Image Credit: IMDB
If you were to boil down the 1995 film Hackers, it’s a “wired ride with teenage cybercowboys” claimed Joe Brown in a 1995 Washington Post article. On today’s show we’re joined by the Cato Institute’s own Aaron Ross Powell and Julian Sanchez, as well as Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We hope it inspires you to hack the planet.
Music by Cellophane Sam and Karl Casey @ White Bat Audio
00:00 Landry Ayres: Turning on the computer, microphone is on. Chumbawamba t-shirt, check. Reebok pumps, check. Why is my computer going so slow? And why did we have to record this episode over dial-up? Wait, what’s going on? Why’s my computer so slow? What… What’s going on?
00:27 Speaker: Hello, there.
00:32 Landry Ayres: Wait, who are you? What’s going on?
00:34 Speaker: No one of importance, but you can call me Speaker.
00:39 Landry Ayres: Wait, like the Lindsay Lohan, Jamie Lee Curtis movie?
00:42 Speaker: No, the Barbara Harris, Jodie Foster joint.
00:45 Landry Ayres: Oh, well, sorry, just… We’re actually talking about a different movie today, the 1995 film, Hackers.
00:52 Speaker: I know, I’ve set a wrath into your system, and now you little Pop & Locke script kitties are all mine.
01:01 Landry Ayres: But why do you care so much about our little show?
01:04 Speaker: I’m going to make an example of you. Now, all you’re listeners will know not to mock the most elite hack source, unless you tell them Hackers is the best film of all time.
01:14 Landry Ayres: Okay, I’m not sure they’ll believe it though, I mean…
01:18 Speaker: You will make them believe, or I’ll bring this entire thing down from the inside.
01:38 Landry Ayres: Welcome to Pop & Locke, I’m Landry Ayres.
01:41 Natalie Dowzicky: And I’m Natalie Dowzicky.
01:42 Landry Ayres: Joining us today to discuss the cinematic pinnacle of the 1990s are two returning guests to the show, director and editor of libertarianism.org, Aaron Ross Powell.
01:55 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you.
01:56 Landry Ayres: And senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Julian Sanchez.
02:00 Julian Sanchez: Hack the planet.
02:01 Landry Ayres: We also have a new guest on the show today that we’re very excited to be joined by, director of cyber security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Eva Galperin. Eva, thank you for joining us.
02:12 Eva Galperin: Thanks for having me.
02:16 Natalie Dowzicky: So, Aaron, I have just one question for you. Why in the world did you want us to watch this film, Hackers?
02:22 Aaron Ross Powell: Because it’s amazing, it’s an unbelievably great movie. No, I thought it was… It’s a fun time capsule of… I think it’s maybe the quintessential ’90s movie, like everything about the ’90s just boiled down, crystallized right there. And it gives a sense of kind of the way that, at this early stage of computing, like the internet was just becoming a thing, this is just when I think we were switching over to using the internet from the Halcyon Days of BBSs and the cultural… The way that the culture was wrestling with this, and the place of the people who were using computers, and the people who were scared of the computers. And it’s a fun, it’s a fun way to explore the way that things have changed in the cultural place of tech between now and then, and the way that they’re largely the same, but mostly just ‘cause it’s really fun and the clothes are great.
03:23 Landry Ayres: Eva, Julian, did you have a fond memory of this film upon re-watching it before this?
03:29 Julian Sanchez: Well… So, I’ll say, I know I saw it back in the late ’90s, or early, early noughts. But I didn’t remember that, I was in college. So, I… A lot of things I saw in college, I don’t remember that clearly at the time.
03:48 Julian Sanchez: But it definitely brought back kind of memories of my adolescence. So, when I was 12 and 13-year-old, years old, I went by Lord Cardboard and ran a dial-up BBS in the 201 area code, represent 201, and I subscribed to 2600 and Mondo 2000, and all that stuff. And so, I was very much conscious of that culture. So, I sort of enjoyed all of the little Easter eggs that were sort of throwbacks to elements of that time and place, and that environment of kind of semi-comical panic about teenagers crashing the world economy somehow, inadvertently.
04:41 Natalie Dowzicky: So, Julian mentioned a nice hacker name, and I was wondering if anyone else has hacker names of their own, or what their hacker name would be? Aaron?
04:52 Julian Sanchez: I should clarify, my online handle was Lord Cardboard.
04:56 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh sorry.
04:57 Julian Sanchez: I’m not admitting to any violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act…
05:02 Julian Sanchez: At any point in my life.
05:04 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh okay, gotcha. [laughter]
05:06 Aaron Ross Powell: Eva, were you in that scene at all as an impressionable youth?
05:14 Eva Galperin: A young adult? As a young adult, as a feral child.
05:15 Eva Galperin: I was a feral child on the internet. And this movie came out at a time when I was spending a lot of time online because I did not enjoy, what we call, my peers. And, at the same time, it… Well, the people who, on whom this was based, were people that I would later go on and meet, which I found very weird. So, at the time, I remember watching Hackers and going, “Oh, Penn & Teller, Hack the Gibson, the big red book that won’t fit on the shelf.” These are all things that I knew, but I was offended at how wrong it was [laughter] because it didn’t occur to me that there is nothing more cinematically boring than watching a bunch of teenagers with acne slam Mountain Dew and wait for scripts to finish running. And trying to explain what camaraderie was like on a BBS or in a forum was extremely boring compared to just like, “And now they’re all hanging out in this night club, playing video games.” So, yeah, I remember thinking that it was a very bad movie with a very good soundtrack.
