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July 24, 2022

Hacker’s Game: 10 Things Hollywood Got Wrong About Computer Hacking

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We’ve all seen it in the movies: a hacker hunches over his computer in a darkened room. He’s wearing a dark sweater with the hood pulled up; there’s often a can of Red Bull nearby. And suddenly, the heroes of the film realize they’re being hacked and they deploy their own computer expert to desperately try to stop the attack.

While the idea of computer hacking has been sensationalized and sometimes seems to only exist in the movies, it is a real-life threat that people should be wary of. The better you understand what hacking is and how it can affect you, the better you can protect yourself. A good place to start is by recognizing what’s a Hollywood myth about computer hacking, and what isn’t.

  • What is hacking?
  • Why do people turn to computer hacking?
  • What are the common hacking techniques?
  • What are the Hollywood myths?
  • Can you protect yourself?

What is Hacking?

The most basic definition of hacking is “an activity that attempts to compromise a digital device.” Hackers may go after computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and whole digital networks. Through an attack, a hacker may seek to steal data from a device, spy on your activity, or even take control of your device outright. Sometimes, hacking is legally sanctioned, but most often, it’s considered unlawful.

Why Do People Turn to Computer Hacking?

Hollywood tends to portray the average hacker as some whiz-kid who turned to crime out of boredom, or perhaps who is hacking to save the world. However, the movies we see don’t often portray the real reasons people become hackers simply because they’re less cinematic. There are a few reasons people turn to computer hacking:

  • They want money. Some cybercriminals focus on stealing people’s credit card numbers or bank account details. Once stolen, they can use your money for their own gain until caught. If they’re clever enough, it may take weeks, or even months, before you notice. Others may insert themselves into your devices and lock your files, demanding money from you in order to restore access.
  • They want “street cred.” Some cybercriminals act as vandals. They hack large targets and leave a “tag” behind to claim credit for the attack. The more large targets they successfully hack, the more clout they have in the global hacker community.
  • They’re doing it on behalf of a corporation. Digital corporate espionage occurs when a hacker working on behalf of one company attempts to steal data from another.
  • Governments do it too. Modern hacking is an incredibly powerful tool, to the point where it can be used to fight or trigger entire wars between nations. It can also be used to create discord, wreck infrastructure, and more. 

What are the Common Hacking Techniques?

The films never show the huge variety of hacking techniques used in the real world. Instead, the silver screen often focuses on the dramatic tap of an “Enter” button and whole power grids go down, or the computers in the CIA suddenly turn off and everyone scrambles. While hacks can certainly be on a grand scale, many of them are smaller and more subtle. Some of the most common hacking techniques include:

Social Engineering

This kind of attack relies more on psychology than technology. It aims to trick a victim into clicking a link, surrendering personal information, or downloading a file. The most common type of social engineering attack is known as “phishing,” in which the hacker sends the victim an email often designed to cause alarm. For example, the email will mimic one from the victim’s banking institution, claiming that their account has been breached and they must sign in to review their security information. The email will offer them a handy “sign in” link and, if clicked, will bring them to a website that looks remarkably similar to the banking institution the email claims to be from. But, in reality, it will be a faked website that will steal the victim’s sign-in information.

Ransomware

If a victim is unlucky, they may accidentally download a file that contains ransomware. They may then find that their files and apps are suddenly locked and cannot be accessed. If they want to restore access to them, the hacker will demand a fee. Unfortunately, paying the fee does not guarantee that access will be restored; the hacker can simply ask for more money. Ransomware attacks are increasingly targeting large infrastructure organizations, as was the case in 2021, with the Colonial Pipeline attack (among others).

Browser Hijacking

Browser hijacking is also caused by unwanted software. This software is able to modify the settings of the victim’s web browser without their permission. For example, it might consistently re-direct the user to websites they don’t want to visit, show them ads they don’t want to see, change their default home page and search engine, and more. This may open the user up to further threats from malware and other attack devices.

