It’s All About the Information: An Essay on the Technology Advances in the 1992 film, Sneakers

Joshua Taj Bozeman

It’s All About the Information:
The Technology Advances Portrayed in the 1992 Film, Sneakers

The 1992 film, Sneakers, is a quiet gem of sorts. Many film lovers even today would be hard pressed to remember the film, a large portion of them having never seen it. It’s not going to make any top ten lists, and it probably will never be praised as a masterpiece, but in terms of its use of technology and how nearly prophetic it was in regards to the use of information and the internet is uncanny. Technology was portrayed in such a way that audiences had never before seen, and it lead directly into the information age as we know it. The film was created by the writing/directing team of Phil Alden Robinson (who previously directed Field of Dreams), Lawrence Lasker, and Walter F. Parkes. Lasker wrote the screenplay for Project X (1987), and Lasker and Parkes co-wrote the script for the 1983 cult classic, War Games, another film that deals heavily in the themes of modern technology and the danger such technology poses. Sneakers, however, poses a new set of questions for moviegoers who were dealing with the internet revolution at home in this very time frame. How will society change with the advent of the internet, and how will governments and business control our lives now that power would be concentrated in information, or as the film’s villain tells us, “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data.”

There are a number of areas to explore technology used in Sneakers, and the best staring point might be the “little black box” that is at the center of the film’s plot. Our “sneakers” are a group of experts in various fields who use their skills to break into various businesses to test out said businesses security systems, reporting back to the owner of the business, letting him or her know the flaws in their security. It’s a fairly simple task for our band of heroes, but it’s one that’s filled with the use of various technologies. The group is hired by two men posing as agents of the National Security Agency to retrieve a little black box from a mathematician, thinking that he was hired by the Russian government as a sort of spy, and this black box contains some form of new technology they cannot let stay in “enemy hands.”

As it turns out, the little black box in question is a device that acts as a master key to any system of encryption. Encryption is a digital form of cryptography, the system where communications between two parties are coded in order to hide the information contained from a third party. Encryption involves a scheme whereas information is jumbled, looking like a random arrangement of text to a third party, but the intended recipient, using a master key to reassemble the message can thus restore the information to its original state (Oja and Parsons 285). Internet security is almost strictly in the form of encryption today. To understand how encryption works, you need to think of the data being behind a locked door, and when you decrypt it, you do so by using a key for the door. The key is complicated, and it’s measured in bits—40 bit protection would take the average PC in 2009 a week’s worth of processing time to decode an encrypted message. The higher bit key needed, the more time it would take to unlock the door using a brute force method, i.e. simply using a computer to try every possible combination of numbers and letters as the key (Oja and Parsons 286). The first encryption systems for data traffic such as those on the internet was created in 1991 by Phil Zimmermann, and these were much lower tech than the encryption schemes in use today (Stewart). In the film, there is a scene in which the black box is used to access and read encrypted websites, including those for the Federal Reserve, national air traffic control, and even the national power grid. The characters comment that it would be easy to take down the Federal Reserve just by having access to the data stream, an unlikely event in real life, as a password scheme would also be used. The important part of this scene is that it gives audiences a semi-realistic view of where data storage was headed, and how easily it might be for a hacker with nefarious intentions to disrupt society in very serious ways.

The film uses technology, especially in the form of computer hacking, in humorous ways. The blind character played by David Straithairn goes by the name Whistler, an homage to two men who are well known to the hacking community. One is Josef Carl Engressia, Jr., a gifted man who discovered he could whistle specific tunes into the telephone, activating the switches in the process. This allowed him to make free long distance calls, for which he was investigated by the FBI (Lapsley). The other is John Draper, a famous phone hacker who belongs to a community known as “phreakers.” These are people who experiment with various telecommunication networks, especially phone systems in order to hack and test these systems. In the 1980’s, various people discovered that AT&T’s phone systems could be activated by whistling a 2600mhz frequency into the phone, thus allowing free long distance calls or access to private networks within the system (Hacking’s History). According to various urban legends, Draper found that a whistle given as a toy in boxes of Cap’n Crunch would give out the 2600mhz frequency, which would allow him to take a public telephone, route the call through various countries, and then call another phone he had nearby (Delio). In the film, Whistler is known for his keen sense of hearing, allowing him to detect security measures in the antagonist’s headquarters, as well as giving him the ability to detect certain frequencies that allow them to access the security system of a bank they break into at the start of the movie. It’s no accident that near the end of the film, they make a call to the FBI, and in the process route the call through various countries in Europe and Asia.

The film’s use of technology is nearly prophetic in some ways, and this glimpse into the future really comes into focus when dealing with the internet and the use of information. As Cosmo, the only real “villain” in the film tells the character played by Robert Redford, the future isn’t about weapons, it’s about ones and zeroes, bits of data on the internet, stored in computer systems around the globe. With access to these pieces of information on all people around the globe, you can either control all of them or you can do good by taking out the whole system. By simply destroying the system of computer networks, because data worldwide was moving to these systems, you could actually destroy all records of ownership, giving the power back to the people, away from governments, many of whom might use this information to do harm.