06:32 Landry Ayres: I agree, I thought the music was really, really good. I really… I was pleasantly surprised based on what I thought about the rest of the movie so far, but I found myself really, really enjoying the music. So, I… You bring up an interesting point, Eva, about the way it sort of depicts what hacking and how hackers are. Do you think the movie… Does it, does it just get it wrong because it can’t get the… It can’t dramatize what the sort of culture of hackers really is and how it actually operates? Or do you think it is like a bad faith or, not even bad faith, but an inaccurate representation of the desires of hacking culture?
07:29 Eva Galperin: I think to some extent, it did a fairly good job of getting some of the essential bits of hacking culture across. The camaraderie, the sharing of secret knowledge; that sort of thing I think it really did a good job at. But in order to do that, it had to sacrifice a lot of the realism, which honestly would have been cinematically very, very boring. Watching people sit around in their basements, waiting for scripts to run and ordering pizza is, it’s just not very exciting. And trying to explain why this should be exciting to an audience that doesn’t even use the internet every day, and that isn’t used to the idea that your friendships are all formed online, and your friends groups are online, and the secret information comes to you from the internet. Trying to explain that to an audience that didn’t kind of live it every day, I completely understand why they made the choices that they did. But I can tell you the 12 year old me, deeply offended.
08:37 Julian Sanchez: I’ll say, the… Yeah, maybe the least plausible thing about it is, the premise that all these people, who are fairly high-level hackers, happened to all go to the same high school, which my recollection is, there were maybe one or two people… And I… Granted, I didn’t go to the sprawling Manhattan… I don’t remember if it’s supposed to be some kind of technical magnet school or something. But in general, I think, it was… You might eventually meet, in real life, some of the folks. You might… At the payphones at the Citi Bank or whatever in New York, where they have the 2600 meeting. But the idea that you would just sort of… There would be a kind of physical, social scene of hackers in the space of one particular high school was like, not the high school I went to certainly.
09:39 Julian Sanchez: I think bits of it, when they’re doing the social engineering stuff or the dumpster diving, the part where… You see a scene early on, where Jonny Lee Miller is calling someone up and feigning to be… He looked up the names in the company directory and saying, “Yeah, I know I need a… ” And he’s dropping names from other people in the company to make it sound like, “Yeah, of course, I’m an employee. I just, I need to read the number off the modem, so I can dial in,” is obviously done sort of comically, but that’s not wildly wrong, I don’t think. But yeah, when it comes to the actual hacking, it turns into Tron and they’re playing a kind of weird video game. Because, as Eva says, actually, just watching someone run a script or, is not particularly thrilling cinema.
10:39 Natalie Dowzicky: Well, I would also like to jump in there that, even if we didn’t… It could’ve been way more boring if it represented hacker culture correctly or accurately, I still thought the movie was relatively boring to begin with. [chuckle] So, this is the first time I watched this film. I know, gasp, I should be ashamed. But I just think… I just think with all of the unrealistic elements, the crazy CGI, all of that jazz, was added in an awful way. I don’t know what… I don’t know how else to describe it. But for a first watch, I did think it was boring, which makes it seem to me that what Eva was suggesting, that it could’ve been even more boring if it depicted hackers accurately, seems rather frightening, and I’m glad that they didn’t do that.
11:37 Landry Ayres: So, you’re telling me that computers are not just rooms full of lucite backlit columns…
11:44 Natalie Dowzicky: No.
11:46 Landry Ayres: With like matrix text scrolling on them that you then have to walk through and send equations through your mind in order to hack into that? I… That doesn’t sound accurate to me.
11:57 Eva Galperin: Is it even hacking if there aren’t weird trippy visuals?
12:02 Julian Sanchez: Before or after the actual hacking?
12:04 Aaron Ross Powell: As we’re mentioning hacking necessarily being somewhat boring, I think this is… We’re not talking about Mr. Robot today, but that seems like maybe the first and only instance, where they figured out how to make quite realistic hacking look cinematically really interesting. But you just have to do it in a very different way than the movie Hackers approaches it.
12:27 Eva Galperin: It’s also a very different audience. The people who are watching Mr. Robot, for the most part, have lived their lives online. You don’t have to explain to them that there’s an entire subculture, you don’t have to explain to them what the basics of social engineering are. You’re talking to a much more savvy audience.
12:46 Julian Sanchez: And I should say, hackers… So, for all that it’s again, Trons-out the hacking scenes, it’s full of some kind of delightful, little Easter eggs for folks, who are sort of familiar with that culture. The opening scene, where sort of the young Jonny Lee Miller, okay, he’s Zero Cool, is sentenced for releasing a worm, which accidentally crashes all these big financial [13:13] ____ is a nod to the Morris worm, which was a… Intended to be a security vulnerability demo by a Cornell grad student named Robert Tappan Morris, who was, as it happened, the son of an NSA cryptographer. But he had made an error in how often it would replicate, and so ended up causing quite a lot of damage by crashing a lot of computers in the nascent, late 1980s internet.
