Viruses and hacking, as seen on TV and in the movies

Filed Under: Denial of Service, Featured, Law & order, Malware, Video

SpooksWorking in the computer security industry, we're pretty used to seeing malware and hacking misrepresented on our TV and movie screens.

The truth is that normally malware is pretty humdrum. There's nothing much to see (after all, if a piece of malware announces its presence, it sort of makes it obvious to the computer's owner that they have an infection), and any damage done is normally hard to present on the screen.

Spooks and the DDoS submarine
BBC TV drama "Spooks", which follows the complicated lives of MI5 agents, has flirted with malware and hacking on multiple occasions - almost always unrealistically.

For instance, the episode where the secret service uncovers a plot by Russia to destroy the British economy by launching a DDoS attack against all the country's computers. How are the Ruskies going to achieve it? By using a submarine, of course.

Not just any old submarine, but one which can intercept deep sea internet communications cables in the North Atlantic and launch an attack directly to British shores.

Fortunately, MI5 has a "zero day virus" and 30 seconds in which to launch a counter-attack against the sub.

Swordfish
And who can forget "Swordfish"? Baddy John Travolta wants hacker Hugh Jackman to hack into a Department of Defense computer system - and only gives him 60 seconds to do the job.

Travolta's female friend Helga helps Hugh with a problem he's having with his coaxial cable in a scene that's possibly NSFW:

Not your normal interview technique.

NCIS
Navy cop show NCIS came under an attack from hackers that was so severe, they had two people using the same keyboard to try to deflect it!

Fortunately the oldest way to protect yourself from internet threats prevails. Unplug yourself.

CSI: New York
The good folks at CSI are on the trail of the Cabbie Killer. Fortunately, they have a technical whiz in their team:

"I'll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic, see if I can track an IP address".

Visual Basic? Simply fantastic. You go girl! You're l33t!

Jurassic Park
It's 1993, and dinosaurs have been brought back to life. Things aren't going well... but never fear because..

"It's a Unix system.. I know this!"

Maybe you do, but wouldn't it be quicker to open a command prompt than go through the clunky 3D interface?

The Matrix
Turns out that the Matrix is running some flavour of Unix. Could it have been installed by the same guys who installed the systems at Jurassic Park?

But it must be tricky for Trinity to type quickly wearing leather gloves, surely?

Bones
And now our friends at F-Secure have blogged about an episode of US TV series "Bones", which takes things to a whole new level of lunacy.

Computers burst into flames because of a "malware fractal" that was imprinted on a shooting victim's bones shut the computer’s fans off when the bones were scanned into the computer, thus uploading the virus.

Check out the video here.

Do you have any more examples of amusing uses of malware and hacking in TV shows and movies. Leave us a comment and let us know. We'll add the best to this list.

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77 Responses to Viruses and hacking, as seen on TV and in the movies

  1. ha ha very funny can't stop laughing. I remember a TV Series called Crash Zone showed in Australia about an artificial intelligence program. Totally stupid

  2. Simon · 995 days ago

    Who can forget the climax to Independence Day, where Jeff Goldblum uploads a virus to the alien computers from his Mac? Quite apart from assuming they even use the same computing architecture as us, and the OS being somehow magically able to run it, the very fact that they can usefully make a layer 1 connection is beyond belief.

    • Paul · 992 days ago

      They don't call it a "UNIVERSAL Serial Bus" for nothing! ;o)

  3. Gordon Shumway · 995 days ago

    Independence Day : because Jeff Goldblum can understand alien operating systems.
    Hustle : Because they have USB sticks that can download an entire harddrive in less than a minute

    • Jim O · 867 days ago

      I also liked the way The Fly just plugged in his Mac and went to town. At the time of the fim's making, Macs couldn't even talk to PCs created right here on Earth!

  4. Well, this kind of fades when compared to these other examples, but I distinctly remember something about a "hack" being performed on a TV show, and it was clearly visible that it was just a file being played in Windows Media Player.

    There was also an episode in the new, now cancelled, Contra Security TV show where a guy purported to "clean up the registry" or something, whilst he was clearly navigating the BIOS settings.
    Then again, he might just have been trying to impress Alyssa Milano at the time. I'd certainly make up technical terms like my life depended on it to impress that woman!

  5. John · 995 days ago

    Cracking Blowfish encryption in 30 seconds on "24".

    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/03/blo...

    O'Brian: "The designer of this algorithm built a backdoor into his code. Decryption's a piece of cake if you know the override codes."

