The term “hacker” gets thrown around a lot these days.
While its definition—someone with an advanced understanding of computers, computing, and networks—is fairly simple, the application of the word is often misleading at best, and defaming at worst.
Your typical headline will read something like “Hackers Steal Millions from Such and Such”. This is an irresponsible blanket statement that groups good hackers with bad ones and paints a negative image. It wasn’t hackers that stole a bunch of cash; it was criminal hackers. And that mutual exclusivity is important.
The negative representation carries over to Hollywood and the TV industry as well. Rarely do they use the term “criminal hacker”. It’s always just “hacker”. And the good hackers are never the stars of the show.
Which leads us to our man, David Levinson (spoilers to follow). Played by Jeff Goldblum in the movie “Independence Day”, Levinson is an MIT grad working as a satellite technician in New York City when massive alien spaceships approach our planet. Levinson realizes they are using Earth’s satellites to communicate with each other and is able to decipher their data, revealing a countdown timer. When time’s up, the aliens attack and destroy entire cities with a single blow. With just hours on the clock, the human population is about to be eradicated.
Thankfully, Levinson has a plan. Let’s take a step-by-step look at how our Super Hero Hacker saved the world.
First, he discovered that the aliens were using our satellites to communicate, and he intercepted that communication. Basically, the aliens jumped onto a public WiFi network, like so many of us do every day, but failed to use a VPN to encrypt their traffic. Levinson simply did a little packet sniffing and found a hidden code within their communication. That code would lead to saving POTUS, and infiltrating the aliens’ network.
You would think these beings of advanced intelligence and technology would be smart enough to encrypt their data when carrying out a mission critical attack, but then again, you’d think all of us would be smart enough to utilize a VPN everywhere we go, which isn’t the case.
Next, with some help from his father and a little liquid encouragement, Levinson comes to the conclusion that the only way to attack, or at least neutralize the alien ships, was to infect the mothership (the main server) with a virus. He is, after all, an MIT graduate and has the knowhow. Developing malware was definitely in his wheelhouse.
Step three, Levinson and Captain Steven Hiller (played by Will Smith) use social engineering to gain access to the mothership. They disguise themselves in an alien aircraft (which has apparently been in human possession for decades) and begin their approach with Captain Hiller as pilot. The alien bosses gladly accept the aircraft without giving it much thought—not all that dissimilar to a spoofed email being accepted by your mail server and delivered to your inbox.
Step four, Levinson launches his malware. So this is basically a spear phishing attack in which the aliens—specifically the C-suites—are tricked into opening an email and exploring its contents. Levinson and Captain Hiller had already done enough research and knew they would be accepted by the aliens; the only thing left was to connect to their network and infect it with Levinson’s malware.
Step five, the malware attacks the main server and disables all shields of all alien aircrafts. In other words, our Super Hero Hacker launches a Denial of Service which prevents the aliens from protecting themselves. With their shields down, military personnel from around the world are able to take down the aliens’ massive ships one by one, effectively saving our planet.
There is, of course, a lot of debate over how Levinson’s PowerBook 5300 could have connected to the alien network, or even uploaded sophisticated malware considering his computer would have only had an 8MB hard drive. The counterarguments are actually quite simple.
First of all, let’s not forget that Levinson and Hiller actually dock with the mothership (after already being scanned). That is, they are hardwired at this point. In essence, they are an infected USB flash drive.
Once they’re docked, the mothership has complete control over the aircraft. Levinson already cracked the aliens’ code so it’s not unthinkable that he could have also figured out how to communicate with the ship’s computer. Keep in mind that even if the aliens’ weapons and means of travel were far more advanced than ours, they still needed our satellite system to communicate (perhaps to save fuel/power) and clearly computer security, or lack thereof, isn’t just an earthling problem: it’s a universal problem.
Regarding the size and computing power of Levinson’s Apple, the first instance of ransomware was developed back in 1989—six years before the aliens attacked—and was implemented with the use of eight inch floppy disks—max capacity 1.2MB.
(In a way, the aliens are a form of ransomware since they threaten to destroy irreplaceable data—major cities—and gave us a deadline before doing so. The fact that they never planned to hand over a decryption key and were going to destroy the data no matter what just means they were crappy cybercriminals.)
So again, size is not the issue here. Once the ship was docked, all it took was for the aliens to begin communication with the spacecraft and boom, just like clicking on a malicious link in a phishing email, their servers were compromised.
What’s the point of this exercise? Other than using one of the greatest cult movies of all time to serve as a metaphor for information security, the point is to demonstrate that for every Albert Gonzalez there are a thousand David Levinsons. It’s important to remember that hackers are the reason you can adjust your thermostat at home with your smartphone while on the road. Hackers are the people hired to penetrate networks and expose vulnerabilities, then come up with solutions to those vulnerabilities so that our personal and private data stays personal and private. In a world where nearly everything that was once analog or mechanical has been replaced with the Internet of Things or the cloud or massive data centers, the most likely future of warfare will be cyberwarfare—instigated, and executed, by cyberterrorists—meaning hackers might just be the ones needed to save our planet after all.
In short, they are people too. So the next time you see a clickbait headline or cliché narrative from Hollywood, just remember that David Levinson is the definition of what it means to be a hacker.
And with that, we’ll step away from the soap box to admire—one more time—the greatest POTUS speech ever:
FYI, “Independence Day” also happens to be our fearless leader and CEO’s favorite movie. If you want to learn more about cyber and information warfare check out some of his work:
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