No Hacking Way!

A thought about hackers in stories

hate hackers. Especially in stories.

Let me repeat that. I want to make my feelings crystal clear: I HATE hackers in stories. If any storyteller happens to read this, please, PLEASE by the love of your newborn and everything you hold sacred, do NOT write a hacker into your stories. Thank you.

If you are an avid reader/watcher of Sci-Fi – or of thrillers, they’re similarly plagued with hackers – you know what I mean. But instead of just vomiting incoherent lines of indignation, I would like to make my point more vivid with a Fantasy example. You might rightfully ask yourself what can a Fantasy microstory hope to reveal about hackers? Well, my (wo)man, read on to find out!

Once upon a time a young farmer, Henrich, was taken as an apprentice by a great wizard. For years he tried to learn the ancient arts of the arcane, until the day the wizard was killed by a jealous new king, and Henrich taken prisoner for questioning.

He paced his cell with increasingly anxious strides. He knew they were going to torture him. Any moment now they would come for him. And whatever they made him scream, they would surely dispose of him afterwards, like they did with his wise master. His last breaths on Earth aren’t going to be pleasant.

Henrich never thought of himself as much of a wizard. Truth be told, he lacks the most basic skills in the arcane arts. His master was always quick in reminding him of his shortcomings. He reliably failed at tasks that were routine for the old wizard. You aren’t ready yet, Henrich, his master would say, over and over again, with infinite patience. Like there was still hope for him.

And now, he is on his own. A useless farmer that dreamt of magic.

They are coming.

Their steps are closing in. Henrich gathers his will, like his master taught him. You aren’t ready yet, Henrich. But he ignores the voice in his head. Because, this time, it is spoken in his own fearful voice. He shakes his head. One thing is clear: now, at the end of it all, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

As the guards stop in front of his cell and begin fidgeting with their keys, Henrich feels the surge of raw arcana power rising in his guts. He channels them with his fingers, he turns them into words with his tongue, just like his old master explained. Perhaps it is desperation, perhaps panic, but this time, a mystic portal as large as him opens in midair, the fragrant, sunny fields of his youth at the other side.

The cell door opens, but all that the two guards behind can do is gape as he simply walks through the gate, which vanishes in a shower of glittering arcane dust.

The fantasy genre is blissfully devoid of hackers, but the all-mighty wizard fulfils a similar role. Unless skillfully executed (Gandalf, anybody?), it is such lazy writing that you want to strangle the author for wasting your valuable reading time – quite considerable in epic fantasy. Was that piece I just wrote skillfully executed? Nah. Well, obviously, the writing itself was nothing short of brilliant, but the story… I don’t think there is a writer on Earth that can pull away something like that with a glimmer of pride.

Hackers are to Sci-Fi (and thrillers) what I-shit-magic-out-my-butt Wizards are to Fantasy (do excuse my English).

Now that you know my grievance with hackers in storytelling, let me tell you what REAL hackers can and cannot do. How do I know? Okay, I am not an IT security expert, but I am (on my sad dayjob-away-from-sci-fi-that-my-family-needs-to-pay-the-bills) a software engineer. And quite good, honestly – you get good at everything, when you do it long enough. And, well, I’m older than I like to admit to myself. Furthermore, for the last decade or two I have worked in the corporate world, and mostly on international banks.

In short, I know a thing or two about realistic hacking, that’s what I mean.

Now, a kid going to an ATM with a knife – or a fancy “magic” device for that matter – and then accessing the CIA files in less than a minute? Well, complete bollocks. Even if he took a few hours, days, years. Impossible. Even if it is not an ATM, but an actual computer home. Yes, still impossible. As impossible as shooting an electronic lock to open an automated gate – the cliched solution of a tough guy too impatient with his pet hacker.

Real hacking takes a LOT of time. And usually something called “social engineering”, shorthand of fooling a real person to actually do something stupid, like letting you into a restricted area (beautiful Russian spy saying she forgot her badge – sounds stupid, but that is so easy you wouldn’t believe it), and still then you need a way to access a computer (drop a usb-stick on the parking lot and hope that a curious fool slips it into his PC, also a classic, doesn’t work anymore, by the way), and then hackers take their dear time to move across a hacked network – it is like scouting a pristine jungle. Some areas/databases are in separate subnetworks, protected with special protocols. On top of that, successful hackers – the dangerous type – typically stay dormant for months inside a compromised network in preparation of whatever their goals might be (data stealth, sabotage, spionage, you name it). Companies that KNOW that there are hackers out there bend on attacking it EVERY DAY (say, banks, or the CIA) are more than ready for all I said, believe me. And much more (as I said, I’m not an expert).

Phew! I hope you can excuse my rampage. But if you’ve made it this far, next time you see a hacker doing magic, know that the author either has no clue about the basics of information technologies, or, worse, the author assumes that you are the ignorant and he can get away with a lazy sleight of hand. Neither is okay.

That is why I hate hackers in stories. What about you?

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