5 Computer Hacks from Movies You Won’t Believe Are Possible

As we have mentioned previously, Hollywood just doesn’t seem to have a very firm grasp on how technology works. So when it comes to depicting computer hacking onscreen, it’s no surprise that the implausible scenarios Hollywood’s tech-challenged screenwriters manage to pull out of their asses don’t even come close to resembling the real thing.

Except it turns out that, every once in a while, they inadvertently get it right on the money. Because real-world hackers have done stuff like …


Jackpot an ATM


As Seen In:

Terminator 2

The Hollywood Hack:

Let’s look at the classic scene for a moment: Young John Connor — the kid whose voice sometimes makes you wish they had sent a few extra T-1000s back from the future — jacks his Atari (yes, Atari) laptop thingy into an ATM. With the push of a few buttons and some fast-scrolling numbers on what appears to be an old-school scientific calculator screen, he turns bits into Benjamins in a matter of seconds.

Photos.com“If you see any cops, I want you to mullet as fast as you can.”

It’s one of those scenes you just know James Cameron made up on the fly, because ATMs can’t be that easy to hack in the real world — otherwise, people would be doing it all the time. No, if real-life criminals want to steal money from an ATM, they need to go all low-tech and do something like steal the entire machine and get busy with a blowtorch, or blast it open with explosives:

The Real-World Hack:

Only it turns out that jackpotting an ATM is even easier than lil’ John Connor made it look, even in a future that finds itself severely lacking in Atari laptops.

One pair of criminals in Pittsburgh reprogrammed an ATM to think it was dispensing $1 bills instead of $20s, netting themselves $1,540 in two days. And they didn’t even need to plug in a laptop to do it — they simply used the built-in keypad to reprogram the machine. Anyone watching them on the security camera would have thought they were just some of those people who hold up the ATM line when all we need to do is grab 20 bucks for lunch, goddammit.

The crime was similar to one that had previously taken place in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where crooks were able to reprogram an ATM thanks to the instruction manual — complete with default administrative passwords — that the ATM manufacturer had posted online.

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But the demonstration of ATM hacking that really takes the cake was given by security consultant (i.e., “hacker with a job”) Barnaby Jack at the annual hacker convention Black Hat back in 2010, where he showed the crowd how he could compromise an ATM either via plugging in a USB flash drive or by injecting his digital salmonella remotely over the Internet to make the machine spew out bills like there’s no tomorrow. Barnaby Jack (we just love saying that name — were his parents Hollywood screenwriters?) not only relieved the machine of its burden of holding all that cash, but also programmed it to display the word “Jackpot” across the screen and play a catchy tune. And he did it with style.


Hack Traffic Lights to Cause a Traffic Jam


As Seen In:

The Italian Job

The Hollywood Hack:

In the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, the characters need to create a traffic jam as part of an incredibly complex heist that we chose to nap through until it got to the car chases. So Seth Green breaks out his trusty laptop and hacks into the traffic control system (over a public Wi-Fi hotspot at LAX, no less), turning green lights permanently red and causing a gridlock that even a zombie apocalypse could be proud of.

“I like two things: action figures and gridlock. And I just put all of my G.I. Joes on consignment.”

This has to fall into the category of silly things Hollywood thinks computers can do — that every single machine in the entire world is operated by a computer and thus available to be hacked from the Internet, as if hackers are wizards who could just shut down civilization if they felt like it.

What hacking looks like to old people.

The Real-World Hack:

Back in 2006, the city of Los Angeles was in the middle of some rather nasty contract negotiations with its traffic engineers. After the union representing the engineers declared that on the day of their strike, “Los Angeles is not going to be a fun place to drive,” city officials decided to play it safe and blocked the engineers’ access to the traffic control system.


But apparently they never thought about the fact that the people they had “blocked out” were the very same people who designed the goddamn system. So two of the striking engineers — Kartik Patel and Gabriel Murillo — whipped out a laptop just like Seth Green’s (OK, we didn’t actually check the model) and proceeded to hack into the system to make good on their threat to remove all the fun from driving in LA. Which, if you’ve driven there, isn’t all that impressive a threat.

Anyway, using their comprehensive knowledge of the city’s traffic patterns, the engineers chose a few key intersections and reprogrammed the lights to stay red longer than normal. This seemingly simple change caused a massive traffic bottleneck and several days of gridlock. So if you live in the LA area and ended up with a pissed-off boss or significant other due to traffic delays in late August of 2006, you have these two guys to thank for it.

Getty“That’s no excuse — you should have left two days earlier!”

So now we’re wondering if hackers don’t in fact have access to every mechanical device in the world. What’s next — they’ll just hack our cars using their iPhones?


Steal a Car Via an iPhone


As Seen In:


The Hollywood Hack:

When infiltrating the bad guys’ car-thieving operation in “The Boost Job” episode of the TNT series, resident hacker Hardison needs to help the Blonde One steal a shiny new BMW as proof of their mad car-jacking skills. So how does a cable TV series hacker break into a car? By frantically tapping on his smartphone, of course. After the token comedic moment in which he pops the trunk first by accident (you can tell it’s funny because his eyes get all wide when it happens), the door opens with a conspicuous lack of car alarm.

We’re surprised it didn’t read “Car Hack in Progress” across the top.

It’s just the type of lazy scene you’d expect a television screenwriter who’s completely out of touch with technology to dream up. But we’re far enough into this article now that you know what’s coming next, right?

The Real-World Hack:

Yeah, you guessed it: In the real world, it works pretty much exactly like that.