13:42 Julian Sanchez: One of the characters is a double, double reference. One of the characters, the one played by Matthew Lillard is, his name is Emmanuel Goldstein, which is, of course, the obvious references to 1984, but it’s also the pseudonym of the editor of 2600 Magazine, and his hacker name is Cereal Killer, which I assume is a reference to Robert Draper/Captain Crunch, who was a phone phreak from the, I think, the ’70s or ’80s, who was known for… He was called Captain Crunch because 2600, which is the name of a storied hacker magazine, is the tone in hertz that would, for a while in the, I guess, the ’70s and early ’80s, would let you essentially make free phone calls on payphones. It would drop trunk, it would basically trick the payphone into giving you a free line. And he discovered that you could use the whistle that was given out as a kind of free toy in boxes of Captain Crunch, and it happened to generate exactly this tone, so you could use this kind of breakfast cereal toy to get free phone calls.
14:52 Julian Sanchez: This is when it was… And getting online by modem if you were doing anything non-local was in fact extraordinarily expensive. I remember as a young adolescent, some awkward conversations with my parents about the phone bill I’d rung, I’d racked up by dialing into various BBSs around the country. So, it is peppered with these things that it doesn’t really make that much effort to hang a lampshade on, they’re just sort of there, and if you were so steeped in the hacker culture, or whatever, of that era, you kinda pick that up and go. They’re referencing Captain Crunch, they’re referencing Emmanuel Goldstein from 2600, but if you… It’s obviously aimed at a mass audience. So, if you don’t pick up those things it slides along and you don’t feel lost.
15:42 Eva Galperin: Interesting and obscure references that collided with my life later on. For example, there are references to Operation Sundevil. I was not of the generation of people, who got picked up in Operation Sundevil. But definitely a lot of the people that I learned my skills from had sort of early brushes with the FBI that were not very pleasant, got to do things like spend Christmas in jail. They also went and interviewed all the people at L0pht Heavy Industries in Cambridge. So, you have versions of various well-known L0pht personalities there. For example, the chain-smoking kid, Joey, is allegedly based on Joe Grand, who went by Kingpin, who now runs a fairly large hardware company called, I think, Kingpin Industries; made the… He made the badges at DEFCON for many, many, many years. And if you listen to them, they sound exactly the same, it’s actually kind of amazing.
16:55 Aaron Ross Powell: This makes me wonder though about the writing, the genesis of this movie because on the one hand, if you watch it, it looks like it’s a movie put together by people, who only know about computers from what they happened to see in other movies about hackers. But on the other hand, it’s filled with all of these kinds of references. And so, I just wonder, how much the nonsense of it was intentional, versus how much of it was… So, let me ask it this way: We’ve got… Did the writers go in and just read the names of a bunch of people and decide to drop them in? Or did they actually know what they were talking about, but decide to make this kind of off-the-wall, unrealistic bonkers set up for fun, or for marketing purposes, or for studio interference? Because it does, it does seems like it’s almost this kind of schizophrenic thing going on here.
17:58 Eva Galperin: My guess is that somebody in the studio said, “No one will understand this.”
18:03 Landry Ayres: Yeah, I do know in pre-production, there was… For instance, Kevin Mitnick served as sort of a consultant, briefly with some of the filmmakers and the cast and crew that went on. But I don’t know for sure how much of it was really pre-planned from before that.
18:25 Julian Sanchez: I got the sense that, at least the screen writer had done his research, it sounds like he had interviewed or hung out with hackers enough to have a sense of the real scene. But I think they probably correctly decided that you needed to… If you wanted this to be a mass audience film, you needed to spice it up, and have chases, and have weird, weird… And roller blading was key, it’s very hot. [chuckle] It is funny how… Aaron said earlier, how quintessentially ’90s this feels. They’re roller blading everywhere, the clothes are… If you said dress people ’90s, the kids all have the Nirvana posters and the bands of the era.
19:17 Eva Galperin: Cereal Killer is wearing a Velvet Underground t-shirt.
19:21 Landry Ayres: Oh, that’s right, yeah. He’s got the cover of Transformer, right, the Lou Reed, Transformer cover shirt.
19:27 Aaron Ross Powell: But that’s explained by… There’s the throwaway line in there about how his parents missed Woodstock, I think, and kept trying to make up for it because what was said, so.
19:35 Landry Ayres: And then…
19:37 Eva Galperin: Having grown up in that environment in San Francisco, that was the bit that rang the most true for me.
19:44 Landry Ayres: And then, at the very beginning, Zero, Zero Chill, or, I guess… Yeah, this is right before he decides to change his name to Crash Override. When he’s social engineering to get the modem number, he calls himself, what, Mr. Eddie Vedder, I believe, is what he says he is.
20:00 Julian Sanchez: Yeah.
20:00 Landry Ayres: So, it certainly is part of that.
20:06 Landry Ayres: One thing that Matthew Lillard’s character, Cereal Killer, says when Joey is kind of trying to talk himself up along with several of the other hackers at the club that they all attend, he’s trying to prove himself and they’re all shutting him down and he says, “What you gotta do is a righteous hack… “
20:30 Julian Sanchez: “To be elite,” if you wanna be elite.
