Review of Sneakers (1992)
Sneakers is one of the golden trio in silver screen hacker fiction. It was directed by Phil Alden Robinson and written by Robinson, Walter Parkes, and Lawrence Lasker. Parker and Lasker also wrote the script for WarGames which makes them legend in this field.
Spoiler Alert: Yeah, there are spoilers below.
Hacker Realism: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacker Importance for the Plot: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacks: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Opening Hack
The first scene is from December 1969(!) back when Nixon was president. The young hackers Cosmo and Marty break into a computer system and transfer funds from the Republican Party to the Black Panthers. Then they donate President Nixon’s personal wealth to The National Association to Legalize Marijuana.
The scene signals a mix of mockery, political drive, naïveté, and Robin Hood mentality. Cosmo and Marty even say they’re going to change the world. The FBI busts their hideout and arrests Cosmo, but Marty gets away.
I used to work for banks and a major reason for slow transfers and “banking days” was the ability to run fraud detection on full daily batches. That way their algorithms could do more of a complete picture analysis. The kind of money grabs featured in the opening scene are hard but I don’t know what checks were in place in the late 60s.
Several members of the Black Panthers were either imprisoned or killed in gunfights with law enforcement in 1969. But it was also the year the Panthers instituted the Free Breakfast for Children Programs. So the politics of the opening hack could point either way. You see the political hacker mindset today in the decentralized Anonymous hacktivist collective.
Bank Branch Hacking
The movie jumps to present day, which is the early 90s. Marty (Robert Redford) is now the leader of a Mission Impossible-style hacker team.
We see them disable a bank's intruder alarm system by breaking its electric circuit, then trigger the fire alarm with a small smoke bomb in a safety deposit box.
The third piece is to intercept the guard’s distress call and stall him while team members disable the fire alarm from inside. Everything goes back to normal, but with three hackers on premises.
The day after, Marty enters the bank as a customer and withdraws $100k. He takes it upstairs where bank management awaits him. Jaws drop as he produces the cash and gives them a one sentence summary of all the holes in their security. The heist was a paid penetration test, or pentest.
The fire alarm trick is a diversion attack which are especially effective when combined with rare events and high risks. Such attacks are very popular in heist and spy stories.
Pentesting is a common profession among hackers these days. You get to use almost all your hacking skills, trying to break in in a legal way, and get paid for it. But it can be risky. Two people pentesting the Dallas County courthouse tripped an alarm and got arrested. They were charged with trespassing which could have resulted in seven years behind bars.
Working for the NSA
The National Security Agency (NSA) shows up at Marty’s office and coerce him into helping them. They know his 1969 past and he engages to get off the hook.
The agents explain their task to Marty. A cryptographer named Gunter Janek (Donal Logue) recently received an unusually large grant traced to Russia. NSA knows Janek is creating a black box called Setec Astronomy and they want it. They can't steal it themselves since they are not allowed to operate domestically. They're also not allowed to ask the FBI to do it for them. Ergo they need outside help – Marty’s help.
The movie came out right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But Parker and Lasker got the idea for the movie back in 1981 when doing research for WarGames. I posit that the script started out as a Soviet vs USA story and was changed last minute as the Cold War ended. It's hard to remain relevant when you create present day fiction. Imagine all the manuscripts that have had to be adjusted after the Covid-19 outbreak.
Asking a civilian like Marty to steal the black box for the US government feels farfetched. Sure, I would buy it if Marty was the only one capable of doing it or if the NSA didn't want to risk international relations. But they say aren't allowed. Pfft.
Marty attends a lecture by Janek together with his old girlfriend Liz (Mary McDonnell) who knows cryptography. Her conclusion is that Janek has found a way to break modern encryption.
There are a lot of terms in Janek's lecture which I can’t decipher(!). It was too long since I took classes in number theory and cryptography so I can't tell if the terms are mumbo jumbo. But there's always a worry that security agencies find and exploit weaknesses in security standards. It would indeed be a top threat if an adversary could decrypt all data communications.
Breaking encryption may sound like something that never happens outside fiction. But it happens all the time in a field of research called cryptanalysis. It's slow though. Discoveries are discussed for years before they become practical problems.
