Computer Hackers, War Games and How a Science Fiction Screenplay Became Deadly Real-World Law

Did Sci-Fi Film WarGames (1983) Start the Modern Cyberwar Against Hackers?

Seemingly ripped straight from the headlines, you would be forgiven for mistaking the following imaginary scenario for real-world fact:

A young hacker’s fingertips approach light-speed while intensely typing a stream of commands into her terminal. Our intrepid antihero has almost reached a sought-after file hidden deep in the mainframe of an appropriately-named evil corporate nemesis. Onscreen, a secret file transfer at the center of the film’s plot crawls to completion. Miles away, on the other side of the wires and satellites that link them, computer security experts race to discover the identity of the unstoppable culprit siphoning their data to an unknown remote location.

Time has run out; the bedroom door splinters with the explosive force of federal agents’ combat boots as they burst in, shouting and brandishing assault rifles.

“Hands up! You’re under arrest, according to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986!”

That’s quite a mouthful for any character to speak, whether in movies, novels or the real world.

In its full, glorious thirty-six characters of unadulterated legalese, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 sounds like a term that intentionally defies fictional dialogue. Beyond fiction, the CFAA has also defined the battle line between real computer hackers and federal investigators for decades.

It all began with a 1983 sci-fi movie named WarGames.

So how exactly did a science fiction film like WarGames, starring teen heartthrobs Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, change the world of network and information security three years later?

Here we turn to the capable reportage of technology writer Declan McCullagh. McCullagh traced the lineage of computer hacking law in his 2013 article, From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray 1, excerpted below.

The 1983 movie “WarGames” led to an anti-hacking law with felony penalties aimed at deterring intrusions into NORAD.

As soon as it was released in June 1983, the movie, starring Matthew Broderick as a teenage hacker who broke into NORAD’s mainframe and nearly ignited World War III, electrified Capitol Hill and kicked off an anti-hacker panic.

No fewer than six different anti-hacking bills were introduced that year, and Congress convened its first hearings as soon as politicians returned from their summer recess. Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat, opened the proceedings by saying: “We’re gonna show about four minutes from the movie ‘WarGames,’ which I think outlines the problem fairly clearly.” A House committee report solemnly intoned: “‘WarGames’ showed a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer.”

“WarGames,” the first movie to profile hacking so prominently, spilled over into unrelated discussions about national security: a biography 2 of Ronald Reagan recounts 3 how the president asked a group of Democratic congressmen meeting at the White House to discuss arms reduction if they had watched the movie. Rep. Vic Fazio, a California Democrat, recalled Reagan saying: “I don’t understand these computers very well, but this young man obviously did. He had tied into NORAD!”

The criminal penalties in those 1983-era bills were primarily aimed at shielding key federal mainframes like NORAD’s: one pair of House and Senate measures was titled 4 the “Federal Computer Systems Protection Act of 1983.” The witnesses, including representatives of the Defense Department’s Computer Security Center, Los Alamos National Lab, and the Treasury Department, were chosen to highlight the threat posted to government computers. A forthcoming book called Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture 5, by communications professor Stephanie Schulte 6, says “the release of the film ‘WarGames’ helped merge Cold War anxieties with those involving teenaged rebellion.”

Adding to the concerns of Washington officialdom was that actual hackers called The 414s 7 had recently penetrated the security of banks, manufacturers, and Los Alamos, home to classified nuclear weapon research. Neal Patrick, a 17-year-old student who had been using his family’s TRS-80 Model 2 to tunnel into 8 those computer systems, was flown to D.C. to testify that fall. (Patrick had received immunity in exchange for telling the government how the intrusions took place.)

Prosecutors and politicians quickly became convinced that “WarGames” could become reality. “That movie had a significant effect on my treatment by the federal government,” hacker-turned-author Kevin Mitnick told 9 Wired magazine a few years ago. “I was held in solitary confinement for nearly a year because a prosecutor told a judge that if I got near a phone, I could dial up NORAD and launch a nuclear missile.”

President Reagan signed the anti-hacking measure, known as the Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, into law the following year as part of a broader appropriations bill 10.

Read the complete article here (click here).

As you can see, what began as a screenplay by Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parkes and Walon Green soon took on a starring role of its own. The timeline of the CFAA is a chronicle of how science fiction sometimes influences reality in ways that no one can anticipate.

Will you be the one to write the next WarGames?

Further reading

1. Declan McCullagh. (March 13, 2013). From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray. Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/.

2. Cannon, Lou. (April 4, 2000). President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/President-Reagan-Lifetime-Lou-Cannon/dp/1891620916.

3. Ibid…(?)

4. Library of Congress. (1983). Bill Summary & Status. 98th Congress (1983 – 1984). S.1733 CRS Summary. Retrieved from http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d098:SN01733:@@@D&summ2=m&.

5. Schulte, Stephanie. (March 18, 2013). Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture (Critical Cultural Communication). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Cached-Decoding-Internet-Critical-Communicatio/dp/0814708676.

6. University of Arkansas. (n.d.) J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences, Department of Communication Faculty. Retrieved from http://communication.uark.edu/Faculty.html.

7. The 414s. (2015, September 8). Wikipedia. Retrieved 16:19, September 11, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_414s&oldid=680081998

Author, A. (date). Title of document [Format description]. Retrieved from http://URL

8. Harper, Timothy. Was it a game, or was it real? (Aug 29, 1983). Retrieved from http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=sxc0AAAAIBAJ&sjid=qyMIAAAAIBAJ&pg=1296,5369436.

9. Brown, Scott. (July 21st, 2008). WarGames: A Look Back at the Film That Turned Geeks and Phreaks Into Stars. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/entertainment/hollywood/magazine/16-08/ff_wargames?currentPage=all.

10. Library of Congress. (broken link, data unavailable.) Retrieved from http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d098:H.J.RES.648.

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