20:32 Landry Ayres: “To be elite,” yes.
20:34 Julian Sanchez: Which you have to spell with a three, and a seven, and a…
20:37 Landry Ayres: Right.
20:38 Julian Sanchez: Yeah.
20:38 Landry Ayres: I was wondering, there was a part of me that thought, calling it a righteous hack, it came off to me as a sort of double-entendre. And I wondered if that was intentional, like was it very clearly that he was using ‘righteous’ as a synonym for cool, or was he… Was there some double-meaning that he’s saying that the hack you have to do has to be for some more highfalutin cause, righteous in its desire, and do you think that was intentional?
21:13 Eva Galperin: I think it was just used as a synonym for epic. It needed to be… It needed to be big, it needed to be flashy. It doesn’t necessarily need to go full Robin Hood, which I think is sort of implied in the term “righteous” but I’m not sure that that was on purpose.
21:33 Landry Ayres: And I think that sort of gets at something that Aaron had brought up before we started recording that he noticed, which was the reading of “The Conscience of a Hacker”. The manifesto that the cop is reading in the police car as they’re sort of investigating these hackers. What is… For those of us who aren’t familiar with that, what is the significance of including that in a sort of almost throwaway fashion?
22:02 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m gonna kick that question over to Julian and Eva, who are probably more familiar with the backstory. I was aware of Phrack Magazine, at the time, or I have been aware of. I was aware of it before seeing this movie, but I was not an avid reader. I did re-read, I will say. We’ll put a link to “The Conscience of a Hacker” in the show notes because it’s pretty great, it’s worth reading. But yeah, maybe one of you could speak to the ethos of the time or where that manifesto was coming from.
22:41 Julian Sanchez: Sure, yeah. So, this was a kind of, at the time, and the time meaning kind of the early ’90s, sort of legendary document penned by someone, who I think whose pseudonym was The Mentor, but became very current. If you had any kinda connection to that culture, you would probably read this at least once or twice. And in a way, was a kind of spiritual cousin to John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” in the sense that… So, it’s kinda a cri de coeur from a young man kind of defending hacking as this, fundamentally, as an act of curiosity and as something that’s part of… A way of finding a better world than is encountered in real life, where a lot of the… The tone of it, is it’s not just about what’s [23:37] ____ criminal, but why hacking and computer culture, again, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, is something that was appealing to a young, smart teenager.
23:50 Julian Sanchez: The idea that this is a place where… These online spaces, where your skill matters and not how attractive or cool you are, where computers provide this realm, where you can learn to write a program, and if it doesn’t work, it’s because you made a mistake, not because it doesn’t like you, or because you didn’t wear the right shirt. And so, in a sense, this simpler and purer realm. And articulating this idea that the desire to explore this space is something that should not be frightening or get people demonised. Again, we have to remember in the context of the late ’80s and early 90s, it was not uncommon to have government officials going on TV, talking about hackers the way they might talk about Satanists, basically, as this chilling threat that could bring down airplanes and shut down the power at any instant.
24:56 Julian Sanchez: And I think when we see that in the movie, it… So, there’s a… Listen, the other really great hacker movie of the ’90s, like objectively a better movie, Sneakers, with a whole incredible cast: Robert Redford, and Ben Kingsley, and Sydney Poitier, and Dan Aykroyd. But that one begins with a couple of young ’60s radicals hacking into financial institutions to make… Stealing money, but to make donations to various worthy causes; the NAACP or the environmental groups or whatever it was. And so, they then get busted, but it’s clear that the… In terms of righteous hacks, this is something they’re doing with some kind of social mission to it.
25:48 Julian Sanchez: And the initials, or the hacking we see in Hackers, after the Morris worm scene, is Dade or Zero Cool or Crash Override busting into a TV station to put cheesy… Cheesy, old sci-fi movies on the late night television, and then getting into this comical fight with, who we later discover is Angelina Jolie or Acid Burn, who is trying to kick her out. Not because she is trying to do something else, but because this is her turf, and he’s now hacked into a machine that he hacked… She hacked first. And so, they have this sort of test of skill over who’s gonna get to control this system. And there’s just obviously no deep sort of social purpose to it, it is something they’re doing because they want to explore. They don’t… They’re not going there to put on socially-conscious public service messages, they’re exploring and trying to find out what they can do, which, of course, makes a lot more sense for teenagers, I think.
26:53 Julian Sanchez: There isn’t this sense that… Well, there’s some higher purpose to what they’re doing until the end when, of course, they… They are hacking the planet in trying to save us. But even there, the upshot of this movie, the… If there’s a moral sort of to the movie, it is about the power of this sort of misfit community. It’s funny because where at the end, they ultimately succeed, not because or not just because the protagonists have the best hacker skills and beat the bad guy in a Tron contest, but because these, I guess, pirate TV personalities, who run a hacker show have sent out a call, and so hackers all over the world. And we cut to Japan, and Italy, and other places, where people are helping out by doing their own little bit of hacking from afar.