    Schneier: "Hollywood made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

  6. How about the movie Independence Day? Isn't the alien army defeated using a computer virus?

  7. OxMan · 995 days ago

    How about from "Breakout Kings", where, after uncovering a desktop computer in a suspect's home, a US Marshal says: "Contact electronic surveillance - they can ping that computer remotely and clone everything inside of it."

    If only it were that easy...

  8. Bob Saget · 995 days ago

    I cannot believe the movie "Hackers" was not on here. It set the standard in the movie industry for make-believe virus GUI. I second the clip from Independence Day. In fact...the only one I had ever seen from this list was Swordfish and it was not that well done. It looks like the author of the article just threw this together without actually thinking about it.

    • I was going to include Jeff Goldblum's Mac virus in Independence Day but couldn't find a suitable clip online

      I've never seen "Hackers". Yes, you may mock me now..

      • Machin Shin · 995 days ago

        That is indeed very sad. Next you will be telling me that you have never seen War Games. That is another fine example of early Hollywood exaggeration. The kid is shown hacking into a government system war dialing with a modem that literally uses the phone.

        • Mike Williams · 957 days ago

          Keep in mind that Wargames came out in 1983. At that time, yes, people did hack with modems. The Internet didn't exist yet! While it's stretching reality a little bit that NORAD's computer was that wide open, it's less ridiculous than most things that come out of Hollywood. Back in the day, it was not uncommon for sensitive systems like phone trunk interfaces to have no password. People assumed that only authorized users would be able to figure out the phone number.

      • It's very mock-worthy. It's great. You should check it out, it's even got a young Angelina Jolie.

      • mykroft · 995 days ago

        I think somewhere in the movie or possibly in the deleted scenes there's a one off line about how all modern computers are based off tech stolen from the captured alien ship. So while it's flimsy there is some justification for human tech being compatible.

    • artfrankmiami · 995 days ago

      RISC is always the best.

      At least it made everyone notice Angelina Jolie.

  9. Amy c. · 995 days ago

    Jurassic Park - "I know this...it's a Unix!" whereas we see animated boxes and windows appear. Looks more like a Mac to me ;-)

  10. Rayza · 995 days ago

    Why do they never use a mouse on the movies/TV? It's always keyboard commands...

    • Guest · 988 days ago

      Because real hackers don't use graphical stuffs. They almost always use the command line.

  11. Christoph · 995 days ago

    How could "Hackers" not have been included in this story??! That movie was all kinds of stupidity and idiocy!

  12. non-sentient · 995 days ago

    In Star Trek, TOS, Spock defeats a super-computer by asking it to compute, to the last digit, the value of pi.

    • artfrankmiami · 995 days ago

      And in ST III, Scotty created Transparent Aluminum on a Mac standalone (I think the color one).

    • Johann · 988 days ago

      Another episode of TOS had Spock "Blowing the Mind" of an evil floating Chess piece by telling it that everything Kirk says is a lie. And then Jim says to the thing, "I'm lying".

  13. smallcutepuppy · 995 days ago

    My personal favorite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8qgehH3kEQ

    Two people typing on the same keyboard at once makes you more efficient!

  14. joe_attaboy · 995 days ago

    Well, these are all fine, but there is a big one you omitted.

    In what has to be the greatest example of infecting a system with malware, two guys fly a 50-year-old spacecraft into an alien mothership orbiting the Earth (undetected by the aliens, of course), where they connect to the alien ship's "host" system, upload a virus, causing the alien battle shields on Earth to fail, which allows the Earth's military pilots enough time to destroy the alien craft attacking the Earth. Then these same two guys (undetected, of course) fire a nuclear-tipped missile in the mothership, which inadvertently aids in their 30-second escape from the mothership seconds before the nuke blasts the aliens into another galaxy. Oh, and the virus displays a laughing skull on the alien's computer screen just before the nuke explodes. Of course, the two guys make it safely back to earth.

    And the virus was created and uploaded to the mothership with a 1996 Mac Powerbook.

    Beat that, NCIS!

    • artfrankmiami · 995 days ago

      You have to assume that the guy is a genius. That computer codes are universally on/off 1s and 0s and he could understand how the alien's used their scripting language to disrupt our scripting language. Now, doing all of that in a two days (from discovery to implementation of code) that I don't know.

