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 ...

#5. 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.

"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.

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.

#4. 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.

"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?

#3. 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.

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