27:56 Julian Sanchez: And so, I think the ultimate idea here, is… Yeah, there’s the short-term cause by the end of stopping the bad guy, he’s gonna capsize some ships, so you can steal money from a company in a kind of elaborate plot with Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos. But rather that, “Hey, it turns out, there’s this global community that is… Doesn’t just stop at the people you physically know at the high school you all attend.” And when the call goes out, they do all show up, they all pitch in, and not necessarily even because it’s the right thing to do to protect their own, to stop this bad guy, but because they are a community and they protect their own.
28:46 Eva Galperin: Can we talk about Mr. The Plague? So, one of the big differences between watching this movie as a teenager or pre-teen, and watching this movie as an adult, is that the first time around, you start by relating to all of the kids in high school and you’re part of your little gang and you’re running around on your roller blades. And then, we all grow up to become Mr. The Plague. We all grow up to be… Grew up to become what were sys admins, and then security people, and these are jobs now that people go to to make a living and they don’t build their entire personality around it anymore.
29:30 Eva Galperin: And I think that that really speaks to a shift, which got much more extreme after this movie in the information security industry. Information security, well, to begin with, didn’t used to be an industry, wasn’t actually a thing. Your hackers were mostly teenagers, they were largely unemployed and they were doing things for fun; and those people grew up and started security companies. They started L0pht Heavy Industries, and @stake, and F-Secure, and Lotus Security, and they’re the adults in the room now, they’re not necessarily capsizing ships in order to make money. But the idea of who is a hacker, I think, has really changed since the ’90s. And there was something so wonderfully pure about the notion that you take all of these skills and you just use them to have fun, instead of, you take all of these skills and you use them to make money, or to figure out how to destroy the hotel or taxi industry, or something like that. And that’s not a thing that we really talk about a lot anymore because the whole notion of who a hacker is has changed so much.
30:58 Aaron Ross Powell: Puts me in mind of a line from another great Matthew Lillard movie, SLC Punk! , where is dad says to him… They’re having the argument about, “You’re not punk anymore, Dad.” And his dad says, “I didn’t sell out, I bought in,” [chuckle] and that’s, to extent, what you’re describing.
31:14 Julian Sanchez: Well, I was gonna say, of course, to be right, to the extent we have paranoia about hackers now. It is definitely not some, oh, teenager with dark arts we don’t quite understand, might do something crazy as a prank. It’s the well-trained and well-paid members of the foreign intelligence service, might do something as part of a coordinated attack, sponsored by a foreign state. That’s the… Or some well, very sophisticated criminal organization. So, it seems like the nature of the perception of the bad hacker has very much changed, because the world has changed, of course, in part. But I feel like we don’t hear, in the same way at all now, about, “Well, what might some teenager do?” It’s, “What might a Russian intelligence officer or a Chinese intelligence office do?”
32:16 Aaron Ross Powell: And that brings up something that struck me watching this, and it’s not unique to hackers, but to this, call it roughly cyberpunk genre in general of the computer criminals, versus the man sorta thing, is who the bad guys are. Because if we go back to “The Conscience of a Hacker” manifesto, the part that’s read, the two Secret Service agents sitting in their car and the one’s reading it to the other. The part that’s read in there is, on one hand, is very subversive because he says, “We exist without skin colour, without nationality, without religious bias, and you call us criminals? You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals?” And the “you” in that, given the list of things, that’s the atomic bombs and so on, the “you” is states, is governments. The governments are the ones branding them as criminals, and yet we have, like in this movie, for example, the bad guys are these corporate actors. And yes, there’s government agents who are coming after them, but the government agents are dupes, they’re just pawns of the corporate actors.
33:32 Aaron Ross Powell: And in all of the… In the earliest cyberpunk and on through, it’s always the evil corporation. But as you’re saying, Julian, right now, the threat of the hackers right now… Yeah, there’s the people who break into Target to steal our credit card numbers and whatnot, but it’s state… It’s foreign intelligence, it’s state actors. And so, why is it that the ethos of the time, the ethos of these stories of hackers, whether it’s this movie in 1995, or Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, or even, say, going all the present, Mr. Robot, the bad guys are the corporations, and it’s not… Governments, typically, are the ones that are the real threat, or the ones that need to be taken down. And just one thing I might posit, is it does seem like maybe there’s… And this shows up in Hackers very clearly, that governments are too bumbling, or too ignorant about this stuff to genuinely be bad guys in this space.
34:33 Eva Galperin: Ah, the basis of my entire career.
34:38 Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I think that’s right. Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk on The Wire, is the kind of lead secret service agent, and yeah, he’s portrayed throughout as someone who is not actually himself particularly technically skilled, isn’t confronting them on their own terms, is part of spreading fear about ominous hacker peril, but more comic relief than the serious… The serious threat, right, is the ex-hacker, or the, I guess, still a hacker, corporate guy, The Plague, Fisher Stevens. So, yeah, and I think that’s probably right, Aaron, the perception that, if you want a contest of equals, this is, certainly at the time, you are not gonna find the most skilled technical people working for the government. Maybe you would at NSA, but not at an agency with domestic law enforcement responsibilities. They were the ones trying to figure out what all these blinking lights did.