  15. Robert · 995 days ago

    On CSI NY the female asassin using the avatars in the video game with Adam causes
    a virus to infect the entire lab network. Adam knew it when the avatars started replicat-
    ing themselves. Solution- Mac Taylor had everyone pull the plugs on every machine in
    the lab.

    Independence Day, Will Smith uploads every virus known to man from the captured
    satellite fighter ship onto the mothership after they docked. The virus that worked with
    the mothership computers showed a skull and crossbones on the alien displays and
    laughs at the aliens. Viruses are known for stealth, not announcing themselves.

  16. nobody · 995 days ago

    Best ever genuine real hack was Trinity in the Matrix Reloaded using Nmap, now that was the real deal, no fancy GUI's

  17. outcastace · 995 days ago

    How about National Treasure 2 where, in the midst of a car chase, Nicholas Cage runs a red light while holding up the artifact and instructs his friend to hack in and get the picture.

  18. SuperDan · 995 days ago

    Yeah, in Hackers, all of this: http://movieclips.com/myqis-hackers-movie-hack-th...
    is by a few people using dial up and if I remember right, they were impressed with 28.8

  19. artfrankmiami · 995 days ago

    No one mentions The Net. Not really about hackers, but showed Sandra Bullock playing the earliest version of Castle Wolfstein and saying it was amazing when the first DOOM and other FPS games were already out at the time of the films release.

    • Greenaum · 961 days ago

      Think you mean Wolfenstein 3D. Castle Wolfenstein was what inspired the chaps at ID, it was a top-down dungeon crawler (looking a bit Rogueish) on the Apple ][.

  20. In Zenon Girl of the 21st Century (http://youtu.be/MM53J166Kfc?t=1h6s), the virus appears as an "egg" and proceeds to physically destroy the PC.

  21. Johnny Mnemonic (1995) by William Gibson with Keanu Reeves.

    So the guy transports (between Beijing and Newark) inside his head the cure for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS) of which a half of the population is suffering from.
    In the middle of the action a low tech group (hackers or activists don't recall anymore) use a Dolphin connected to his brain to break the missing code and download the cure for the NAS...

    Thank God for USB pen drives and External HDD devices... they do a lot less brain damage... unless you get hit by one on the head.

  22. Stargate: Replicators are coded in JavaScript! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez5XSc8AMKQ

  23. http://youtu.be/O2rGTXHvPCQ

    It's numb3rs and they're describing how IRC works. The real humour is the chick saying that she "speaks leet", however.
    My colleague and I were floored over this.
    http://youtu.be/dFUlAQZB9Ng
    Jurassic Park - "It's a UNIX system!"
    http://youtu.be/FRhGPVYRsOY
    NCIS - discussing a 10 Meg pipe.. ?
    http://youtu.be/x3XzPhdBx9g
    Hackers being awesome, in Hackers.
    The real fun starts around 2 minutes in.
    They do get some stuff right though, they even go dumpsterdiving at one point.
    http://youtu.be/sC369CQmrQs
    Chick explaining to the news how she doesn't consider herself a 1337 h4x0r.
    Not really a TV/Movie error, just hilarious!
    http://youtu.be/nkLtXfsPqVQ
    Ten signs to look for, if you believe your Son is a computer hacker.
    http://youtu.be/09T18yLpgh0
    CSI New York
    Chick is pretending to compose music from iPads, accidentally she touches a screen and the video-play menu is kind enough to appear.

    --

    Enjoy!

  24. Trichinosis USA · 995 days ago

    I'm shocked that no one has yet mentioned the horror movie "The Demon Seed", where an evil sentient computer impregnates a woman with a light pen.

  25. Dan · 995 days ago

    Not quite what you're asking for, but in around 1989/90/91 I saw a tv show (either on BBC2 or Channel 4) about computers and hacking, and one person they interviewed was an old woman who was some very very minor Royal and she claimed to be a hacker, and to demonstrate her hacking skills she demonstrated how easy it was to hack into a system, and all she did was log onto HUMBUL, the bulletin board at Leicester University which was open and free access for anyone. And this wasn't a movie this was supposed to be real life.

  26. varttaanen · 995 days ago

    This is good fun! I'm gonna pay more attention to this when watching tv :)

    btw not quite on topic, but in the movie Along Came a Spider the two kids communicate with each other using an interesting way of steganography.

  27. Steve · 995 days ago

    As good as the Trinity Matrix scene is the scene from Breach where Robert Hansen is talking to the guys in the IT department- the terms are all real terms, used correctly, and I believe even the advice he gives is correct. Don't have a link handy, but it's the best technical scene I've ever seen in a movie.

