“80s Computer Hacking”: A Supercut

By on August 9, 2015

The Found Item Clothing blog recently put together this supercut montage of some of the cheesiest 80s movies involving scenes of computer hacking — and a lot of them curiously seem to involve Matthew Broderick, too — from movies like Superman 3, Real Genius, WarGames, and Spies Like Us, to name a few.

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You know how we here at Night Flight love supercuts, and we’re always interested in sharing stuff about the 80s, when the “Night Flight” TV show aired. You probably already know that the 1980s was the decade where we saw the rapid rise of computer hacking, but we think it’s fair to say a lot of the hacks back then were still basically being committed by relatively harmless pranksters who weren’t try to commit actual crimes. Not yet. A lot of the 80s movies actually reflect a naiveté about the dangers of computer hacking, in fact, but the real truth was there was some really serious stuff going on behind the scenes that wasn’t making it into movies. Not yet.

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The 80s really starts to become the decade where we begin to hear about computer hacking around 1983. That’s when the IBM Personal Computer, powered by Bill Gates’ MS-DOS operating system, started to become available widely, and for the next two years every other microcomputer operating systems — except possibly MS-DOS systems and those offered by Apple — began to be outpaced and replaced. Soon hackers would have access to their own personal computers, and would no longer have to sneak into computer labs to do their dirty work late at night.

An example of the kinds of prank-ish computer hacking that was being done is the kind of insider corporate hackery seen in Superman III, in a simple computer scam like the so-called “salami slicing” committed by Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) who writes a program for the company’s computer system to collect all of the fractions of cents that are rounded off from paychecks, thinking the accounting folks won’t notice all the missing pennies; this results as a bonus check being cut for $85,789.90 at the end of the week, which of course the company’s accountants immediately notice, and maybe Gus would have gotten away with it too if he hadn’t driven up to work in a new Ferrari the next day.

This plot point was later borrowed for movies like Office Space (where the characters even talk about getting the idea from Superman III), Entrapment, I Love You Phillip Morris, and Hackers.

The first movie to profile computer hacking prominently in a negative way was WarGames, released to theaters in June 1983. It starred Matthew Broderick as a teenage hacker who was able to accidentally break into NORAD’s mainframe, the military’s central computer, but the twist is that reality is confused with game-playing and the computer begins the process of starting World War III. The movie hinges upon whether or not you believe that hackers have the ability to bring the world to a screeching halt by launching nuclear ICBMs.

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It wasn’t that far-fetched. Long before WarGames went into pre-production, The Warelords — founded by “Black Bart,” a hacked based in St. Louis, Missouri — was a group composed of many teenage hackers, phreakers, coders, and largely black hat-style underground computer geeks. By the early 80s, they had successfully infiltrated such corporations and institutions as the White House, Southwestern Bell “Ma Bell” Mainframe Systems, and large corporate providers of voice mail systems.

WarGames is likely the first movie to reach a wide enough audience that people began to understand the phenomenon of hacking, and some of the problematic issues and dangers associated with it, and soon there’s a growing sense of mass paranoia of what hackers are capable of.

Congress convened its first hearings as soon as politicians returned from their summer recess, and the U.S. House of Representatives begins hearings on computer security hacking, and begin an anti-hacker campaign that continues to this day.

No fewer than six different anti-hacking bills were introduced after WarGames was released. After more and more break-ins to government and corporate computers, Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, which makes it a crime to break into computer systems, and gives the US Secret Service jurisdiction over computer fraud. The law, however, does not cover juveniles.

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Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat, once congress had begun talking about the possibilities of World War III being started by a computer hacking scam, said: “We’re gonna show about four minutes from the movie ‘WarGames,’ which I think outlines the problem fairly clearly.” A House committee report later stated: “‘WarGames’ showed a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer.”

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Within a year or so, computer hacking magazines are being launched — like 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, its founder “Emmanuel Goldstein” taking his handle from the leader of the resistance group called “The Brotherhood” in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Goldstein is the perfect nickname for someone who is seen as the principal enemy of the state, according to the Party; he is only seen and heard on a telescreen, and may actually be a fabrication of the Ministry of Truth.

Meanwhile, underground hacker gangs continue being formed and growing to the point that articles start showing up about them. Someone calling himself Lex Luthor — named after a Saturday morning cartoon — founds one called the Legion of Doom, who soon have the reputation of attracting “the best of the best” (one of its members, “Phiber Optik,” would end up feuding with Legion of Doomer “Erik Bloodaxe” and ended up forming his own rival group, the Masters of Deception).

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Then, in 1984, we see the publication of his first cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer (written by science fiction author William Gibson on a manual typewriter) which coins the term “cyberspace,” as well as other notable hacker jargon, including such terms as “the matrix,” “simstim,” and “ICE” (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics).

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The hacker community continues to rise up, sharing information with each other about arcane operating systems, communications protocols, networking technologies, and telephony, as well as relaying other topics of interest to the international computer underground.

The vast majority of computers at this time can only be accessed by hackers who have discovered their individual phone lines, which is why the typical hacker of the 80s placed such a high value on knowing the phone number to a computer they wanted to access remotely. Hackers began to trade information for the manuals for computer systems, which weren’t widely available and often kept secret, and often documents pertaining to computer systems were removed from dumpsters or stolen in office burglaries by hackers who realized that corporations were often sloppy with the way they got rid of their information.

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Within a few years, the Secret Service was videotaping the 1988 SummerCon convention, trying to find out what the hackers knew at the time, but the hackers always seem to be one step ahead of the government.

That same year, Robert Tappan Morris Jr., the son of a NSA chief scientist and a graduate student at Cornell University, launches a worm on the government’s ARPAnet (precursor to the Internet), forever known as the Morris Worm, used to break into a computer, copy itself and then send copy after copy on to other computers.

The worm spread to 6,000 networked computers, clogging government and university systems. Morris has no idea what he’s just created, evidenced by the fact that he shared his information with other hackers, which creates mass chaos. Morris was arrested, dismissed from Cornell, and sentenced to three years probation, and fined $10,000.

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There’s much more to say about hackers in the 80s, of course, but let’s just enjoy this supercut for now, which shows us how bulky monitors used to be among other things we’ve probably all forgotten.

In addition to a few of the films mentioned above, we also spied scenes from Real Genius (1985), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Weird Science (1985), Brainstorm (1983), Blade Runner (1982), Never Say Never Again (1983), Jumping Jack Flash (1986), Electric Dreams (1984), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), TRON (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), Spies Like Us (1985), and Cloak & Dagger (1984).

(Yeah, they missed Whiz Kids, 1984, didn’t they?)

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.