35:42 Natalie Dowzicky: Well, there is also a point in the movie too where the hackers were described as… They used the word, specifically, “terrorists,” I believe. It’s in one of the news briefings that the Secret Service does. And I thought it was interesting because obviously, this movie came out pre-9/11, and our perception of terrorists has obviously changed since then. But I just thought it was interesting, the way they were painting the hackers as very dangerous. And I’m sure that was playing into hacker, let’s say, phobia of the time, as we’ve all been hinting at. But how has that hacker phobia changed to the point where now, it’s… Like Aaron was hinting at, that it’s other foreign governments that we would consider the biggest threat is now cyber terrorism. So, I’m just, I’m a little con…
36:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Or our own government.
36:34 Natalie Dowzicky: Or our own government, right. I’m a little confused on how we made that giant leap.
36:39 Eva Galperin: The APT1 report.
36:41 Landry Ayres: For those of us who wouldn’t familiar know that, can you explain what that would be?
36:45 Eva Galperin: Sure. So, this was like 2011, 2012, please don’t quote me, and a security company, I’m fairly certain it’s Mandiant, came out with a report about how Chinese government actors had been trying to break into the New York Times. And they were particularly interested in unmasking the sources of several stories about all kinds of backroom dealings and corruption within the Chinese government. And it is my understanding that they were not looking to unmask the identities of these people in order to bring them milk and cookies.
37:28 Eva Galperin: So, this was, as far as I know, the first time that a government or government-aligned set of actors were identified as an advanced persistent threat, APT, were given a number, one, because they are the first, were identified, like, “Here’s where they work, here’s the building they’re coming out of. Here they are, you can see them working 9:00 to 5:00.” And that really changed people’s perceptions, not only of who hackers were, but of what hackers wanted to do. People in journalism prior to then, didn’t consider people breaking into their accounts to be one of their… The biggest and most looming thing in their threat model. And when I started doing things like writing surveillance self-defense, one of the very first things the EFF did was, we concentrated a lot on how to defend journalists and how to help journalists and activists learn to defend themselves against these state-sponsored threats, and that was because nobody had been thinking about that before.
38:32 Natalie Dowzicky: But I also had kind of a more fun question. Who is the most famous real-life hacker?
38:37 Julian Sanchez: Probably Kevin Mitnick.
38:39 Landry Ayres: That’s the name that comes to my mind, as someone who’s not… [chuckle] Would not say that they’re well-versed in hacker knowledge, but that is the one that I’m certainly much more aware of.
38:51 Aaron Ross Powell: His is certainly the last trial of a single hacker that I remember being big news.
39:00 Eva Galperin: Ross Ulbricht.
39:00 Landry Ayres: Yeah, Ross… And that’s the thing, is I… You bring that name up, I don’t think of Ross Ulbricht conceptually as a hacker, necessarily, which is, I think, an interesting distinction. You could also say… Someone could consider Aaron Swartz a hacker, necessarily, and who is very well-known for what went on when he went into JSTOR’s databases and everything. But I think, like you said, Eva, the concept of what a hacker is and wants has shifted who we consider to be both a threat and who earns that label.
39:42 Julian Sanchez: Somewhere up there might be Kevin Poulsen, not necessarily because he was so famous for his hacking, but because he then went on to be a somewhat prominent journalist for Wired, and then the, I think, Daily Beast, so.
39:56 Eva Galperin: Well, do you wanna argue that Julian Assange is the world’s most famous hacker?
40:01 Julian Sanchez: Oh, yeah.
40:02 Eva Galperin: It’s that guy.
40:04 Julian Sanchez: But again, I guess, it’s one of those… What he’s famous for is not really the hacking, exactly, right, it’s the…
40:09 Eva Galperin: Yeah, they’re trying to nail him on the hacking.
40:11 Julian Sanchez: It’s true. Well, okay, true, although somewhat spuriously in the… [chuckle] But, I mean, the actual charges signifies that he agreed to help crack a password that it sounds like he didn’t succeed at. So, I don’t know. Is that hacking? I don’t know.
40:25 Natalie Dowzicky: So, a famous failed hacker, maybe?
40:31 Julian Sanchez: Well, he’s definitely… Not to…
40:35 Julian Sanchez: You be careful. He’s gonna cut into this stream when we’re podcasting and…
40:39 Aaron Ross Powell: I bet he’s got a lot of opinions about 1995’s Hackers, too.
40:43 Eva Galperin: I think it’s very clear that Julian Assange was influenced by Hackers, by this whole idea that the people at the bottom, that the cyberpunks were going to influence global events, and were going to go head to head with the instruments of state. And I’m not about to say that went out well, [chuckle] but it was definitely an influence in there.
41:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Does that… Though, that makes me think. And this might tie back, Eva, to your point about becoming the adults in the room, is… So, a lot of people who were in that scene went on to become cybersecurity people themselves, but it does seem like the ethic of it, of exploring ways to… As the hacker manifesto lays out, to establish these other worlds, free from the control of governments and free from the social rules that made a lot of these people uncomfortable in high school and so on, has shifted that it’s less now about breaking into stuff, trying to figure out if you can make free payphone calls and so on, or dumpster dive for passwords. And more that it’s now shifted to building things that enable more people to, themselves, escape from these systems of control. So, I’m thinking about… Like the crypto community has that kind of ethic, but it’s less about breaking into stuff, it’s more about building new things, or people who are building encrypted messaging services, or other systems that would enable all of the rest of us to live these protected lives from surveillance and control. Is that accurate at all? Is it the same? It seems like the same ethic has moved into building, versus breaking in.