A real world example: The MD5 algorithm was designed by Prof. Rivest in 1991-1992. It was considered secure and put to industrial use. Already 1993, its first minor weakness was published. 1996 that weakness was found to be more profound and researchers recommended switching to a replacement. 2004 a practical attack was demonstrated – one hour to break MD5 on a high-end IBM compute cluster. That's how long (public) cryptanalysis takes. And 15 years later, 2019, a quarter of content management systems were still using MD5 to protect passwords. Details on Wikipedia.
Marty gets his team onboard and they start investigating Janek. They watch Janek sit down by his computer from afar. His position allows them to watch him type in his PC password. However, Janek’s coworker and lover Elena Rhyzkov (Lee Garlington) obscures the view as she seduces Janek.
More important than Janek's password is the discovery that the black box is hidden in his answering machine. The team manages to steal the black box through social engineering.
Stealing a password by watching it be entered is called shoulder surfing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoulder_surfing_(computer_security). A significant protection against shoulder surfing is biometric authentication, such as your fingerprint. But it's also a good idea to not have your screen or keyboard visible through windows.
A more intriguing type of information theft at a distance is electro-magnetic emanations. Monitors, printers, and other electronic devices leak electro-magnetic signals when you use them, and such signals can be picked up several meters away. Here's a 12-year-old video of a lab setup to read what someone is typing on their keyboard. Don't be surprised if I include such a hack in a novel. :)
Team member Whistler (David Strathairn) plays around with the black box and discovers that it’s indeed a black box. Not as in a box that’s black, but the term black box. It’s a machine that is able to break into the encryption used by all major US government systems.
Marty’s team successfully uses the black box to access the Federal Reserve, the US national power grid, and national air control. We see screen content going from unreadable ciphertext to readable plaintext. This level of access makes them realize this is the most dangerous piece of equipment on earth.
The movie is a little muddy on how the black box works so I’ll look at it from three angles.
First, there's the screen content transform from ciphertext to plaintext. It looks nice, but is very unlikely to match any real world decryption. Decryption is typically done from one end to the other so a better reveal would be from the top, row-by-row.
Second, I started thinking of what kind of crypto this can be. The movie is from 1992 and what we nowadays refer to as TLS or HTTPS came a couple of years later. The systems they connect to likely use Secure Data Network System (SDNS) which was developed by NSA, NIST, and others in the late 1980s. Here’s a paragraph from a 1989 technical report on SP4, Secure Data Network System Transport Protocol:
The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) standards being adopted by government and industry make it possible to interconnect computer systems manufactured by different vendors. Maintaining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data transmitted between these interconnected computers poses new problems. Users of networked computers need assurance that the systems with which they are communicating are not only "open”, but also secure from unauthorized modifications, undetected loss, and unauthorized disclosure. Standard security protocols must provide for the verification of the identities of both the senders and receivers of data to ensure that computers and connecting communications are secure.
No Login Step
Finally, the protection scheme they're hacking wouldn’t make sense without a login step. But the black box isn't a password cracker, it's a crypto cracker. Maybe they imply two-way crypto keys, authenticating both parties when the connection is made? And the magic of Janek’s black box can produce the right keys?
The Evergreen Question for Ethical Hackers
They hand off the box to the two NSA agents. Team member Crease (Sidney Poitier) notices in the newspaper that Janek has been killed. Mighty suspicious. Too late, the team looks into who the NSA reps really are and they’re not from the NSA at all.
We as an audience are fooled by the fake NSA agents but it's a little weird that Marty and his team are. You must have a callback process for such situations. Someone claims to represent XYZ, you call XYZ and double check.
This highlights the question any ethical hacker needs to ask themselves – who am I hacking this system for? Being hired to pentest can be very risky if the security department says company executives must not know because they are part of the test.
Hacking by Sound
After a series of events, Marty finds himself at the mercy of his old hacker accomplice Cosmo (Ben Kingsley). It turns out Cosmo has worked for organized crime ever since he was released from prison, and he's behind the fake NSA agents who convinced Marty to steal Janek's box.
Cosmo tries to convince Marty to join his plans for criminal use of the box. He still wants to change the world! Marty refuses. Cosmo rigs evidence to suggest Marty has killed a Russian diplomat before releasing him.
The team plus Liz gear up to fight back. They call the real NSA and broker a deal to offload the black box once they get it back from Cosmo. They use audio measurement of the voice on the other side gauge if the NSA rep is lying.
