Pop Cultural Identity Management: Swordfish

In movies, hackers are like wizards and the 2001 cyber crime thriller Swordfish contains an exceptional example of this idea. Starring John Travolta, Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman, Swordfish comes from a time when mainstream computer literacy was still in its early stages. A special character type emerged from this audience literacy level that we still see remnants of today: the comically god-like yet completely unfilmable rockstar hacker. Now as biometrics start to proliferate our everyday lives, this trope has an opportunity to change for the better.

The Movie Hacker

The basic premise of Swordfish involves a virtual bank heist made possible by a computer worm written by Hugh Jackman’s character: a notorious hacker by the name of Stanley who is so dangerous that he’s not allowed to touch computers as a condition of his parole. Stanley’s worm virus is supposed to steal $9.5 billion from a secret government slush fund, and when it does, John Travolta’s character will pay him $10 million.

To anyone new to cyber crime movies, who grew up with computers and high school IT classes, reading the above description would understandably have them assuming the movie consisted of long, lonely scenes of typing, energy drinks and long, unfilmable coding sequences. This assumption, for better or worse, would be incorrect.

The entertainment media can’t seem to find a way of making hacking look interesting despite its constant effort to represent coding as modern magic.Like writing, coding is primarily intellectual and text based. Complicating things, the text is in a language that many audiences simply do not comprehend.

To compensate for the lack of comprehensible action in hacking, movies like Swordfish use made-up graphical interfaces, kinetic music and dynamic camera angles to fill time as rockstar hackers stressfully spew out jargon and mash keyboards.

There is one scene from Swordfish that stands as the epitome of this trope.

Hugh Jackman in Swordfish

“I can hack into the system, but first I’ll need some music and a cool screensaver for you guys to film while I do it.”

Password: Swordfish

There is no reason to try and parse out the details of the hacking that happens in Swordfish because those details are not there. The movie is set up structurally to require a few puzzle pieces to come together semi-coherently so that an action set piece involving a flying bus and hostages strapped to bombs can lead to John Travolta and  Halle Berry getting away with billions of dollars.

The pieces of that puzzle are:

  1. Money is a digital entity.
  2. If someone has the right information the can get that money remotely.

If Hugh Jackman’s character can use his brain power under enough stress and in a fast enough time, he can make all of the fun-to-watch crime happen. Essentially, there is a virtual safe and its lock can be picked remotely by a guy who knows a lot about computers.

But what would happen if we brought biometrics into this movie’s cyber magic? Well, the infiltration would require more than just Hugh Jackman’s magical brain: it would require at least one (probably multiple) physical features to be presented to a specific device.

As a result, those hacking scenes that directors just can’t seem to get right suddenly have an easy to film, exciting prospect.

A Rockstar Spoofer

Spoofing is the act of fooling a biometric system into granting a false positive by way of practical trickery. In the past year there have been two high profile spoofs of consumer facing technology on biometric smartphones from Apple and Samsung. The techniques used to work around those fingerprint sensors, referred to as a wood glue spoof technique, involve an enormous amount of practical MacGyvering. A fingerprint needs to be lifted from the device and etched into copper so that glue can be used as a skin surrogate for a fake finger.

As biometric systems become more ubiquitous in real life, movies will begin to represent them as such on film and directors working on cyber heist flicks will be able to collectively sigh in relief. Suddenly, instead of using the eyeroll-inducing rockstar hacker – alone in a room exclaiming to no one in particular while trying to make typing look interesting in front of a glowing screen covered in useless graphics – we are presented with a different option for each biometric modality.

What does a heist movie look like when Hugh Jackman needs to somehow falsely represent a government employee’s palm-vein patterns? What would he have to go through to make a mask realistic enough to fool a sensor into thinking he looked like, say, Morgan Freeman?

One thing is for sure, even if the movies get laughably it wrong again, the rockstar spoofer trope of future crime movies will at least offer more compelling on screen action.

Do you have a favorite instance of biometrics in pop culture you would like to see in this blog? Contact Peter B. Counter through the findBIOMETRICS about page and let him know via email.

Keep this conversation going by following findBIOMETRICS on Twitter and tweeting with the hashtag #PCIMBiometrics.