42:41 Eva Galperin: I think people are still breaking in. If you… Go Google, “Zoom vulnerabilities for this week.”
42:47 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, sure.
42:49 Eva Galperin: I think the primary difference is that it used to be that encrypted messaging, email, the online chat, the digital currency; that these were all things used by people on the margins, by geeks and nerds, and by people who expected to be thrown into lockers by jocks, and that’s not the case anymore. We are the grownups, we are the adults in the room, and we have a level of responsibility that we absolutely did not have in the early ’90s to use that power well. And some people have, and some people did not.
43:31 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah, I would… I completely agree with that, what Eva was just saying. So, we’re about wrapping up here. Does anyone else have any other thoughts on Hackers before we move into our little Locked In segment about what we talk about other media we’ve been consuming? Were there anything about… Was there anything about Hackers we didn’t get to hit on that we still want to?
43:53 Julian Sanchez: Actually, the last thing I would say is, just to leapfrog off that, is it’s interesting to me that, in a sense, Plague, the Fisher Stevens character, seems more… He seems basically on the spectrum somewhere, clearly. He’s got a kind of Nietzschean speech about how he doesn’t have friends, only temporary allies, and, “Do we wanna be allies?” But the main protagonist couple here are extraordinarily, Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie; extraordinarily attractive, white people who, it seems like, probably, in any real social environment, would not be… Who are very cool, and going to clubs, and roller blading around, and are… You go, “Well, how alienated are these people, plausibly, really?”
44:45 Julian Sanchez: And you have some other, interestingly, diverse cast. You have the phone phreak, who’s a Latino actor, who’s coded… I don’t think it’s explicit, but he’s coded queer in the way he presents in the film. But otherwise, you get the sense that, “Well, how marginal… Are these guys actually that marginal-seeming? They don’t seem like that. Wow, they seem quite popular, and they’re going to clubs, and they’re having a grand old time in physical space.” And so, to some extent, one of the things that I think is missing from Hackers is the sense of, that these are people for whom an online world in which they can feel more comfortable is something that would be necessary and appealing. Again, you gotta sell the movie tickets.
45:39 Aaron Ross Powell: It doesn’t match my experience as a 14-year-old, hanging out at friends’ houses on BBSs at all. None of us were that cool.
45:46 Eva Galperin: I’m still not that cool.
45:47 Natalie Dowzicky: Me neither.
45:49 Landry Ayres: We’re all that cool, guys. Look at us now, on a podcast, talking about 1995’s Hackers. We’ve made it.
46:02 Natalie Dowzicky: Alright. [chuckle] So, now we’ve come to the part of the show where we get to explore what other media we’re all consuming lately that’s not Hackers. This is Locked In. So Aaron, Eva, Julian, what are you locked into now?
46:17 Eva Galperin: Well, I have just… I’m watching two almost entirely identical shows right now about cyberpunk dystopias because I don’t get enough of that in my regular life. [chuckle] And so, I’m watching season three of Westworld, and I really hope that whoever is writing Westworld these days is just taking enormous bags of money and leaving them on William Gibson’s doorstep. [laughter] It’s… Here, we know we owe you money, take this money.
46:46 Landry Ayres: Yeah.
46:48 Eva Galperin: And then, I started watching Devs on Hulu, which has a whole lot of very similar themes and starts with the people working for some potentially weird and evil company that has managed to muddle all of humanity, while living in a Victorian in San Francisco and taking what is pointedly not a Google bus to somewhere in the South Bay. And it feels both very familiar and also, is this what our lives look like to people outside?
47:25 Julian Sanchez: So, TV, my partner and I, we’ve been watching The Magicians, the sci-fi series based on Lev Grossman’s novels, which is now in its final season, as well season three of Westworld. I just started to Doom Eternal, the game, and I’m intending to finish, Control, another kinda shooter game, and it’s sorta inspired by the X-Files and a little known sci-fi miniseries called The Lost Room from the early noughts. And also…
47:57 Landry Ayres: Oh, I love The Lost Room, it’s so good.
48:00 Julian Sanchez: Well, the game, Control, is obviously lifting a lot of it’s ideas from there. And a game I started a while back called Return of the Obra Dinn, which is a great kind of detective mystery game off Steam that is, that I think that is on the Switch now, too, but is quite good. And then reading, aside from the kind of boring stuff I read as a surveillance person, I just got through the first book of Richard Kadrey’s, “Sandman Slim” series, which is a kind of noir urban fantasy. I am reading “A History of Opera” by Carolyn Parker and Roger-something, and I just started NK Jemisin’s, “The City We Became”. And so, enjoying the “Sandman Slim”, they’re kind of light, fun, frivolous stuff, but we need a little something light these days.
