Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Careers & People

2/23/2015
10:00 AM
Jeff Schmidt
Jeff Schmidt
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail vvv
100%
0%

Blackhat, The Movie: Good, Bad & Ridiculous

It didn't take home an Oscar, but in some instances Blackhat was right on point. Still, a white-hat hacker with the skills to take out armed opponents?

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.

Image: IMDb
Image: IMDb

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.

Jeff Schmidt is the founder and CEO of JAS Global Advisors LLC and a two-decade veteran of the information security industry. With a unique blend of technical expertise and business savvy, Jeff has consistently shown results architecting and delivering security and risk ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
GonzSTL
50%
50%
GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
2/24/2015 | 9:24:14 AM
Re: a renter...
I'm in the hacker martial artist camp. I'm not sure that was too fantastic in the movie; the good guy, after all, is Thor, right?
Thomas Claburn
50%
50%
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Ninja
2/23/2015 | 7:30:15 PM
a renter...
The movie sounds better than I expected. I confess to not having high hopes for it, despite Michael Mann's track record. Too often hacking is treated like magic -- it's just something that works to drive the plot along. 

I wonder about your assumption that hackers and martial arts don't go together. I'm aware of a few accomplished computer security people who have trained in a martial arts. I suspect it's a more common set of interests that you suggest. (Of course martial arts isn't anything like the way it's depicted on film, where the level of physical punishment people take and inflict is absurd.)
News
US Formally Attributes SolarWinds Attack to Russian Intelligence Agency
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  4/15/2021
News
Dependency Problems Increase for Open Source Components
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  4/14/2021
News
FBI Operation Remotely Removes Web Shells From Exchange Servers
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  4/14/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-31547
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-22
An issue was discovered in the AbuseFilter extension for MediaWiki through 1.35.2. Its AbuseFilterCheckMatch API reveals suppressed edits and usernames to unprivileged users through the iteration of crafted AbuseFilter rules.
CVE-2021-31548
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-22
An issue was discovered in the AbuseFilter extension for MediaWiki through 1.35.2. A MediaWiki user who is partially blocked or was unsuccessfully blocked could bypass AbuseFilter and have their edits completed.
CVE-2021-31549
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-22
An issue was discovered in the AbuseFilter extension for MediaWiki through 1.35.2. The Special:AbuseFilter/examine form allowed for the disclosure of suppressed MediaWiki usernames to unprivileged users.
CVE-2021-31550
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-22
An issue was discovered in the CommentBox extension for MediaWiki through 1.35.2. Via crafted configuration variables, a malicious actor could introduce XSS payloads into various layers.
CVE-2021-31551
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-22
An issue was discovered in the PageForms extension for MediaWiki through 1.35.2. Crafted payloads for Token-related query parameters allowed for XSS on certain PageForms-managed MediaWiki pages.