Television and movies always seem to paint tech in the same way. The tech nerd sits in his or her dark office, explaining the problem at hand rapidly, and then someone else says “in English please!”, regardless of how easy or difficult it is to understand the explanation. The “hacker” presses a few buttons on their keyboard, the computer beeps a little bit, and then… “I’m in.”
Like so many things that are perpetuated by Hollywood, the tech nerd and the tech industry’s stereotypes are anything other than true. In particular, the technologies that every computer power-user seems to have at their disposal at a moment’s notice are a big lie. Let’s look at some of those sci-fi technologies and stereotypes that have defined the hacker archetype in entertainment.
Myth: Images Can Be Enhanced
This is probably the most commonly used technology in movies and TV that just isn’t based in reality. Somehow, a grainy black-and-white security camera clip can be zoomed in on and “enhanced” so it looks like it was taken up close. This just is not possible. An image is limited by the number of pixels in it and there is no getting around that limitation. Zooming in on an image really just means the pixels appear larger on your screen. Essentially, a tiny grey square is now a larger grey square. While there are cameras able to capture a higher-quality image, the problem then becomes streaming speed. Capturing the image is one thing, but transmitting it back to view live at that same quality can become a challenge. On top of that, factors like image focus and lighting cannot be changed after-the-fact. Those are baked into the final image and the computer has no idea what else the camera could have seen!
Myth: Hackers Have Dark Motives
Just because you know how to hack does not mean that you are a “bad guy”. While hacking is done for espionage, power, and profit, there are other uses. Hacking is also used a preventative measure against other hackers. These computer professionals will hack into a business’s systems to evaluate how they can be improved to protect against real attacks, should they come. The important distinction is between “black hats”, who are criminals, and “white hats”, who are computer security experts. To make it more complicated, there are moral grey areas such as hacktivists, who on one hand can make information public that should be public, but on the other hand can deface a politician’s website for political reasons. The point is, not everyone with hacking skills is doing it for evil!
Myth: Hacking is Like a Video Game
There are a lot of cool ways to visualize a concept like hacking in a movie, but unfortunately at some point directors thought that hacking could be a video game, and that all it takes to hack is a little bit of gaming. Unfortunately, hacking is not nearly as fast-paced and fun. It’s actually pretty boring. It’s just a lot of lines of code. It would make a pretty boring movie to show the reality, so it makes sense why the entertainment industry has decided to do what they do. Unfortunately, it makes hacking seem much easier and more fun than it actually is. It is incredibly impractical to create a 3D model to navigate through a file structure, especially when that 3D model has guards and locked doors. Imagine trying to access your documents on your hard drive and having to use a game controller to fly between towers of data!
Myth: Listening in on a Phone Call is Easy
A technology that both the good guys and the bad guys seem to be able to use is to “hack” into a phone, usually via Bluetooth, and listen in on the conversation. This does not work for a large variety of reasons. The first of those is that for Bluetooth to work between two devices, they both must accept the connection. No one is going to accept a connection they don’t recognize. Even if the spy manages to get their hands on the phone and connect manually, there is still the issue of how Bluetooth devices work. A phone can only send audio to one Bluetooth device, meaning that if you were listening in on a conversation, your target would not hear anything out of their own phone! Toss in the fact that Bluetooth does not have much of a range, and you have yourself a pretty bad technology to put into a TV show.
Myth: People Use Keyboard for Everything
Madly typing on a keyboard is the sign of the IT expert working their magic. Every time the action hero says to “enhance that security footage” the IT person appears to write a short script in order to achieve that goal. This is highly impractical, as most programs are far easier to use with a mouse, rather than manually typing in commands. Instead of typing in where to zoom on a video, clicking a zoom button on the screen is going to be much easier! And as far as the script-writing goes, it is easy to imagine that a good IT person would have figured out a way to use a script without re-writing it every time it was needed. Oftentimes hacking scenes in shows and movies will display rapid typing of code in order to access a system or fight off an attack, and this is not exactly reality. Hacking is not necessarily that fast-paced, and will not involve writing that much code. Usually the program is already written and pressing a button will execute the malicious code. There is also malware of course, which does not require any live action from the person who created it.
If you know anything about technology or computers, you will know how ridiculous most movies and TV shows portray those areas of expertise. You likely sigh deeply every time someone says “I’m going to ping his IP with my GUI that I created in the deep web” and “upload the data server to the DNA scanner system’s RAM drive”. Hopefully as more and more people become educated on basic technology and IT, some of that knowledge makes its way into the entertainment industry! Did we miss any IT myths? Let us know in the comments below what your favorite (or least favorite) IT myths are.