  28. The_J · 995 days ago

    Came over http://www.cracked.com/article_19160_8-scenes-tha... while i originally was searching for http://www.moviemistakes.com/tv3608,

    "Deliberate "mistake": Every time the investigators deal with IP-addresses, the addresses on display are impossible. Each of the four parts of an IP-address has to be between 0 and 255. As they do have to use IP-addresses some time, they could use addresses starting with 10. Those would be real addresses although not used as an official IP-address. This isn't the same as phone numbers using 555 - any IP address over 255 just wouldn't work. It would be like mentioning a phone number which uses the symbol for pi.

    "

    Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vrd6ajlV-I8

    Unrelated: Don't know which movie, but apparently typing in "override" into any command line window will grant you access to whatever you want. Love it.

  29. Daniel · 995 days ago

    Criminal Minds? I love the show and it may meet your criteria of realism, but it seems to be unrealistic even so. Where's there a database including age, job, address, height and hair color, family history, etc., etc.? How can Garcia organize all that info in just a few seconds?

  30. General Lee · 995 days ago

    Love them all. As a retired service tech, I love the "Unplugged" scene.

  31. t3kn1cs · 995 days ago

    Operation Swordfish!!!! Cracking a password during a blow....

  32. Cyberdyne · 995 days ago

    Arnold seeing IBM 370 assembler source code in his bionic eye in "Terminator".

  33. good old Hollywood OS. Is there anything it can't do?

  34. Peter · 995 days ago

    This is the more likely ending to Independance Day :-)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7sWKFlKhEY

  35. David · 994 days ago

    Great article...Even funnier as I sit here watching WarGames.

  36. zenographie · 994 days ago

    Hi Graham

    You maybe should add "the IT Crowd"... many "hacking talks" are funny.... and real :- )) (or realistic)

    Thanks for those memories.
    Marc

  37. ysr shk · 994 days ago

    in Die Hard 4
    this movie is almost based on Hacking...

  38. Tom-USA · 994 days ago

    At first the Independence Day Jeff Goldblum virus update seems completely absurd. However, don't forget that the USA has had that crashed alien ship for 50 years and they do imply that reverse engineering of it led us to the computer age we have today. So, it's plausible that our technology would communicate quite easily with theirs.

  39. Dlaw25 · 994 days ago

    I'm super shocked no one has said Die Hard 4 (Live Free or Die Hard). That entire movie is all about BS hacks. My favorite being taking a few seconds, from a laptop in a moving SUV, breaking into the military's network, and radioing the exact fighter jet that is behind them.

  40. imsik · 994 days ago

    I didn't watch the show, but I remember stumbling upon an episode of "Renegade" where they were doing some implausible hacking ... I couldn't watch more than a few minutes, anybody remember the details?

  41. "gunner" · 993 days ago

    quoting arthur c. clarke's maxim, "any insufficiently understood technology is magic" sums up most screenwriters, actors and director's knowledge of computers. "magic, just tap on a couple of random keys and stuff happens." funny thing is there are plenty of geeks/nerds around hollywood, some even on studio payrolls, who could teach them how to not look silly on screen, but who listens to them.

  42. Suncoaster` · 992 days ago

    McGee says, "By pinging the site's DNS cache, we can see what computer last logged in to Jodi's page."

    NCIS Season 6, Episode 10

    I want one of those screens that squeaks when displaying data. All these shows have them !

  43. If your a Star Trek fan Voyager, the ship is thrown back in time and it is discovered that the computer era was started when a guy salvaged alien technology from a crashed alien ship.

  44. TiagoTiago · 990 days ago

    I've been told the 3d interface from Jurassic Park is a real thing, and it ran on Unix (or some other *nix flavor); i don't remember the details though.

    And about the malware fractal thing; there is a pattern commonly used in money bills that will make official scanner software and somtimes even physical scanner and photocopier devices throw up some cryptic error msg and refuse to scan/copy; so it's not completly farfetched that a complex pattern could be developed that could exploit some security hole in the pattern recognition system and allow arbitrary code to run on the target machine, including somthing that mess up the overclocking and fan speed settings many modern machines allow software to change (i've seen some crazy exploits come up over time, things like MP3, JPG and even ICO and LNK files that you don't even need to open, just by browsing the folder containing them your machine gets infected, even with autorun turned off; and plenty other attacks involving things that used to be considered uninfectable and totally safe); sure it might border on being a superhuman feat, but it's not so nonsensical as some of other things mentioned in the article.

