Hollywood thinks that computers run on black magic and hackers are wizards. In movies, computers can blow up houses, shut down highways, release plagues and make Matthew Lillard appealing to women. However, our collective groaning about how laughably unrealistic these movies are may have been premature, because sometimes the real world of digital mayhem comes very close to sounding like the plot description of Swordfish 2: Travoltuna.
#6. A Logic Bomb Detonates Siberia
Remember how loud you shouted "bullshit" when the hackers in Live Free or Die Hard used their computer wizardry to ignite a bunch of natural gas pipelines? We do, too. Well, tuck your napkins into your collars and get ready to eat some exploding crow, because it turns out that that actually happened ... in 1982, six years before the Die Hard franchise was even a thing.
You see, the CIA under the Reagan administration found out that the KGB had been stealing technology from the West for years. In response, the CIA decided to feed the KGB a big, fat booby trap in what may be one of the first uses of a Trojan virus. They more or less had a list of things they knew the KGB was going to steal, so they added a special item to the mix: a piece of software used to help regulate gas pipelines. The CIA then dropped a "logic bomb" in the software and waited, trying not to laugh.
"Send a thousand large pizzas to Kamchatka. It'll be hilarious."
A logic bomb essentially makes a program switch to a different mode after running several million cycles (changing its "logic"). The pipeline software's logic bomb was set to go off after 10 million cycles. The KGB thieves weren't stupid -- they checked the stuff they were stealing -- but since the software appeared to be working fine, they brought it back to a pipeline in Siberia that extended into Western Europe, singing songs of their good fortune.
The program ran fine for a few months (the aforementioned 10 million cycles), but after that, it took the pipeline's pumps and compressors aside and told them, "Today is the day that we run a pressure test at dangerously high levels." After careful calculations, the CIA expected the pipeline to merely spring leaks all the way across Siberia. Clearly, they overestimated Soviet engineering.
"In Soviet Russia, pipes leak on YOU -- because of CIA meddling. Seriously."
In June 1982, American early warning satellites detected an extremely large blast in Siberia as the pipeline motherfucking exploded. The blast was 3 kilotons, or roughly one-fifth of the strength of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was "the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space," a phrase that here means "the most brain-shittingly awesome spectacle ever witnessed by the endless folds of the universe."
#5. A Laptop Brings the Department of Defense to Its Knees
While we're picking on Live Free or Die Hard, there is another scene where Bruce Willis' grandfather finds out that the bad guy was able to shut down NORAD with a laptop. And while tech-savvy audiences everywhere shared a hearty chuckle at the idea, it turns out you can totally do that. Holy shit, Die Hard 4 was a goddamned documentary!
"Your methods better be technically accurate, motherfu-"
Intensely classified American military computer networks were penetrated by a worm (a self-perpetuating piece of code armed with evil intent) dubbed Agent.btz, and all it took was someone stationed in Afghanistan inserting an infected flash drive into a laptop that was connected to the military's Central Command. From there, Agent.btz worked its way through numerous networks used to relay secret materials for the U.S. State and Defense departments, beaming information back to its unknown master.
The U.S. scrambled together a response team called Operation Buckshot Yankee (after a spirited round of Mad Libs) to isolate and remove the malicious code from the top-secret networks. The problem was, Agent.btz had the ability to scan a computer to look for data, then open backdoors to let itself out and into other networks, transmitting both the data and the backdoors back to its mysterious creator. It's like that guy nobody invited but who is supposedly someone's cousin, just creeping from house party to house party, texting his friends which garage doors are unlocked so they can come by later and steal power tools.
"No, I totally got invited here. Didn't you see my hat?"
Furthermore, Agent.btz mutated constantly, downloading new code to change its "signature" and evade detection. Just as older versions were being removed, newer and more complex variants of Agent.btz were appearing around the network, compromising both confidential and nonconfidential documents a year and a half after it first started operating, even with the full force of the U.S. government dedicated to tracking it down. It wasn't finally defeated until hundreds of machines were taken offline and reformatted, and thousands of infected thumb drives had been confiscated. Ah, come on! What's the worst that can happen? Oh, right. Giant explosions.
#4. Hackers Encrypt Medical Records and Hold Them Hostage
We're guessing that no hacker outside of a made-for-Lifetime movie has ever broken into somebody's system, then sent them a note made of letters clipped from magazines saying "iF YoU WAnt 2 sEe ur DAtA aGaiN U wiLL pAy US $50,000." No, something that chilling yet cornball could only happen in real life.
For instance, in July 2012, a group of hackers got into the computer networks of a medical practice known as the Surgeons of Lake County, stuck a proverbial flag in the ground and encrypted all that shit down. The practice's entire database of patient medical records and other sensitive documents was no longer accessible to anyone, completely shutting down the business. Then the hackers posted a digital ransom note to the medical practice, demanding an undisclosed amount of money for the release of the hostage information.
The medical practice shut down the server, records be damned, then contacted the police and notified their clients that their information had been compromised, because fuck ransoms.
"You're doing great. Now, just extend the middle one all the way out and point it at this webcam."
And they weren't the first victims of this sort of thing -- in 2008, the prescription-drug benefits company Express Scripts was sent an email with the Social Security numbers and prescription records of 75 customers, demanding an unspecified sum to keep the information secure. Of course, Express Scripts decided to put their customers' interests first and refused to pay, then emailed all 700,000 of their clients (remember, that's 699,925 less than the hackers had actually compromised) to let them know that their information had probably been stolen. We guess that's better than just giving in, although ideally there'd be some kind of computer code Liam Neeson you could call to deal with this kind of thing.