Mr. Robot (and five of the best hackers in film & TV)
Unless you're an expert on the history of cyber-crime, it's unlikely that you'll have heard of Robert Morris. A graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Morris became the first person ever to be convicted under what was then known in the United States as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a conviction handed down to him after he infected the internet with what is believed to be the world's first 'worm'. That was in 1990.
Hacking, then, is nothing particularly new, but in recent years a series of high-profile hacks have been making headlines all over the world thanks to groups like Anonymous, LulzSec and others who have been behind cyber attacks on everyone from Sony Pictures to J.P. Morgan. The thing that has gripped the public's attention though is their motives; back when the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was created in 1986 under the administration of Ronald Reagan, the political narrative was one of the clearly defined positions – capitalism versus communism, criminals against victims, good versus evil. Where groups like Anonymous differ from those looking to extract money from victims through phishing scams, for example, is that their targets are selected on grounds of what they perceive to be corporate greed or governmental corruption, giving rise to the term 'hacktivist'.
It is this climate of moral uncertainty and suspicion of corporate motives that lie behind the inspiration for - and, at least in part, the success of - Mr. Robot. Created by Sam Esmail, the series stars Rami Malek as a young cybersecurity engineer and hacker named Elliot Alderson. During the day, Elliot works for a cybersecurity firm named Allsafe whose biggest client is E Corp., a huge multinational conglomerate that is presented as the archetypal faceless corporation, so much so that everyone knows them as 'Evil Corp.'
But Elliot has problems. He suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression, spending his sleepless nights hacking into the servers of his clients, the social media profiles of his colleagues and friends, and acting as vigilante towards those whose crimes he is able to uncover. When Elliot discovers an erroneous file on E Corp's servers with a message to leave it where it is, he has a moral choice to make and instead of calling it in, he keeps quiet. Elliot is subsequently contacted by a mysterious figure named Mr. Robot (played by Christian Slater), the leader of a hacktivist group named fsociety and the man ultimately responsible for the file found on E Corp.'s server.
Mr. Robot eventually recruits Elliot by revealing fsociety's plan, which is nothing short of wiping clean the slate of the world's debts and the global redistribution of its wealth. However, not everything is at it seems and as Elliot gets pulled deeper into this shady, underground world, his perceptions of everything – even his own identity – are altered forever.
Part of the reason for the show's popularity is undoubtedly the fact that Mr. Robot captures the zeitgeist of a modern era in which privacy cannot be guaranteed and corporations cannot necessarily be trusted, but let's not take anything away from the show's brilliant, multi-layered writing and a talented cast that sees Rami Malek shine in the lead role and Christian Slater delivering his best performances in years. The show has also won praise from the hacking community for getting much more right than it gets wrong on the technical side of things, something that has rarely been the case in previous attempts to bring hacking to our screens.
The third season of the show arrives on DVD shelves this week (you can purchase it on the right-hand side of the page) and to celebrate we've picked five of the most memorable hackers from earlier films & TV shows for anyone hungry for more of the same...
David Lightman (War Games)
One of the earliest examples of hacking on the big screen came in 1983 from the perhaps unlikely source of director John Hughes. The film stars Mathew Broderick as a young computer whizz who hacks into the government's defence system for fun, only to inadvertently bring the world to the brink of global nuclear war. The technology was a little less developed back then, but Broderick's character David Lightman was probably the first to make being this nerdy seem this cool.
Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
The heroine of Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, Lisbeth Salander is the hacker on this list that we'd be least inclined to mess with. The product of a horrifically abusive upbringing and blessed with a photographic memory, Salander is a badass with an axe to grind and the skills to ruin your life without even leaving the house. She's a loose cannon, for sure, but she's endured more than anyone should and this girl is as tough as she is smart.
The Puppet Master (Ghost in the Shell)
Ahead of its time in more ways than one, Ghost in the Shell helped turn the fledgeling Manga studio into a global brand and one of its key characters was the mysterious hacker known simply as 'The Puppet Master' (or 'The Puppeteer' in the later TV series). Set in a future where humans are fitted with cybernetic 'brains' allowing their biological brains to interface with computers and other technology, The Puppet Master has the scary ability to hack not just machines, but also people, bending them to his will by forcing them to do his bidding. It might seem far-fetched, but the 'internet of things' has already enabled hackers to gain control of everything from your air conditioning to the brakes of your car, making some of the ideas in Ghost in the Shell seem frighteningly prophetic.
Dade 'Zero Cool' Murphy (Hackers)
Hollywood's first real attempt to bring hacking culture to the big screen, Hackers is by no means perfect, but it did throw up some pretty cool characters and heading the pack in that respect is Dade Murphy, played by Jonny Lee Miller. Known by the handle 'Zero Cool', Murphy becomes infamous among the hacker community when, aged 11, he creates a virus that crashes the stock market, earning him an arrest by the Secret Service and a ban on using computers until his 18th birthday. Yes, the villain of the piece is cartoonish nonsense, but Murphy became a poster boy for vigilante hackers everywhere.
Edward 'Brill' Lyle (Enemy of the State)
He might be old school, but as a former CIA operative turned vigilante and informer, Enemy of the State's Brill (Gene Hackman) is definitely a man you'd want on your side in any cyber battle. He doesn't just hack networks, he designs bugs, hacks into your television and even plants cameras in the homes of corrupt government officials. He's also hilariously grumpy.