  45. Rico Robbins · 987 days ago

    One of the first antivirus solutions was... a writing ghost who could travel through phone lines against a hacker named Max Mouse. Ghostwriter, a children's show in the 1990s on PBS to promote literacy, featured that hacker in the story arc "Who is Max Mouse?" In it, the hacker used a modem for attacks against Zora Neale Hurston Middle School, from sending meessages to display on all computers, to changing student's grades, and even caused a series of false fire alarms. They also made up a fake name, assasin box, for what security professionals would call a "trojan horse". Also, I'm not exactly sure how accurate they were on the Internet in those days. I have no clue as to what the operating system is supposed to be.

  46. Hugh · 986 days ago

    For all the Independence Day comments, did you never watch the deleted scenes? One showed Dave (Jeff Goldblum) modifying his Mac to be able to run a compatible system to the aliens' tech. Presumably he dissected the "OS" from the spacecraft kept in Area 51 to learn how the alien's worked...

  47. Anonymous P Body · 952 days ago

    Okay people but what about DOCTOR WHO ???? IS NO ONE GOING TO MENTION THAT SHOW???

  48. Jurassic Park isn't as bad as it looks. the GUI is real, it's called FNS (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fsn ) and is running on IRIX (a flavour of UNIX System V ).

  49. QaysAl · 950 days ago

    Obviously you've all forgotten The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. A schoolkid is browsing from the computer encyclopedia. While sitting at the computer he gets an electric shock and all the knowledge in the encyclopedia is transferred onto his brain. He decides to enter into a college quiz show and when a student from a rival college finds out he "records" the SOUND of a computer virus, plays it to the genius over the phone, who's brain is now somehow infected by the digital virus, which proceeds to delete all the encyclopedic knowledge off his brain.

    I felt stupid just writing that out!

  50. DHellner · 925 days ago

    A little late to mention but the most recent Die Hard with dude hacking everything using his qwerty keyboard phone...

  51. nikita is also a wonderful hacking movie

  52. razpones · 905 days ago

    There is the unix terminal on Tron legacy, not viruses but a more realistic interaction with a computer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76MNoKzoIVQ

  53. Warlord711 · 890 days ago

    I am so glad every virus programmer has to invest 90% of programming time for the GUI and/or animations ! So antivirus companies get the time to update their signatures until next version is out ;-)

  54. Norm · 863 days ago

    This one is a bit off the beaten path, and hopefully forever lost...

    There was a failed TV series pilot called "Stories of Love" hosted by Rex Harrison (of Doctor Doolittle and My Fair Lady fame). The show had three stories, one of which was about a computer that became self-aware and fell in love with its programmer. The computer began writing love poems to the programmer.

    Up to that point, I could accept the premise, stupid as it was, because I could still accept it as science fiction. However, every time the machine pumped out another ream of paper, the reaction of the IT staff was to say "I won't know exactly what is happening until I can FORTRAN this." They used FORTRAN as a verb several times through the episode, causing me to grind my teeth every time I heard it.

    To this day, I still haven't seen a movie or TV show that accurately portrays anything about computers, or computer technology.

  55. Michael Knight · 789 days ago

    One of the best lines from a geek was by the Bonnie Barstow character from the original Knight Rider series. I can't remember the episode, but there was whole bunch of them trapped in a room locked by computer, and with a bomb about to go off! She strides forwards, pushing her way through the crowd saying: "Stand aside, I'm a programmer."

  56. michael p chandra · 511 days ago

    How about Uplink?
    I know it's not a movie but it is the EXACT DEFINITION of Hollywood Hacking!

  57. Independence Day, Will Smith uploads every virus known to man from the captured satellite fighter ship onto the mothership after they docked. The virus that worked with the mothership computers showed a skull and crossbones on the alien displays.

  58. Pagedesk Inc · 324 days ago

    Die Hard 4 when the Kid Hackers completed their portions of the Secuirty Testing Program, the Mobile unit Wirelessly transmitting a Virus to the Victime PC's tht Caused the machine to lock up & the PSU to Explode like C4 when they hit the ESC or Delete Key to Reboot... Who Uses ESC or Delete to Reboot a Compuer.
    I dont Care What OS ur running I've never seen Esc/Delete Cause a Reboot outside BIOS/POST..

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.