In the spring of 1999, a 20-year-old hacker named Eva Galperin and her boyfriend walked into a screening of The Matrix at a theater in San Francisco, and walked out with a sense that they had just seen themselves—or, at least, who they could be. Galperin, at the time a Unix-focused systems administrator with black and blue dreadlocks, promptly bought herself a long, black, flared coat. Her boyfriend purchased a pair of Oakleys.
But it wasn't just the movie's fashion sense that spoke to them. Galperin felt it represented the experience of hacking in a way she'd never seen before. Neo seemed chosen to undertake his superheroic journey because he understood that “by interfacing with this black screen with glowing green writing on it, he could change the world in ways that it was not necessarily meant to be changed,” says Galperin, who works today as the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I definitely came out with the feeling: Our people made a film.”
For years the generally accepted canon of classic hacker movies has been a kind of holy trinity: 1983's WarGames, with its digital delinquent caught up in Cold War geopolitics; the 1992 computers-and-cryptography heist film Sneakers; and 1995's teen cyber-hijinks thriller Hackers. With a couple of decades of hindsight, however, it's well past time to recognize that The Matrix has in some ways eclipsed that triumvirate. As other hacker films ossify, turning into computer cat-and-mouse-game time capsules, The Matrix has become the most abiding, popular, and relevant portrayal of hacking—a brain-plug jacked so deeply into our cultural conception of the genre that we've almost forgotten it's there.
Fans of those other films will point out that The Matrix's goth-garbed flying kung fu fighters don't hack much in the literal sense. Yes, Neo starts the film selling digital intrusion tools stored on MiniDiscs, and in the sequel Trinity realistically uses the scanning program Nmap to breach an electric utility server. But those moments are only brief winks at the real world of cybersecurity.
The real hacking in The Matrix is metaphorical. The red-pill lesson Morpheus gives Neo is that a user in a digital system doesn't have to abide by its terms of service. For those who understand the underlying truth of a virtual environment—its technical reality, not the illusions described in the user manual—rules like gravity are not immutable laws but polite conventions. “Some of them can be bent,” Morpheus tells Neo. “Others can be broken.”
In most real-world hacking, that rule-breaking plays out within the uncinematic frame of a computer screen. The Matrix expands that computer to envelop reality itself; the virtuosic bending and breaking of digital rules naturally becomes a kind of physics-defying wushu.
“The Matrix shows the universe that software can create,” says Dino Dai Zovi, a well-known hacker and security researcher who cofounded the security firms Trail of Bits and Capsule8. “And the more that software controls everything in our lives, the more awe-inspiring it becomes to have power over that software.”
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This concept of hacking transcends the technology of any particular era, which explains why hackers, years later, still resort to the movie's analogies to explain their work. When University of Michigan researchers exploited a chip's electric leakage to hide a backdoor in it in 2016, they described it as “outside the Matrix.” When security researcher Joanna Rutkowska showed she could trap a victim computer inside an invisible layer of software under her control, she dubbed it a “blue pill” attack.
“I can use The Matrix to explain, well, that's the woman in the red dress that everybody sees, but a hacker can see the code that renders that woman and change the color of her dress,” says Katie Moussouris, a renowned security researcher and CEO of Luta Security. “And even though you, the programmer, didn't mean to allow that, it's possible because I can inspect what's really going on under the surface.”
Most of all, The Matrix captures the feeling of hacking, says Dai Zovi, who first saw the film when he was a 19-year-old college student. A year later, he was working as a systems administrator for an ultra-early social media company called SuperFamilies.com, which had a few extra Sun Microsystems workstations lying around. One Friday he asked if he could take one home to mess with it—and found a memory corruption vulnerability in its software that he spent an entire spring break learning to exploit.
When he had finally succeeded, Dai Zovi experienced for the first time what it felt like to fully take over a piece of code with a technique he'd invented, making it do whatever he wished. He compares it to when Neo leaps into Agent Smith's body, explodes him, and then stands silently in his place while the world subtly bends around him. “He does this flex, and the screen sort of bubbles, like he warps spacetime,” Dai Zovi says. “When you write your first exploit—or your hundredth or thousandth—you feel that flex. You want to run it a million times once you perfect it, to get that feeling of power and capability.”
Hackers don't quite wield superpowers in our reality just yet. But as networked computers permeate even more physical objects—our cars, home devices, and even critical infrastructure like electric grids, water supply systems, and manufacturing—modern life is becoming more Matrix-like all the time. The ability to control those computer systems becomes a skill that can alter the real world.
Unplugging from that pervasive computing is, for most of us, already no longer an option. Better, perhaps, to don your flared coat, dive into the digital world, and start bending some spoons.
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