I recently saw Blackhat and was pleasantly surprised. Though it suffers from the expected oversimplifications and sensationalism of an action movie, it’s clear that the film’s technology consultants steered the plot away from many of the genre’s usual pitfalls.
In some instances, Blackhat was right on point: the Bluetooth-enabled dead drops were not only realistic but have already seen some in use. The inclusion of actual Unix commands, rather than the gibberish we’re so used to seeing typed into green-text terminals, was a welcomed change of pace. Even so, a few plot points were so implausible as to be laugh-out-loud moments.
Magic computers made easy
While the Unix commands were real, their use cases in the film often veered toward the spectacular. The “whois” tool, for instance, is not nearly as effective in practice as it was portrayed (much to the chagrin of law enforcement everywhere). It’s also uncommon to see “bad guys” and “good guys” connect through something as visually convenient as Unix’s “talk” and “write” tools. The good guys and bad guys end up talking more often than you might suspect, but it’s usually facilitated through Internet Relay Chat (IRC), or, more recently, Twitter.
In the same vein, much of the film’s portrayal of digital forensics was highly simplified. Whether conveying the bad guy's whereabouts, the status of a wire transfer, or the password of an NSA employee, Blackhat relied on magical popups conveniently presenting the crucial nugget of information at just the right time. Unfortunately, actual investigations are far more cumbersome - and less conducive to the constraints of a Hollywood adventure.
Plot contortions and holes
The central plot in Blackhat was unnecessarily complex to the point of being ridiculous. In reality, a bad guy with the requisite sophistication to blow a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong and manipulate futures markets in Chicago doesn’t need to manipulate the copper market by flooding river valleys in Malaysia. Subtly influencing financial markets over time would prove far more profitable with less risk. On the other hand, the villain could have stopped at the first step and simply collected blackmail money from nearly every nuclear operator on Earth. Flooding the river valleys for monetary gain was unnecessary and just plain silly.
Equally fantastical are the abilities of the protagonist, who is both an accomplished hacker and a formidable martial artist. We geeks might dream of possessing that kind of prowess, but most of us were too busy installing Linux from floppy disks in high school to master the art of combat. There are always exceptions, of course, but finding a hacker with the skills to take out half a dozen armed opponents with his/her bare fists is… unlikely.
NSA “Black Widow”
The movie's most laughable point, however, was the extreme vulnerability of the NSA’s “Black Widow” program. Accessing the program over the Internet via a client in China (with no more than a username and password prompt, spear-phished from an NSA supervisor) is ridiculous. Any system that powerful or sensitive would not be accessible over the Internet, and would require much stronger authentication than a simple password prompt. Perhaps it was simply a plot necessity. But even at that, the not-so-subtle jab at internal NSA security in the wake of recent traitorous exfiltration by a notorious system administrator is a jarring departure from reality.
Despite the simplifications and misrepresentations, Blackhat made for an enjoyable two hours. No, it didn't make it to the Oscars. But the production team clearly worked to bring a sense of realism to the film’s subject matter, and they mostly succeeded. Many of the tools depicted behave very differently in the real world, but these kinds of simplifications manifest when any specialized field is thrust onto the silver screen. Even if Blackhat occasionally took some liberties, it was refreshing to see some truth infused in Hollywood’s portrayal of technology.