You see, all those bells and whistles that modern cars come equipped with — GPS, remote entry, alarm systems, rear-facing cannons — are connected to the cellular phone network. Those devices have their own phone numbers where they can receive commands via text message, and unlike you when you receive an unwanted text, and can either block it or send a reply and hope the sender can comprehend it, since you typed out all the curse words in English rather than txt-speak, your car unfortunately doesn’t have that capability.

Via Wikipedia“May we recommend the more secure model, sir?”

Researchers at iSEC Partners demonstrated how, with a few quick text messages sent to a Subaru Outback, they could unlock the car, start it up and add it as a friend on Facebook. So in theory, a hacker could use a sniffing tool to listen for cellular traffic around a car and figure out that car’s “secret phone number,” then have complete control over it within minutes — all from his iPhone. Just something to think about the next time you’re drooling over that fully loaded model at your local car dealer.


Hijack a TV Station


As Seen In:

V for Vendetta, The Running Man, Hackers

The Hollywood Hack:

Even in a fictional dystopian future, people love them some TV. So when it comes time for our not-taking-this-lying-down protagonist to stick it to The Man by getting his message out to the mindless masses, what better way than to hijack a TV station?

“Mess with the best … well, maybe just don’t do that.”

But surely it can’t be that simple for someone to take over an entire TV station and broadcast whatever the hell they want, right? Not unless they stormed the control room with machine guns. Otherwise, wouldn’t Anonymous be constantly interrupting children’s programming with clips of naked men doing the helicopter with their dicks?

Photos.com“Keep watching, kids. This is apparently crucial for your development.”

The Real-World Hack:

Actually, it’s apparently easier than you might think, and it might have all started with Captain Midnight.

No, Captain Midnight isn’t some shitty comic book character created by Rob Liefeld. His true origin is almost even less impressive than that — Captain Midnight is satellite dish store owner John MacDougall of Ocala, Florida. That’s right, we just totally revealed his secret identity.

Photos.comThat’s what he looks like when he’s not in costume.

Back in 1986, MacDougall was sticking it to The Man in his own way — by hauling in shovelfuls of cash selling his customers satellite dishes that let them intercept the signals that premium channels like HBO sent to the cable companies, allowing them to watch the premium programming for free. But when HBO caught on and scrambled their signal so that satellite dish users would have to start paying for their programming like everyone else, Captain Midnight kicked into crime-fighting mode.

So he hijacked HBO’s signal, and starting at 12:30 a.m. on April 27, 1986 — presumably he wanted to pick a time when everyone would be watching — the pay channel delivered Captain Midnight’s message instead of the scheduled movie:

Via WikipediaMan, we totally forgot how crappy TV looked in the ’80s.

HBO immediately relented from their disgustingly capitalist ways and became free for all satellite dish owners, and MacDougall was able to take an early retirement to spend some quality time with the obscene piles of money resulting from his satellite dish sales. Then he stopped daydreaming and received a $5,000 fine, one year of probation and a lifetime of being referred to by a nickname that sounds like something out of a comic book people would only buy if every last Marvel and DC title was sold out.


Ferris Bueller-ize Your School Records


As Seen In:

WarGames, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“I asked for a car, I got a computer — and hacking lessons.”

The Hollywood Hack:

Apparently casting directors in the ’80s looked at Matthew Broderick and thought “Now there’s a hacker if I ever saw one.” Because, you know, it was the ’80s — probably they had never seen an actual hacker before. And ever since watching Broderick adjust his grades in WarGamesand his attendance records in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, entire generations of slacking students have dreamed of how great it would be if “fixing” their transgressions were really as easy as sitting in front of a monochrome screen and making a few quick keystrokes.

But damn, hacking is hard in real life, and let’s face it: If these students were smart enough and enterprising enough to hack into a school’s computer system, then they probably wouldn’t need help with their grades in the first place.

Photos.com“OK, now rename the basketball team ‘Please Rub Your Penis on Our Faces’.”

The Real-World Hack:

But hey, this is America — land of the free, home of the outsourcing. As any American knows, it doesn’t get much easier than paying someone else to do it.

Several students at Palos Verdes High School discovered the wonders of outsourcing their nefarious activities when they paid a group of three high school juniors to do their hacking for them. The three entrepreneurial students had installed keystroke loggers on their teachers’ computers to intercept the teachers’ usernames and passwords, and then charged other students up to $300 a pop to hack in and bump up their grades by one letter.

But the award for student hacker with the brassiest balls would have to go to Tyler Coynerhere:

Via Daily MailApparently brass balls are a major cause of acne.

Coyner was running his own one-man grade-hacking ring at his Nevada high school, raking in the bucks by charging his classmates to bump up their grades. But when it came to adjusting his own grades, Coyner wasn’t satisfied with just any shitty little bump: He went and made himself the undeserved class salutatorian. Presumably he was going for valedictorian, but screwed up the math.

But of course the school administration discovered Coyner’s little stunt before it went too far, and the student who had genuinely put in the hard work to earn the honor took his proper place as the class salutatorian come graduation. Just kidding — here’s a video of Coyner’s acceptance speech:

“I changed for the better, learning what it meant to be a student at PVHS and taking initiative in completing assigned work … Well, sort of.” Yeah, this kid might just have out-Buellered Ferris Bueller.

For more Hollywood tropes that aren’t so outlandish, check out 7 Real Car Chases Way Crazier Than Anything in the Movies and 6 Real World Spy Gadgets Straight Out of the Movies.

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