The real world of cybersecurity may not be as action-packed as the Hollywood version, but you may be surprised at the number of similarities between hacker movies and what goes on in the real world. The characters are a bit stereotyped but are not necessarily far off from the personalities of authentic hackers and programming ingenues. Hacker films often include more action and intrigue; it's usually a high stakes game with millions of dollars or the fate of nations hanging in the balance. While not all real-life hacking scenarios are nail biters, the scenes and story lines of the movies are inspired by what has happened or by what's possible.
In selecting the top 10 hacker movies for our list, we had some internal discussion (because as techies, we’re obviously the best ones to judge), and came up with these as the must-see films you should watch. We also took the time to address what they get right and wrong about real life hacking.
Premiering in 1983, WarGames was one of the first hacker films. Its protagonist is a high school student named David, a slacker who happens to also be a computer genius. While attempting to hack into a computer game company, he comes upon a system that doesn’t identify itself but allows him to play games. When he reaches an impasse, he learns from others about a backdoor password.
Soon, he’s playing a new game, except this is no game. It’s actually a nuclear missile platform. Eventually the computer system becomes intelligent with a desire to win the war. War is avoided as the program slowly learns that there are no winners. What makes this movie iconic to the hacker community is that David looks somewhat like them: exceptionally bright yet bored by traditional school. He’s curious and intuitive, two traits that characterize many in the profession. While David had no ill intent, he was very willing to keep pushing through the system, his curiosity never fully quenched.
Blackhat opens with a hacker breaching a nuclear plant’s infrastructure, making it explode. The blackhat in this story is like any blackhatter, he’s hacking into systems as a means for monetary gain and attacking others. The Blackhat is pursued by a Chinese officer and his red hat former programming partner, who has been incarcerated for criminal crimes but is allowed out to catch the hacker before greater harm is done. In this story, there are multiple sides to the hacker experience: the villain is the blackhat, the officer has the moral compass, and the red hat has a past of previous crimes but considers himself neither good nor bad.
3. Live Free or Die Hard
The hero of the franchise, McClane, is now hunting cyber terrorists who have been hacking into government and commercial computers in order to start a "fire sale" of financial assets. Live Free or Die Hard finds its origins in an article in Wired Magazine by John Carlin, A Farewell to Arms, which depicts the plausibility of hacking into such systems to bring the world to a halt. The movie may be the most probable of any in the hacking genre as so much of the world’s infrastructure depends on technology and there are so many weaknesses that can be exploited. While the hero isn't a computer expert, he finds help in that department with the movie depicting the infrastructure takeover with veracity.
4. The Matrix
One of the biggest phenomenons ever that redefined the action genre, The Matrix is a hacker movie at heart. It features gifted Neo searching for answers, hacking further and further until he realizes the world is the computer program. Like any hacker, he seeks to learn the truth about reality, finding that the world, as he knows it, is no longer and that machines are in charge. The Matrix, however, is not novel in its approach to personify machines and make them the antagonist. It did, however, introduce how a hacker could defeat them from within.
In this film, the backstory is about the authentic and confirmed threat of government surveillance. Sneakers tells the story of a group of security system experts, who are forced to steal a decryption device for the government. The team can be seen as whitehats, the good guys that use hacking as a defense or a means to help find information. This film from the early 90s may have been before its time, as high-level surveillance by government entities has been found to be very real.
Before the days of smartphones and Wi-Fi, the movie Hackers introduced many to the internet. Its plot reflects the ideals of the Hacker Manifesto, which is quoted in the film, “This is our world now…You call us criminals… Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.”
This crew of teenagers show many of the characteristics that non-tech people tend to ascribe to hackers. They are highly intelligent and love the challenge of the hack. They also don’t have any malice in mind. It’s more of a game to them, but when put in the situation of doing the wrong or right thing, they chose to do the right thing, but on their terms.
Takedown is based on the true story of infamous hacker Kevin David Mitnick and his nemesis Tsutomu Shimomura. The movie paints the picture that Mitnick was the blackhat while Shimomura was the whitehat. Mitnick did eventually go to prison, but the real story is probably more nuanced than just black and white. The movie offers a fairly accurate background of the world of hacking and why it’s so alluring for certain impulsive and savant type personalities.
Tron is another early entry to the hacking genre and has a plot that has many shades of fantasy and science fiction. A formerly employed software engineer, Kevin Flynn, seeks to hack his old company. But he is foiled by the mainframe system. Other programmers attempt to access the system only to learn the computer has become self-aware and power hungry. Flynn is trying to find evidence that the company stole his ideas. After breaking into the company and interacting with the mainframe, it digitizes him, and he becomes part of the program. Flynn is a multi-dimensional character, neither all good or bad, which makes him relatable. The sequence of him in the program is definitely for entertainment purposes, as this probably isn’t possible (but who knows about the future).
9. The Fifth Estate
The Fifth Estate is an unauthorized account of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The movie portrays Assange as both an egoist and idealist, who wants to change the world by exposing information. Assange had a list of systems he had broken into before being caught, including the Pentagon, NASA, and Citibank. Assange considered his hacking to be online activism, believing that citizens had a right to know certain things, however, this didn’t make it any less illegal. The movie is based on the experiences of journalist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was Assange’s partner in the beginning but later parted with him believing Assange to be selfish and evil.
Two cybercrime agents for the FBI spend their nights fighting identity theft until they are led to the website, from an anonymous tip, KillWithMe.com, in Untraceable. The mastermind behind the site has built it as a fail-safe. If one server is closed, another server replaces it immediately. The hacker has set the site up to encourage others to kill with him. He kidnaps victims and tortures them based on the engagement of others, eventually killing them. What this movie really brings to light is the public’s obsession with technology and online activity (and this was even before the social media age). While the plot is a little outlandish, it does make anyone who uses technology on a regular basis consider that it can bring both advantages and devastation.
Hacking Isn’t Just in the Movies
The exciting and often dangerous life of a hacker as depicted in film isn’t necessarily the reality. However, there are ways to use hacking skills in the real world to make a real difference. You may not be hunting down serial killers and battling artificial intelligence, but as an ethical hacker, you could help protect and safeguard the personal information and confidential data of millions.
Those that excel in hacking are those with a curious mind, always asking why and investigating further. Being a white hat means being multiple steps ahead of the criminals or catching up to them quickly. The world of information technology evolves and changes every day. So, does its criminals. That's why society needs intelligent, nimble minds to beat black hat hackers at their own game.
To become an ethical hacker, you’ll want to become a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). This requires passing a test, for which you will want to take a course for preparation. Alpine Security offers a pass guarantee CEH class, which covers 18 of the most current security domains any ethical hacker will ever want to know. In 18 thorough modules, the course covers over 270 attack technologies. We invite you to learn more about our CEH class and the opportunities for an ethical hacking career.