Viruses

If a hacker tricks a user into downloading a malicious file, through an email for example, they may unknowingly infect their device with a virus. Viruses may destroy the data on a device or modify how the device works (or destroy the device itself). They often also replicate, forcing the infected computer to send the virus to others (possibly through the very same email account the virus first entered the device through). 

What Myths Does Hollywood Perpetuate?

Hollywood loves to use a good hacking plotline. They add convenience to complex technological movies, and help neatly resolve conflicts. But these films are often fairly liberal with the realities of modern hacking, and create and perpetuate myths about the topic.

So, what are the myths?

  • Large organizations are the only ones who get hacked
  • Hackers are lone wolves instead of organized groups
  • Hackers have to rush to finish hacking
  • You can’t be seen/hacked while browsing incognito
  • Hackers can’t attack your smartphone
  • You must download malware to be hacked
  • All hacking is illegal and malicious
  • Hackers are computer geniuses
  • The deep web is only for illegal activities
  • One type of malware can attack all systems

Hackers Only Attack Large Organizations

The Myth: Most movies show hackers attacking large organizations. It might be tech companies, or spy networks like the CIA or MI6. While this might make for more interesting plot lines, it’s not entirely true to real life.

The Reality: While hackers do target big businesses, as evidenced by their not-infrequent mentions in the news circuit, all businesses can be hacked. In fact, smaller organizations are often easier to breach simply because they don’t have as many resources to devote to security. That doesn’t make them unsafe, but breaches can happen to big organizations, small organizations, and even individuals.

Hackers are Lone Wolves Instead of Organized Groups

The Myth: As we described above, many movies depict hackers sitting alone at their computers, often in a basement or secret tech hideaway. They most often seem to be working alone to bring down a technological or governmental regime that wronged them in the past (or sometimes just for a little bit of chaos). It makes it easier for the hero of the film to only take down a single villain instead of an entire network of them, but that’s not always how computer hacking works.

The Reality: While some hackers work alone, many are part of large networks. The amount of work that goes into orchestrating a large breach is quite often more than any one person can manage. It takes teamwork and stellar organization to be successful, making the lone wolf hacker trope more fiction than reality.

Hackers Have to Rush to Finish Hacking

The Myth: Let’s set the stage: the clock has started. Our movie hero has realized the hacker is worming into their systems and now they have to stop it. The hacker’s time is limited. If they don’t finish their hacking in the next 30 seconds, the hero will win and their nefarious plan will be foiled. Cue the dramatic music and movie watchers are riveted to their screens. Although this certainly makes a movie more fun to watch, it’s not strictly accurate.

The Reality: Hacking isn’t a heist. The hacker doesn’t have to set a timer to pull off a breach in the nick of time. Instead, most hackers take slow and methodical approaches to their work. This allows them to prevent mistakes, and get the exact data they want. It also helps them remain undetected until their work is done.

You Can’t Be Seen or Hacked While Browsing Incognito

The Myth: When a movie hero wants to protect themselves from a hack, they may activate “encryption” on their devices that prevents hackers from seeing what they’re doing. In the real world, this can be compared to browsing the web with incognito or private mode. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be hacked.

The Reality: Incognito or private browsing can keep tech companies from garnering information about you. To protect that data further, you can even use private search engines like HotBot.com. However, browsing privately doesn’t necessarily mean you’re protected from hackers. Use just as much caution as you would with regular browsing.

Computer Hacking Can’t Attack Your Smartphone

The Myth: Like we just discussed, many movies show their characters using encrypted devices to protect themselves from hacks and data breaches. They make it seem like phones are unhackable or at least less likely to be hacked. Just as with every item in this list, that portrayal isn’t wholly accurate.

