Have you seen the movie Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? The movie is based on the book of the same title by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. The main character is a girl who lives with asperger’s syndrome and has an amazing ability to hack information. She uses her skills to help a journalist solve a mystery. This representation of a computer hacker is realistic in some ways, but misses the mark in others.
Reality: The young hacker, Lisbeth Salander, goes by the alias “Wasp” when she’s involved in computer hacking. Some hackers, especially notorious ones that have been caught and publicized or those who use their skills to point out flaws in security systems (known as “white hat” hackers), are known by their legal names. However, many hackers have an internet “handle” or code name that they’re known by.
Reality+Myth: Lisbeth has a “lone wolf” sort of hacking persona but does communicate with other hackers in what seems to be a vey loosely organized context. They know each other by their handles and communicate mostly via the internet, sharing tips and helping one another occasionally. According to “The social organization of a criminal hacker network: a case study” by Yong Lu, this sort of hacker community does exist in some cases. However, there are also networks that are far more akin to a professional crime ring, where a hierarchy exists and and the work load is very specifically shared among members.
Lu characterizes this sort of network as being a fairly recent phenomena. While hackers of old tended to use their skills for bragging rights, to prove themselves, or sometimes simply to pull pranks, modern hackers are much more likely to be after big financial gains. Hackers are now more likely to work in syndicates and auction off or share financial information.
Reality+Myth: Lisbeth pulls off lots of sophisticated hacking schemes in the story. There’s a great interview that Michael Hogan conducts with former hacker Kevin Poulsen where Poulsen discusses how realistic Lisbeth’s activities were in the book. His opinion was that the book portrays things that hackers actually could do, but not in the way that they would realistically do them.
Myth: The title character in Larsson’s book uses her powers for good, stealing from evil rich guy Hans Erik Wenerstrom, acting as security company Milton Security’s wiz kid and helping earnest journalist Kalle Blomkvist. This is a deceptively rosy portrayal of a modern hacker. In reality, hackers target large numbers of computers belonging to “average joes” and try to siphon financial information and introduce malware. Real hackers definitely do not use their powers for good!
There are many other movies with hackers as characters, including The Italian Job (2003) and MI4: Ghost Protocol (2011). Check them out for action and high-tech adventure, but keep in mind that while there are probably some realities represented, there are also plenty of myths to be found on screen!