can Be a Target

In film and television, cybercriminals usually carry out attacks on either large corporations or the federal government. While it is true that the private sector and the U.S. government deal with their fair share of cyberattacks, many other entities (including individual people) can become the targets of serious cybercrimes.

Indeed, cybercriminals can take down entire conglomerates’ business operation systems overnight. Hackers have learned to circumvent many of the security measures put in place to stop them. For example, this includes taking down attendance portals and disrupting supply lines as a result.

States like California are exploring inventive new ways to combat cybercrime. However, individuals and small businesses don’t have the same resources. Additionally, they are generally incapable of making the same efforts.

Healtchare is a Growing Target

The WannaCry worm seriously affected huge companies and governments across the world. However, one of the most seriously damaged sectors by the ransomware was the healthcare industry. In the UK alone, WannaCry hit 16 different hospitals, holding all of their patient data hostage. Dozens of additional hospitals around the globe had their valuable private patient data compromised.

The healthcare sector is a growing target for cybercriminals due to the high value of the data that can be obtained through hacking. Stolen credit cards and Social Security numbers can fetch a good price on the black market while, but even a partial electronic health record can sell for up to $50. This obviously incentivizes committing cybercrime against healthcare institutions. However, you will rarely see this in Hollywood, because the movies need you to relate to the hacker character.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it’s important to question whether it really matters if Hollywood is portraying the activities of cybercriminals inaccurately. It is always good for a laugh, and if hacking is depicted too realistically, there is a chance that viewers might try to emulate the actions they see on screen. In the real world, cybercriminals aren’t the noble Robin Hood-type characters that Hollywood wants them to be; they’re criminals causing unjustified damage in the pursuit of money and power.

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