Six Times Encryption Made It to the Movies
encrypt (verb) en·crypt in-ˈkript, en- : to change (information) from one form to another, especially to hide its meaning
Since the Apple v FBI case broke in early 2016, encryption has become a new topic of conversation and mainstream concern like never before — or so you thought.
Encryption has actually been around for centuries, at least as far back as the Caesar Cipher and as recent as today’s chipped credit cards. That fact got us thinking about how encryption evokes a certain level of intrigue and public fascination, showing up not just in journalism but in a range of movies and popular entertainment, as well.
Thus, we offer a list of six movies to consider for your viewing pleasure.
“It’s all about the information.”
Why see it: At ~41:40, Martin gets out of a car in front of Mozilla’s San Francisco Embarcadero office and meets the NSA agents at the cafe next door.
With its light, fast-paced script, humorous overtones and emotionally-manipulative soundtrack, Sneakers is a classic 1990s flick, and by that we mean, they don’t make movies like they used to.
The story involves a group of security experts, the NSA and a powerful code-breaking box that supposedly holds the power to unlock any computer’s encryption technology. Reviews were mixed in the day, but Sneakers has still has a following today. In fact, in 2012, Slate paid tribute to the film, noting that its greatest accomplishment was its prescience:
Though much of its technology looks hopelessly dated 20 years on — motion sensors! voice activation! pleated pants! — the movie was spot-on in its prediction of how a computer-connected world would change the nature, and wages, of power. As Cosmo tells Marty: “It’s not about who has the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information: What we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It’s all about the information.”
That may seem like an obvious statement in 2012, but it was written — by Robinson, and by War Games-screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes — before Google, before Facebook, before smartphones, before any of us had email. And it’s not just that the screenwriters recognized that information would be the coin of the digital realm. They had a dark vision in which governments and private enterprise alike would go to law-breaking lengths to access that information. I remember re-watching Sneakers around the time it was revealed that the NSA had been secretly (and illegally) wiretapping American citizens. Marty may have palmed the circuit board from the little black box at the end of Sneakers, but the NSA found a way to spy on us anyway.
Yep. Sneakers is worth a watch.
Encryption level: Ahead of its time.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
“It’s a cryptex. Da Vinci’s design. [My grandfather] made me one for my birthday once.”
“My grandfather gave me a wagon.”
Why see it: Learn art history and solve the mystery. The main character returns this summer in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code film opens with a bang, literally, when the Louvre’s curator is shot after-hours by an assailant in the museum. Before succumbing to his injuries, the curator arranges his body to resemble Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and writes a coded message on the floor in his own blood. What does it all mean?! Enter our protagonists, an American academic symbologist and French police cryptographer who join forces to embark on a puzzle-breaking “treasure hunt” across Paris and London to crack various encrypted messages and solve the crime.
Encryption level: Less elusive than the Holy Grail.
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
“Why do you need such an expensive computer?”
Why see it: As “researchers” go, Salander is a captivating character.
Like many films that depict cryptology, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is yet another mystery-thriller. “The girl,” Lisbeth Salander, is one of those characters you don’t soon forget after meeting her. She’s a dark, combat boot-wearing computer “researcher” wound so tightly you imagine she might explode upon touch. Possessing a near photographic memory, Salander holds a cold ability to collect and store information for later use. Though Salander wields her technical skills masterfully throughout the film, Hollywood still makes some blunders. According to IMDB, the movie flubs the scene when Salander is sending an encrypted email, the screen shows the message decrypting not encrypting. Maybe you’ll spot a few more. Also, be forewarned that the film contains graphic scenes of sexual violence.
Encryption level: Better than the Swedish version.
“He’s using polymorphic engine to mutate the code.”
Why see it: Bond. James Bond. And we’re introduced to a new Q, who ushers in a youthful, modern take on the enduring gadget master.
Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film, features a villain who uses computers as his weapon of choice to take down MI6. The movie presents technology in a range of ways, from a stolen hard drive containing Important Top Secret™ files on it (plausible) to M falling for a phishing trick (eye roll) to dastardly polymorphic encryption techniques.
That’s right. Polymorphic encryption.
Suffice it to say, if you’re a fan of Bond movies and you enjoy smirking at the ways technology, including encryption, is misrepresented by Hollywood, Skyfall is for you.
Encryption level: Quartermaster approved.
The Imitation Game (2014)
“We’re going to break an unbreakable Nazi code and win the war.”
Why see it: Brilliance, courage, persecution, respect.
You’ve probably heard of Alan Turing, but if you don’t know why he’s been dubbed the “Father of Computer Science,” The Imitation Game will get you up to speed in 114 minutes. This historical drama captures the essence of Turing’s life, including his time at Bletchley Park during World War II, where he worked for the British government to crack the Enigma code, the powerful encryption method the Germans used to mask their communications. With 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 18 zeros) possible keys and being reset nightly by the Germans, Enigma was considered humanly unbreakable. History is grateful that Alan Turing was up to the task:
We can only imagine where Turing’s brain would have taken him — and us — had he lived longer.
Encryption level: It’s the bombe.
A Christmas Story (1983)
“A crummy commercial?”
Why see it: It’ll set you on a hunt through the depths of your closet to find that ratty old shoe box with the decoder pins, rings and wheels and secret notes from your own childhood.
We’ll close out our list with a movie that features one of our favorite encryption references ever, A Christmas Story. The only thing little Ralphie yearns for more than a Red Ryder BB gun is a Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Pin. Maybe it’s the build-up as Ralphie anxiously awaits delivery of his decoder pin in the mail. Or maybe it’s feeling the tension rise as his family pounds on Ralphie’s office door where he has locked himself to privately decode his first secret message. Or perhaps it’s the utter letdown after Ralphie reads the decrypted message.
In any case, A Christmas Story reminds us that the desire to send private messages starts in childhood and never quite goes away.
Encryption level: You’ll shoot your eye out.
Do these movies always get encryption right? Some do, some don’t. Nonetheless, give yourself permission for a couple hours of entertainment while considering that our personal privacy isn’t something we should leave to fiction.
Oh, and if you’re intrigued and want to learn more about how real encryption works, why it’s essential to a strong Web, and why it’s worth protecting, here’s the website (with more videos!) for you.
Know of a movie that you’d put on the list? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.