Next step is to find Cosmo’s headquarters. As captive, Marty was transported there in the trunk of a car. He remembers all kinds of noises, such as recurring bumps because of seams in the concrete on the freeway. In combination, those sounds narrow it down to one specific bridge he must have crossed. (They’re in the San Francisco Bay Area which means I happen to know all four bridges they talk about– Golden Gate, Bay, San Mateo, and Dumbarton.)
Whistler not only finds the HQ–an office complex under the cover name ToyTronics–but uses a directional microphone to listen through the windows of the building. He hears someone say “My voice is my passport. Verify me.” which they decide it is a “voiceprint ID,” or voice recognition system for building access. Whistler also finds a room that is “bursting with ultrasonic” which indicates some kind of intruder alarm system.
On lie detection via voice analysis, there is something called voice stress analysis. But according to a 2007 US Dept. of Justice study, it's “no better than flipping a coin when it comes to detecting deception regarding recent drug use.” Furthermore, it’s not believable that Marty’s team could have pulled this off with 90s software over a 90s multi-hop phone line.
Listening in on the HQ is different though. Laser microphones can record vibrations in windows which reveal the sounds from inside. There are of course defeaters that distort those vibrations too. I think this hack is good because it shows real surveillance risks.
We have arrived at the final act: Get access to ToyTronics by beating the voice recognition system, then beat the alarm system to get the box.
The plan is to access the room with the alarm through the office next door. They figure out who works there by what looks like elimination. The lights go out in the office in the evening, two people come out of the building shortly thereafter, and no one else comes out for 18 minutes. Next evening, lights go out, one person comes out, and no one else comes out for 22 minutes.
This is a lost opportunity. Since only one person comes out the second evening, they don’t need elimination. It would have been nicer if two people came out both evenings but only one of them overlapped. That’s real elimination.
The person in the target office is a guy named Werner Brandes and they find out his home address through his driver’s license registration. The next step is what’s called dumpster diving–a popular hacker art.
Brandes’s trash reveals that he does online dating, or is a “Compudater” as it’s called in the movie. Liz becomes the bait and sets up a date. Her job is to get Brandes to say each word in “Hi, my name is Werner Brandes. My voice is my passport. Verify me.” so that they can stitch it together and play it back to the voice recognition system.
Marty finds an old Russian diplomat whom he thinks duped him. They go on a car ride and look at photos of spies. Marty recognizes one of them. They’re stopped by supposed FBI agents. Marty gets out of the vehicle. The agent takes his gun and shoots the Russian diplomat.
I again doubt the audio fidelity of the recordings Liz does of Brandes’s voice. They wouldn't be viable to fool voice recognition today. But maybe in the 90s. Or maybe Whistler has a way to enhance the audio quality.
The Final Hack: Beating the Motion Detector
The motion sensor in Cosmo’s office checks both for heat differentials and for motion. Marty needs to move painstakingly slow and they raise the temperature in the office to 98.6F/37C to make Marty’s body invisible.
He gets the box but is caught. Through a series of complications, the team busts out and eventually hands the box to the NSA. Marty has redeemed himself in the eyes of the government.
Moving slowly to beat the motion part isn’t that exciting but the hack of the heating system is neat. I encourage you to watch the MythBusters episode on beating motion detectors. Here’s the most surprising result: YouTube
This movie is a loving portrait of the profession of penetration testers and ethical hackers. It also has a nice heist plot à la Mission Impossible and features the cleverness of a hacker personality.
Liz as the only woman character taking on the stereotypical role of femme fatale is sexist, plain and simple. And the references to NSA, CIA, and FBI are too on the nose.
It’s categorized as a comedy, and sure, there are plenty of jokes in it. But that’s not what it’s remembered for. I think the movie's main merit is the introduction of the professional hacker-for-hire. That role is under explored in fiction. I know several ethical hackers and the stories they tell are mind blowing.
Checkout CrimeReads' recent review of Sneakers which offers a different perspective, focused on characters, plot, and genre: Let's Talk About Sneakers, the Most Charming, Baffling Espionage/Heist Movie of the 1990s
This text was originally published in the September 2021 issue of the Hacker Chronicles newsletter. Subscribe below!
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