Diablog: Haxxors and Geekery in TV and Film


You gotta admit she did some things to our image of hacking.
You gotta admit she did some things to our collective imagination of hacking.

Gemma: Shall we to haxx0rs?

R: Yes. I was starting to make a list before our chat. As a techie, I notice haxxoring everywhere, IRL and in film/TV, and it often makes me grumpy because it’s being done SO BADLY. I’m curious how much it shows up on your grumpdar given that it’s not something you get paid to do.

G: It doesn’t show up on my grumpdar that much, tbh. The places where I note it most conspicuously have been Bones and Blindspot, wherein they represented the ultimate evil and the ultimate cartoon frenemy, respectively.

Cartoon gay man, no less.
Cartoon gay man, no less.

R: I could compare watching almost all portrayals of technology use on TV and in film to being in a classroom or conference presentation where the person at the front of the room can’t figure out how to get the projector to work but they have really grand ideas about what they want to do with technology.

G: I could believe that. There’s a way it reminds me of the writing of Kalinda in S4 of TGW. Like the writers have decided, every time, they don’t really have to figure out/learn how this really works to write about it.

R: Ahem ;). I have noticed a strong trend since Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original with Noomi Rapace, which is the only one!) for all haxxoring to be done by some young, sexually available one of the wimmins.

G: In service of teh menz? And yes to Noomi Rapace.

If the question is Noomi Rapace, the answer is always yes.
If the question is Noomi Rapace, the answer is always yes.

R: Or the other wymyns. Angela on Bones, Sophie on The Catch, Felicity on Arrow, the goth girl who is grown ass woman on NCIS. There are others I can’t even remember now because I haven’t been watching as much TV this year.

Her name is Abby, apparently.
Her name is Abby, apparently.

G: I’ve never seen Catch or Arrow, but are we differentiating at all between haxxor and expert technologist? Because I haven’t seen Angela use her skillz to violate any kind of protocol ever. And that’s been kind of part of my mental definition re: the players in this convo on TV.

R : Dude, she totally traces data origin, breaks encryption, and definitely was out haxxed by the Big Bad dude a couple of seasons ago (sidenote: I can’t remember what Pelant’s early serial killer nickname was, but I always think of him as The Archaeologist, like he and Bones’ forensic anthropologist are locked in a FATAL MORTAL DEATH MATCH about whether to look at cultural practice or artifacts).

An image search for Angela yields startlingly few photos of the Angelatron. For the record.
An image search for Angela yields startlingly few photos of the Angelatron. For the record.

Even as you say “violate protocol,” I think we run into part of the problem I see with technology dramatization: they have made up a whole new vocabulary which actually means nothing. The Martian, the movie touted for its “scientific accuracy,” has Kate Mara’s geek offer up her ability to “jump the code” when she reboots the space ship operating system. Girl, I think you will not be doing that because that is not a thing. So yes, there’s a difference between general geekery with tech and hacking/cracking to gain clandestine entry to systems or find exploits in hardware/software, but since TV/Film seem to not really understand much about either–much less the differences–I’m inclined to use the haxx0r term for all plot-related geekery.

G: Well, I am definitely the ignorant one in this conversation re: the actual workings of tech geekery, so there are ways in which I will have to step back. I do think there’s something to Angela’s lack of commitment to anything but aesthetics and conceptual geekery that matters here, though. And I suspect it’s true of many of the geeks on the gummint shows who work for the gummint. Patterson on Blindspot and the NCIS chick, for instance. In terms of how power is construed with reference to haxxoring.

She's just so sweet and innocent.
She’s just so sweet and innocent with all that surveillance.

R: Well, I will agree that Angela’s character overall fits with a pattern of female characters who geek and are much lighter in tone or existential rage than Lisbeth Salander. Dude haxxors are less likely to be well-adjusted: see Elliot on Mr. Robot and Huck on Scandal.

Not all that well-adjusted.
SPOILER: Not all that well-adjusted.

I’m not sure the connection you’re drawing out thematically, but I’m curious. What’s the relationship you see between lack of commitment/aesthetics of geekery and structural power and technology? In their fictional portrayals, at least.

G: I think that there’s a way that aesthetic geekery, like Angela’s or Patterson’s, is portrayed to be muted, because it just serves the power establishment and the way things are Supposed to Be. As you just demonstrated above, I, a critical viewer who just knows nothing about geekery, basically fell for it. When in fact skillz like theirs are the equal of Rich Dotcom’s or Pelant’s, so what’s portrayed as wrong is having a defined political or rebellious context in which your geekery takes place.

Or, you know, a straight-up super-evil context.
Or, you know, a straight-up super-evil context.

Also clearly gendered as I’m typing this, esp. given your comment above. Lisbeth Salander seems to be kind of the exception, in that she retains her rebel stance, but she does still end up serving law enforcement.

R: Yeah. I see what you’re going for. Media has given you a version of reality in which Haxxing Is Bad, therefore only Bad Guys* (*by Guys, yes only men) do haxxing while Good Girlz are generally just whizzes with this computer stuff.

Yeah, she just kinda gets it!
Yeah, she just kinda gets it!

