WarGames – which hit theaters way back in 1983 – is an early hacker film starring Matthew Broderick (David Lightman) and Ally Sheedy (Jennifer Mack). For the uninitiated, WarGames depicts the fictional story of David Lightman, a high school hacker who unintentionally accesses WOPR, a military supercomputer operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
Believing he is playing an unreleased computer game, Lightman and Mack run a nuclear war simulation (Global Thermonuclear War) on WOPR, prompting a missile scare and nearly kicking off World War III. Ultimately, WOPR realizes that nuclear war is a “a strange game,” in which “the only winning move is not to play.” Watched by none other than President Regan himself, WarGames offers a stark warning about the danger and futility of nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
As Wired’s Scott Brown points out, the Cold War-era WarGames has essentially “written itself” into the cult lore of Silicon Valley. Indeed, Google co-founder Sergey Brin told a packed 2008 symposium in Mountain View that WarGames was a key movie of a generation, “especially for those of us who got into computing.”
Fast forward to 2016. Although the Cold War is long over, the dark, post 9/11 NYC depicted in USA Network’s Mr. Robot is far from a secure utopia. To be sure, the star of the wildly popular series is Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cyber-security engineer and vigilante hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder, clinical depression and a morphine habit.
“We now live in a world where hacks of all kinds are happening with alarming frequency and data dumps have become a weapon in both the geopolitical and personal arenas,” writes Jenna Worthman of the New York Times. “Mr. Robot feels, then, like a fictional CliffsNotes for the dark corridors of the Web. Cyber-espionage and geopolitical sabotage via cyber-attack is more than a paranoid fantasy; it is the new normal.”
Robot, says Worthman, may be fictional, but at least the series “helps us make sense of the strange new world taking shape beneath our feet.”
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Goldstein, writing in the 2600 Hacker Quarterly, notes that like Eliot, most of us are essentially trying to get by and figure out what’s right and wrong.
“This is what Eliot Alderson struggles with throughout the story. He remains a true hacker regardless of the choice he makes and how he’s manipulated,” he opines. “Sure, he breaks the rules a few times and invades the privacy of those he’s interested in, as is the case with members of virtually every element of society. And as a hacker, he’s very good at what he does. But it’s all of us who make the world of lost privacy, powerful integrated/intelligent systems and poor security a reality.”
Indeed, Kor Adana, a writer for the hit series, recently told a cyber-security conference that Robot has synched up well with real life events. As we’ve previously discussed on Rambus Press, a number of Robot hacks have actually occurred in reality, ranging from compromised PLC devices to malware-packed USB sticks dropped in parking lots to tempt unsuspecting victims.
“The show gets people on a certain wavelength when they realize oh, my webcam really can be used to spy on me,” said Adana. “And maybe I shouldn’t just blindly accept a CD from a street peddler. [Robot] illustrates the very real risks for the average person. An increased level of paranoia is clearly a good thing in this landscape. It comes along with the territory, because we know how to exploit these vulnerabilities.”
Clearly, Robot is helping to raise awareness of cyber-security risks for a more mainstream audience. In this context, the series may very well be the WarGames of 2016, with both hackers and security companies paying close attention to each episode of the blockbuster show. The specter of nuclear war between two superpowers may have faded along with the 1980s, but as Robot illustrates, our world remains a fundamentally insecure dystopia.