The Reality: While computers are somewhat easier for a hacker to breach than a smartphone, any device that is connected to the internet has the potential to be hacked, including smartphones. These hacks can come through proximity to smartphones, unsafe apps, and other less-than-savoury downloads. To help protect your smartphone, don’t download anything you don’t trust, and use a VPN while browsing, especially if you have to use public wifi.

You Must Download Malware

The Myth: Another movie myth is that a person using a computer has to click on the wrong button, or the hacker has to sneak a device into the building whose system they’re trying to attack, and that’s how technological doomsday begins.

The Reality: Although the movies show this trope very confidently, there’s no need to accidentally click on and download a malware file before hackers can begin wreaking havoc (but clicking unsafe links can also speed up the process). Even visiting the wrong website can be enough to compromise your security. You can avoid this by making sure the sites you visit have SSL security (meaning the URLs start with HTTPS instead of HTTP), unsubscribing from old email lists, and signing up for as few online accounts as possible.

All Hacking is Illegal and Malicious

The Myth: The myth that all hacking is done by hooded baddies is starting to be dispelled in many movies but the trope still persists. While some hacking is illegal, and some hacking is malicious, not all is.

The Reality: One of the best ways to fight against hackers is to use hackers in return. These people, often called white hat hackers, are paid professionals who work for big organizations or government agencies to keep you and everyone safe. White hat hackers use their skills to identify weak points in security systems to make them stronger.

Hackers are Computer Geniuses

The Myth: The idea of computer hacking often conjures to mind the awkward genius, who is brilliant with a computer but maybe less so with social interactions. They may have gone to a school like MIT but along the way used their powers of genius for bad instead of good.

The Reality: While some hackers may very well be geniuses, many are just average people who took up computer skills as a hobby. Many people can learn the trade within a few months to a year. Some do choose to use this knowledge to hack other networks.

The Deep Web is Only for Illegal Activities

The Myth: Chances are, you’ve heard of the deep web. To quote Star Wars, many users portray it as a “hive of scum and villainy.” The movies like to use the phrase and the mystery surrounding the deep web to make it seem like only a place for illegal activities but that isn’t true.

The Reality: While it’s true that many hackers may lurk in its corners, the term deep web only describes a portion of the internet that can’t be accessed through the default configuration of your web browser. While hackers can carry out illegal activities there, they can also happen in the more accessible portion of the internet.

One Type of Malware Can Attack All Systems

The Myth: The hacker writes a few lines of code. He presses a button. All the computers, phones, and satellites around the globe go down. Using only a single malware file, the hacker managed to bring about global catastrophe. This is yet another movie trope that’s just that: a trope, rather than the truth.

The Reality: In the real world, malware and other viruses have to be written with a specific purpose and often a specific system in mind. To put it simply, a virus designed to attack a computer by creating spam pop-ups, will only attack a computer by creating spam pop-ups. We’ll never say never, but most viruses and malware have very strict limits on what and how they can attack and how far and fast they can spread. A single button press can’t just take down every device in the world. At least not yet, and possibly not ever.

Can You Protect Yourself from Hackers?

The threat of hacks grows every day. The technology that enables these attacks is becoming more and more complex while the technologies that prevent them are somewhat lacking. That doesn’t mean you can’t stay safe though. Instead, you may have to combine a few different technologies to ensure the best protection. They include:

  • Browse safely. When browsing, use a secure VPN service that can keep you anonymous and encrypted online. It prevents snoops from watching your activity.
  • Anti-malware protection. This type of technology helps detect malicious software in the links you click and files you download. It can warn you if you’re at risk.
  • Use strong passwords. Sometimes, a weak password is easily guessed and puts your accounts at risk. By using strong, unique passwords, you can reduce that risk.
  • Keep your software updated. Outdated software may not have the most current security protocols installed, making you susceptible to being hacked. Keeping your software constantly updated can help avoid this issue.

It’s no myth that computer hacking is a real threat to online safety and privacy. Help to protect yourself by using HotBot VPN.

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