Jeez, this is somehow flashing me back to all the 1950s/60s Disney shorts about The World of Tomorrow in which housewives are gliding around kitchens and homes full of the wildest automated gadgetry.

G: Yes, exactly.

R: Yeah, and Huck and Elliot don’t break that mold since they’re both kind of troubled and sometimes Bad.

Broodingly bad.
Broodingly bad.

G: Well, Scandal, for all the issues I have with it, is pretty good at muddying the moral waters well beyond what most procedurals are capable of. Can’t yet speak to Elliot.

R: Alright, I’ll toss you another that annoys me vs. one that is more obscure but worth it for the geeks out there to check out: Q in the Bond movies vs. Redford’s team in Sneakers.

G: I haven’t seen Sneakers, but speak on.

R: In the Bond film where they’re fighting Javier Bardem and his poison tooth in a problematically homoerotic/homophobic role–you know, THAT ONE: Q is haxxing desperately while a visualization of the network that looks like a red circulatory system hovers above him, gradually changing color as his time is running out. Battlestar Galactica actually has a similar “everything is turning red as it’s getting hacked!” trope.

It’s a TU-mah. Clearly.

G: Sounds more legit for Battlestar Galactica, given that its systems could basically be anything. But go on.

R: Hacking doesn’t work like that. There are no visualizations. If hacking were portrayed accurately on screen, it would be so so boring, just lots and lots of lines of typed commands on a black screen with white or green text. At least, that’s what the computer end of it would look like, which gets me to Sneakers: Most hacking involves social engineering: getting someone who has access to a system to do something they shouldn’t. Click on a link, share information over the phone or in person, visit a website, download a file. Sneakers is great at this, even though it is ancient in tech terms as a movie from the ‘80s.

I really wanted to use the French poster for this movie. Can't explain why.
I really wanted to use the French poster for this movie. Can’t explain why.

G: So, it’s all more like The Americans. That’s interesting.

R: Sneakers is perhaps more satisfying to me for its geekery, and for its cast (Poitier! Kingsley! Redford! Mary McDonnell! so many others!)

G: Okay, you’re def making me want to see it.

R: Human error is the most vulnerable exploit in any system, and that ish makes for great drama! It would also do viewers more justice in preparing for tech in their own lives.

G: Well, that’s compelling because I love The Americans, and by your description a lot of what they portray should be considered hacking or at least social engineering (in an ’80s period piece). And if we could make it work with the spy narrative in that frame, rather than make it this mysterious thing nobody except evil people and obscure geeks could every possibly understand, we’d get a lot more done.

R: Tell me how it’s like The Americans, which I haven’t watched. Is it that Real Spies are Very Boring?

G: I mean, it’s very dramatic, but it’s about how real spies play a long game and you don’t always understand how they’ll do it in the course of one episode, and how they need to fully inhabit the boring lives they live as cover, and how you start to identify with cover in different ways, and cool stuff like that.

They don't really look like that.
They don’t really look like that.

R: Yeah, that could be dramatic in terms of technology. I think about and am terrified by the long game of “smart devices” and the move toward everything being connected from your thermostat to your phone to your car. That ish is a long game played by corporations, and I’m not sure who it is really serving well. I should name-check Black Mirror as a show that, while it does not show haxxing much, is great at dramatizing technology’s medium-term consequences (the bee episode of the 2nd season does have a bit of haxxing). Hm, the absence of hacking/cracking in Black Mirror is making clear one of my gut-level reservations about the worldview of the show: no one rebels against technology at the level of the technology. And that is inaccurate to the world we know to exist.

G: I mean, I think you might have seen more of it than I have at this point, but the dramatic turn of the show as I see it is about the relationship between technology and social norms, and in the world we know to exist, the norms definitively go in the direction of everybody passively engaging the technology.


R: Yeah, I get the decision, but it’s clarifying to me to realize why it feels so incomplete. I’m someone who has actively engaged with building technology, so I already have caution about that possible future and am working against it. Maybe one day Black Mirror will take us out of the Matrix and run a whole season on haxxing for our humanity. Folks, you now have an assignment! Or maybe I just gave myself that assignment.

G: You should definitely take that assignment.

R: Anyway, to wrap up: if you want to see every worse trope about haxxing, watch the utterly TERRIBLE newish movie with Pierce Brosnan, I.T., which features a Skeet Ulrich doppelganger who has 6 monitors and plays thrasher music while typing shirtless in the dark. I mistakenly thought that the movie would cast Brosnan in the role of a hacker protagonist who was furloughed for being near retirement age. I was wrong. If you want to watch a movie about actual technology, even if it’s a bit dated and hung up in the tropes of the ‘80s even though it was made in 1992, watch Sneakers.

G: I will definitely be watching Sneakers.

R: And choose strong passwords, folks, because other part of boring haxxing stuff is using brute force databases of password combinations until they guess yours. Or just buy it on the black market after the Yahoo password theft. Sigh.

Public Service Links:

Consider using Diceware to generate strong passwords that are still possible to memorize.

  • https://www.rempe.us/diceware/#eff
  • http://www.dicewarepasswords.com/

And then maybe use a password manager so that you do have to remember them all and can change passwords anytime Target/GameStop/Yahoo gets haxxed.