‘Sneakers’ and other hacker movies with an echo of truth

Films about hacks and cyberattacks have been popular for decades. These movies helped create the image of the hacker genius — just think of Stanley Jobson in “Swordfish.”

There is “Hackers,” in which a group of high schoolers access the mainframe of an oil company and discover evidence of embezzlement and “The Net,” about a woman (Sandra Bullock) whose identity is stolen.

You may think Hollywood depictions of hacking bear no resemblance to real life, but in each of the films below, there is an echo of truth in the fiction.

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 “The Italian Job” (1969)

The Italian Job

A classic caper on a list of hacker movies. This story of British bank robbers undertaking a job in Turin, Italy, offers a surprising nod of things to come.

How do Michael Caine and his team plan to escape from this city? By hacking its traffic light system and causing widespread gridlock. This leads to the famous Mini Cooper getaway scene.

From Saudi Arabia to South Africa, billions of dollars are being invested in smart city projects. Some researchers estimate that spending on smart cities will reach $27.5 billion by 2023. It makes protecting those cities reliant on technology from disruption ever more crucial.

“WarGames” (1983)

At the height of the Cold War, a young hacker (Matthew Broderick) breaks into a US military supercomputer and comes close to starting a nuclear war. He thinks he’s playing a game based on a simulation, but this is not a drill.

According to a 2016 study by ISACA and RSA Conference, 74 percent of the world’s businesses expect to be hacked each year. And the economic loss due to cybercrime is estimated to reach $3 trillion by 2020.  It is one of the reasons that Microsoft has called for a Digital Geneva Convention to help protect cyberspace in times of peace.

“Sneakers” (1992)


This tech thriller, which spans from the late 1960s to the more computer-literate 1990s, boasts a heavyweight cast that includes Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier. A team of security specialists is approached by the NSA and commissioned to locate a mysterious black box. This team, propelled into a world of espionage, is soon hunted by rogue agents. The box turns out to be the key to cracking all known encryption and is, the team realizes, too powerful to fall into the wrong hands.

In 1992, the idea that something could break all known encryption sounded scary and a little implausible. Today, the existence of such technology is more likely thanks to quantum computing.

According to Martin Giles of the MIT Technology Review, quantum computers are “a security threat that we’re still totally unprepared for,” and it could be 20 years before cybersecurity catches up. Working closely with the United States National Institute for Standards and Technology, Microsoft is engaged with the development of post-quantum cryptography that will be able to withstand quantum computer capabilities, while still working with existing protocols.

“Hackers” (1995)


Starring Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller, “Hackers” is the story of a group of high school technology enthusiasts with codenames and complicated backstories. They hack into the mainframe of an oil company and discover evidence of embezzlement — but their activities are soon detected.

Robust cybersecurity is important for businesses and to the future of national economies, and it has become a priority for governments around the world. The Cybersecurity Tech Accord, announced by Microsoft in April 2018, is a public commitment among more than 100 global companies to protect and empower civilians online and help defend them against threats.

“The Net” (1995)

Sandra Bullock plays the lead role in this thriller that foreshadows one worry of the modern security landscape: identity theft.

Admittedly, in 1995, many important records were still paper-based, after all. Still, this is one of the central themes in the plot: Can Angela Bennett (Bullock) overcome a series of interconnected threats and regain her identity?

Today, secure passwords are a must. There is a wealth of personal data stored digitally that can all too easily compromise the security of your identity.

Cyberspace has become a battlefield and powerful cyberweapons are being used against civilians. Tools and Weapons, by Microsoft President Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne, looks at how the world can respond. To read more and pre-order the book, visit Tools and Weapons. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.