15 Fun Facts About Hackers

Hackers is turning 20. The movie, which stars Angelina Jolie, is about a group of hackers framed for a conspiracy involving embezzlement and a red herring computer virus. While not exactly Oscar-winning material, Hackers is still beloved by many for its dramatic—and sometimes silly—portrayal of hacking and hacker subculture. Here are 15 things you might not know about the film.

1. It was Angelina Jolie’s first leading role in a major film.

Jolie plays Kate Libby, a.k.a. Acid Burn, a hardcore hacker who also happens to be gorgeous and wear tight-fitting clothes. And thus a thousand fantasies were born. Katherine Heigl was offered the role first, but was already scheduled to make Under Siege 2. The studio also reportedly considered Liv Tyler, Hilary Swank, and Heather Graham before giving the part to Jolie. She has complained that the movie typecast her to play “tough women with guns, the kind who wear no bra and a little tank top.” 

2. Jolie and co-star Jonny Lee Miller got married 6 months after the movie.

Miller, who plays Dade “Crash Override” Murphy, met Jolie on the set of Hackers. Both were newcomers to Hollywood and would soon become famous. (Miller was in Trainspotting.) They were married in 1996. According to The New York Times, Jolie wore “black rubber pants and a white shirt with the groom's name written in her blood across the back.” She wrote his name herself with a needle. They were divorced in 1999.

3. The eclectic cast includes Penn from Penn and Teller.

Penn Jillette plays a character named Hal, a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other cast members include Lorraine Bracco from The Sopranos, Fisher Stevens from The Grand Budapest Hotel, Matthew Lillard from Scream, Wendell Pierce from The Wire, and Jesse Bradford, the hot brother in Bring It On. Felicity Huffman has a small part as a lawyer, and Jennifer Lopez’s ex Marc Anthony plays a Secret Service agent.

4. The Gibson computer is a nod to William Gibson.

The unhackable computer mainframe is called the Gibson after the author William Gibson. The movie draws heavily on the cyberpunk world of Gibson novels like Neuromancer. He also coined the term “cyberspace.”

5. The “hacking” scenes weren’t made with computers.

The computer sequences in the movie are swirly, psychedelic graphics or Tron-like cityscapes. Ironically, director Iain Softley used “conventional methods of motion control, animation, models and rotoscoping” to make these images instead of computer technology. “Computer graphics alone can sometimes lend a more flat, sterile image,” he said.

6. The plot is similar to Superman III.

The movie’s villain, Eugene “The Plague” Belford, writes a program that embezzles small amounts of money from the company at a time, thus amassing millions of dollars in a secret bank account. He tries to distract from his crime by framing the hackers with a computer virus set to capsize an oil tanker. The embezzlement-by-increments plot is called “salami slicing.” In Superman III, Richard Pryor’s character does the same thing. 

7. Emmanuel Goldstein references 1984—and a hacker.

One of the hackers is named Emmanuel Goldstein, who is a character in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It’s also the pen name of the publisher of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. Screenwriter Rafael Moreu hung out in the 2600 offices in New York while researching the script. He interviewed real hackers, including Goldstein and Mark Abene, a.k.a. Phiber Optik, who’d spent time in prison for hacking.

8. Phone phreaking is a real hack.

The characters in the movie are shown hacking pay phones almost as much as they’re seen on computers. This is a real category of hacking called phone phreaking. For example, a person would play tones with the same frequency phones use to communicate, thus tricking the switch and getting free calls. 

9. Dade uses Eddie Vedder’s name in a social engineering hack.

Social engineering is when a hacker manipulates a person, such as a company employee, to get information to access a computer system. In the movie, Dade tricks a security guy by introducing himself as “Eddie Vedder from accounting” and asking him to read a number off a modem. Vedder, of course, is the lead singer of Pearl Jam. 

10. Rollerblading is a major part of the movie.

Hackers gives a glimpse into the brief period of time when rollerblading was cool. All the characters rollerblade in the movie, which makes them appear to hover and float through the scenes. The Plague, on the other hand, skateboards—a sure sign of evil.

11. A character read from The Hacker’s Manifesto.

In a scene, an agent reads The Hacker’s Manifesto, a real document written by Loyd Blankenship. It was published in PHRACK magazine in 1986. 

12. The Technicolor rainbow books were real.

The hackers test Dade’s knowledge with a series of books that they call the “Technicolor rainbow.” These were real books coveted by hackers because they contained information on how the Internet worked. They were full of scintillating information such as standards for trusted DOD networks. 

13. The Cookie Monster program was also real.

The hackers take over the Gibson computer with a Cookie Monster virus that starts gobbling up all the data. “What do I do?” Hal asks. “Type cookie, you idiot,” replies The Plague. This is based on a real program from the era. Cookie Monster would come up on the screen and demand a cookie. You would type “cookie” and it would go away for a while. If you typed “Oreo,” it went away for a longer period of time. 

14. "Arf Arf!" is a real hacker thing.

When the hackers prevail and gain control of the Gibson, a notice comes up on the screen that says “Arf! Arf! We gotcha!” This is a reference to a program called EGABTR, which would delete your information and then bring up the phrase “Arf! Arf! Got you!” 

15. The movie is a cult classic.

Hackers made only $7.6 million at the box office and was panned by critics. By comparison, The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, came out the same year and grossed $50.7 million. Yet Hackers is still referenced by a whole generation of computer geeks today, 20 years later. Some might even say it was ahead of its time

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

The Plugin That Keeps the Internet From Spoiling Santa Claus

During simpler times, the biggest threat to a child's belief in Santa was usually older siblings or big-mouthed classmates. Today, kids have access to an entire world wide web, full of potentially Santa-spoiling content. Luckily, there's a plugin that helps parents maintain their kids’ innocence through the holidays.

Created by the virtual private network provider Hide My Ass (HMA), the free software analyzes web activity for any information that might threaten to “bring a child’s belief in Santa crashing down.” In place of the problematic content, the plugin brings up an image of the jolly man himself. Typing the phrase “Santa is not real” into Google, for example, will instead take you to a web page showing nothing but a soft-focused St. Nick pointing into the camera and staring at you with judgmental eyes. The plugin is also designed to work for social media communications, internet ads, and articles like this one.

Hide My Ass

According to a survey of 2036 parents by HMA, one in eight children in the U.S. have their belief in Santa ruined online. Whether it's because of the internet or other related factors, the age that children stop believing in Santa is lower than ever.

The average age that current parents lost their faith in Santa Claus was 8.7 years old, and for today’s kids it’s 7.25 years. Concerned parents can download the plugin for Chrome here, though it may not be enough to hide every type of Santa spoiler: Of the parents who blamed the internet, 26 percent of them reported kids snooping over their shoulder as they shopped for gifts online.


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