If you know how to protect your mainframe from the backdoor trojan worm that’s duplicated the virus code malware drive in the reboot server, uh, code, then this article isn’t for you. If it sounds made up and like a movie script from the ’90s, then keep reading unless you want your identity stolen and used on the dark web to buy caviar and rhino horn.
Unless you can type as well as the guy below (a government official in the original 1995 film Ghost in the Shell), or you’ve already got a cybersecurity solution like set up, then the world of computer viruses and hacking can be real confusing — but important to know.
So, throw on some thick-framed glasses, or set up a grey IBM PC in your basement, and let’s decode (sorry) all things cybersecurity through the lens of ‘90s cinema classics like Independence Day, Hackers, and Jurassic Park.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The first ever computer virus was a worm, , which caused havoc by infecting 6,000 computers in 1988, a few years before ’90s movies started obsessing over viruses and hacking.
The mother of all these movies is Hackers (1995) which made hacking cool before it was cool and well before it was uncool, in fact the main character is called ‘Zero Cool’.
Hackers tells the story of a child hacker convicted of the most devastating hack of all time and banned from using a computer or ‘touch tone phone’ until he turns 18. At which point, he meets Angelina Jolie and a team of hackers who reveal the cyber machinations of a criminal within the government who uses a worm to steal money.
A worm is a malicious program which replicates itself across many computers, which can cause a network to slow down. Once the worm gets in, it leaves a duplicate and moves on.
The villain uses a worm to steal money discreetly using salami slicing, which is a technique where small incremental actions result in a bigger, unseen action at the end. The worm replicated itself to make it seem like no money had gone missing and then moved on, only to eventually reveal what it had done once it had left.
But in reality, this isn’t what a worm would do, rather a virus. Although as the main character states, “It isn’t a virus, it’s a worm,” well, it’s actually more a virus with worm like features. And although that’s what the character in the movie says, keep in mind this is also a movie where rollerblading cool kids hack into TV stations, hack the school sprinklers, and save the day by guessing the villain’s password: God.
Remember 1995’s ‘Hackers’ with Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller? (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images
So if that wasn’t a worm — but had worm-like features — why was it a virus then? Unlike a worm, which can just be an unwanted guest that keeps replicating itself, a virus is a program designed to corrupt or alter a system. It does this by inserting its own code into a program.
You’ve seen a virus-like program at work in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur-ridden classic Jurassic Park (1993), where computer programmer Dennis Nedry inserts code (a virus, which Nedry sly calls “White Rabbit” or Whte rbt.obj) into the park’s system to disable the security — not the Raptor pen though.
To add insult to injury, the virus generates the infamous “Uh, uh, uh, you didn’t say the magic word,” screen, tormenting anyone trying to disable it. All of these terms however, are really part of the broader category of Malware.
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The best way to understand malware is to see it as an umbrella term for all the other words you hear. It’s shorthand for any “malicious software” which can damage a computer, network, client, or server. More importantly, malware is more commonly described by how it spreads and embeds itself.
This is best explained using Independence Day (1996). As Jeff Goldblum states, “I gave it a cold… I gave it a virus… a computer virus.” What he meant was he created a program, which when uploaded, sends out a signal to disable the force fields of the alien ships.
The signal travels from the mother ship, where it then embeds itself in smaller ships. The force fields of all the alien craft are disabled when a signal is sent from the mother ship, rendering them futile.
Don’t act like you didn’t watch the below scene and buy into it 100 percent, because Jeff Goldblum can say anything and we’ll take it.
Spyware doesn’t spread like a virus would. It’s installed and sits behind the scenes vacuuming up all your information. Spyware can also include adware and programs which log your keystrokes to find out things like your password (you know, like if your password was God, seriously).
In The Net (1995), systems analyst Sandra Bullock discovers a program which could be described as spyware. The program (a cyber security system sold to the government by a sinister corporation) grants a backdoor to whatever government system the program is installed on, collecting information as it runs.
The Net is the sexy version of Hackers with better story, characters and what can loosely be described as realism. Then again, Bullock at one point orders a pizza online, which was ridiculous at the time, but we now have Uber Eats.
Ransomware locks your data by locking your screen or encrypting your files. This is then used to elicit something, usually money, from you to free your data.
Weirdly enough, The Net is entirely about this in that Sandra Bullock’s entire life is stolen and a new identity cast on her, with the demand that she give up the valuable program she stumbled upon to get her old life back.
In many ways, this is how ransomware would work. Hackers would take your information, which in Bullock’s case was her identity, and to get it back you’d need to pay a ransom. For Bullock, it was the secret program she stumbled upon, but for you, it’s likely to be money — in the form of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
This terrifying form of malware is becoming more common, but features like Bitdefender’s Ransomware Remediation creates a backup of your files, if it detects ransomware is attempting to attack your computer.
A trojan, named after the giant wooden horse that was used by the Greeks to enter the city of Troy, is more of a method by which a hacker can gain access by using social engineering to gain access to your computer and or account details. This creates a backdoor to infiltrate the target system.
Independence Day plays this out literally, in fact nearly all these films had no way to dramatise what is essentially streams of code, so they went for the next best thing: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum inside a stolen alien ship.
Think of the alien space ship (with Jeff and Will, both my friends, sitting inside) as the wooden horse, entering the mother ship (Troy) while pretending to be aliens (see: social engineering) in order to upload the virus.
So, how can you avoid all that?
Don’t worry, we’re not in the ’90s anymore, and neither Angelina Jolie or Newman from Seinfeld is hacking the mainframe, but cybersecurity is a real issue that can hit your devices without warning — If you want to sleep easy at night (or not because you’re too wired from screen time), you could invest in a cybersecurity solution such as .
Plus, as much as we all love ’90s movies and their dramatic representations of computer viruses, you wouldn’t hire a production designer and an animator to protect your precious data.