49:00 Aaron Ross Powell: I am sheltering in place with three young children in a small house, and so my media consumption has been rather less than I would like it to be. But I guess I am binging two different things. So, first, my 10 year old daughter recently discovered Doctor Who. So, I’m re-watching all of the new Doctor Who with her. We’re into… We just wrapped up the first season of David Tennant, and that has been quite fun, not just because the show is quite fun, and I always forget how just kind of relentlessly charming it is, but also just watching my daughter really get into Doctor Who and become entirely obsessed to the point where, don’t tell her, but she… So, she has a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I just ordered her the Doctor Who role-playing game, which should be here whenever Amazon feels like it, so she can kick into that with her friends. So, that’s been a lot of fun.
50:00 Aaron Ross Powell: And then, on my own, almost all of the 55 volumes of Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels are free on Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library. So, I have been making up for lost time on those, and those are just probably the best police series of police novels ever written, and wonderful as time capsules, the first one was published in 1956, and they go all the way through to, I think his death in 2005 or 2006. And so, just the changing nature of American society and attitudes towards police. And they also feature the, I think, the best dialogue, the side of Elmore Leonard.
50:49 Landry Ayres: So far in quarantine, I have been locked into… I just started Killing Eve…
50:56 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, so good.
50:58 Landry Ayres: Which is… I really enjoyed it. I’ve only seen about three episodes so far, but I’m hoping to delve into that a little bit more. Been re-watching Arrested Development, just as sort of a comfort watch. I also, speaking of Dungeons and Dragons, Aaron, have started a new, a second Dungeons and Dragons campaign with some friends. And my brother specifically set in Wildemount, which is the new setting that Wizards of the Coast just released in partnership with Matthew Mercer and Critical Role. So, I got my explorers guy to Wildemount Campaign Guide and have been sort of perusing through that and trying to learn about this whole setting and sort of craft my own story for my players to go about in during that. I also, game-wise, have been… I’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing, New Horizons…
51:56 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh my God.
51:56 Landry Ayres: On my Switch.
51:57 Natalie Dowzicky: Stop.
51:58 Landry Ayres: I’ve been farming pears and cherries and I am operating on an entirely bug sale-based economy on my island, I’ve been selling a lot of bugs to the little store in town.
52:12 Julian Sanchez: Actually, you reminded me that my Call of Cthulhu group has not met since the quarantine began, but we were on the verge of starting Masks of Nyarlathotep, which is a kind of a sprawling Call of Cthulhu campaign. And now that everyone’s actually kind of stuck at home… Well, it was always kind of difficult to schedule a bunch of adult professionals to meet up, but as long as we can do it over Roll20 or Zoom, maybe now is the time to finally get into that when everyone is sort of stuck without a lot of other physical presence obligations.
52:46 Landry Ayres: I also have also been wanting to get back into Return of the Obra Dinn, which you mentioned, Julian. I have it on Steam and I played several hours of it, and then got busy and had to put it down, but I need to return to it. And I also have been reading, I just started “Killers of the Flower Moon”, which is about a series of murders in, I believe, Oklahoma and the birth of sort of the FBI, I believe, which is a fascinating story, a true crime, but not necessarily as gruesome as some other true crime stories tend to be. So, that’s what I’ve been enjoying.
53:26 Natalie Dowzicky: For me, I’m also a huge Westworld fan, so I’ve been keeping up with the recent season. I also watched all of Tiger King in one day, I was pretty proud of myself for that. [chuckle] And then, on the reading front, I finished “Where the Crawdads Sing”, and I started a new book called “Ghost Wars” by Steve Coll; it’s a non-fiction book about the war in Afghanistan. It’s very interesting. I don’t really do much gaming, but I think by the end of this, Landry may or may not convince me to start playing Animal Crossing, especially if I have to be stuck at home for much longer.
54:05 Landry Ayres: Come to my island, Natalie. Come visit me in my tropical paradise.
54:10 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah. One of these times, I’ll just give in, [chuckle] maybe when it’s raining.
54:13 Landry Ayres: I have every type of fruit. [chuckle]
54:16 Natalie Dowzicky: So, that’s kind of what I’m into. I don’t really… I’m not really into too many TV shows right now, except for my normal ones, like Westworld, like I already said, so that’s what I’ve been locked into. Oh, oh, and puzzles. [chuckle] That doesn’t count as media, but I’ve been really into puzzles. [chuckle]
54:32 Speaker: There, now all will know not to mock the most elite hackers. Now, to just spoof a different IP as I make my way out of the system. What, what’s going on?
54:52 Landry Ayres: Not so fast, Speaker. Or, should I say, Aaron Powell?
55:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Hey, Landry…
55:00 Landry Ayres: Enough. You thought you could get us to watch one of your favorite movies, and you succeeded. Well, you’ve got another thing coming if you think you’re getting away with this one. Computer, execute command, elite override. Ah, much better.
55:22 Landry Ayres: Thanks for listening. If you liked our show today or have your own feelings about this cinematic classic, make sure to follow us on Twitter @PopnLockePod. That’s Pop, the letter N, Locke with an E, Pod. Make sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. We look forward to unravelling your favorite show or movie next time. Pop & Locke is produced by me, Landry Ayres, as a project of libertarianism.org. To learn more, visit us on the net at www.libertarianism.org.