Memo to Hollywood – Stop Portraying Hackers as Heros

John Gunn, July 2, 2014

From the onset of films featuring hackers, they have been incorrectly characterized as smart, sophisticated, and heroic.  Way back in ’83, WarGames featured boy-genius Matthew Broderick finding a backdoor into a military central computer and almost starting World War 3. Sneakers cast movie idol Robert Redford as the fearless leader of an ad hoc hacking group in 1992. The Matrix hit theaters in 1999 with Keanu Reeves establishing himself as the uber-cool, digital-hacker Messiah Neo. Fast forward to the present with the boy wonder, genius-hacker in Live Free or Die Hard, and you have an endless parade of hackers as great looking, ultra smart, super heros.

Beyond Hollywood

As a backdrop, the broader media has been infatuated with hacker-as-hero stories including the various antics of hackers from Anonymous to Edward Snowden. The media has been quick to capitalize on hacker stories with many of the hackers presented as modern-day digital Robin Hoods pitted against vast government or corporate conspiracies. Ubisoft emphasized this with its recently released mega-game Watchdogs in which the game player takes on the role of a hacker-vigilante to track down the people who hurt his family.

The Real Hackers

But, as is often the case with real life, reality is not nearly as romantic as it’s made out to be by the entertainment industry.

Hackers inflict billions of dollars in damages. This is measured in the direct injuries they inflict with fraud from malware and phishing attacks, and indirectly as the increased costs of security are passed on to consumers in higher priced goods and services. Movies and TV conveniently ignore these types of hackers.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice reveals that 66% of identity theft victims in the U.S. reported a direct financial loss of close to $10,000 as a result of identity theft. While victims don’t bear the full brunt of most of these costs, they still suffer as a result. Identity thieves harm credit ratings and leave messy financial trails in their wake.

Companies fare much worse against cybercriminals. According to McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the conservative global cost of cybercrime is around $400 billion, which is almost 20% of the entire Internet economy – staggering numbers indeed.

What To Do?

Login credentials are easy to exploit and that’s what hackers target most frequently.  The 2014 Data Breach Investigation Report from Verizon identified that two out of three breaches exploited weak or stolen passwords.

The most convenient protection is strong authentication. Consider this - you could give a hacker your user name and password, but if the account is protected with two-factor authentication, the information would be of absolutely no use to the hacker.

As for Hollywood, it’s time for movie makers to wake up to the reality that hackers are not heros anymore than car thieves, arsonists, or burglars are, but they do inflict much more damage.

John Gunn is OneSpan’s CMO and brings two decades of leadership experience in the IT security and software segments. Before joining OneSpan, John led the Security Solutions Group at Harland Clarke where he launched a popular SaaS consumer identity protection and anti-fraud solution.