The internet has, clearly, become a vital part of all of our lives. We use it to send copious amounts of sensitive data that, twenty years ago, we’d never have imagined we’d ever allow anyone to see, let alone the owner of a random website or a business whose headquarters are thousands of miles away. That is the true genius of Sneakers. It saw the future as few films before it had. In 1983, War Games came out, and it was a box office smash. It dealt mostly with the notion of nuclear warfare, but computers played a major role. In the film, a teenager played by Matthew Broderick, hacks into a computer system used by the military to play a “game.” As it turns out, the game is, in fact, a countdown to actual nuclear warfare, and once the computer has set the process into motion, there seems to be no way to stop it. War Games is credited, by many, as introducing the concept of hacking to the average man on the street (Hacking’s History). The fears related to the Cold War and tensions with the Soviet Union and this idea that technology could be used for evil are on display in Sneakers as well. Cosmo, Redford’s old friend and current nemesis is a paranoid maniac, of sorts, and he’s sure that dominating various people and entire governments lies in his ability to gain access to encrypted data streams. In fact, the very notion of a little black box sounds very much like Draper’s little blue box that allowed other phone freaks to make long distance calls for free, though the technology in the black box decryption device in the film is clearly much more advanced. Later, in 1995, the film Hackers would bring hacking back into the mainstream, coinciding easily with the release of Windows ’95, the operating system heralded as bringing personal computers to the masses (Gilder 111). Notice how Sneakers fits nicely into the middle of this period. A casual look at the films dealing with computers and hacking gives us a fairly clearly view of the landscape at the time—filmmakers simply were not dealing with the topic (List of Films About Computers), and Sneakers had the advantage of coming a mere two years after the first digital encryption systems were created. The technology being discussed in Sneakers was really coming into its own around the time the film was produced, and despite this, few filmmakers were even dealing with the topic at all. The media landscape should have been littered with TV series and movies dedicated to hacking, personal computing, and the internet, but for some reason few creative minds took the bait. This leaves Sneakers in a special historical position, its legacy is not only that of a hilarious and fast paced caper, but it’s dealing in technology that would soon change the entire way societies work, play, and do business.

One of the overriding concerns of the characters in Sneakers is privacy and the dissemination of information, how information is stored, and who has access to details about our lives that few of us would share with strangers. Data, as it turns out, is a fungible concept. The notion of privacy has changed over the years, often as new technologies have emerged. Studies show that people tend to privacy a bigger issue, and more of a “right” guaranteed to them as new technologies come into existence (Kasper 90). The film is about a lot of things, dealing with a number of technologies, but in essence the main underlying theme throughout the movie is information and our concept of it. For most of recorded history, information was just that—recorded, onto bits of paper, into files that existed in some physical medium that could be handled, sifted through, sorted. Today, information exists in the realm of bits and bytes, ones and zeroes, a stream of binary code that contains records of our births, ownership of property, taxes we owe the government, who we voted for, and more and more the mundane bounty of personal information that can be used by businesses for profit. The CEO of Sun Microsystems famously said in a 1999 press conference, “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it” (Kasper 69). This issue has, clearly, been pertinent for much of the modern PC era.

Perhaps not all of the technology portrayed in the film is true to life, but that’s not the important aspect of it all. What is important is the concept, what we believe to be true. In a world of ones and zeroes, concrete information can be hard to come by, and what we need to worry about, and what many people fear, is the perception that information is out there floating around, possibly sold to the highest bidder. As in the film, when Cosmo explains to Redford’s character that he can make banks and entire small countries fail, it’s not about a bank or currency failing, but rather the “perception of reality” that such a thing is taking place.  If people think a bank is financially shaky, they remove their money, which then actually makes the bank financially shaky. That’s one thing technology has given us. Information exists in the ether away from what we can hold in our hands to the point that most of us have money that only exists as information in bank computers, transferred for goods and services via a chip embedded in a debit card, and that’s one fear Sneakers plays up to great effect.

     Sneakers is a gem of a film. It doesn’t fit into that box because it won awards, and it doesn’t belong there because it’s a perfect film that everyone loves. It’s a film few remember vividly, but it did deal with some serious technology issues at a time when few other films were doing so. While most others in Hollywood were ignoring the PC revolution and the dangers inherent with the influx of all this new technology, Sneakers took the issue head on and showed us what the future would hold. Not all of the elements came out to resemble the world we see today, but much of it does look exactly like what we see today. The fears Americans had back in 1992 are some of the same fears we have today, we just happen to be a bit more tech savvy which means we’re used to these dangers, and most of us had said the benefits of the technology are worth it.

 

Bibliography

Delio, Michelle. “The Greatest Hacks of All Time.” 6 February 2001. Wired Magazine Online. Web. 15 April 2013. <http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2001/02/41630?currentPage=all>.

Gilder, George. Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World. Simon & Schuster, 2000. Print.

“Hacking’s History.” 10 April 2001. PC World Online. Web. 15 April 2013. <http://www.pcworld.com/article/45764/article.html>.

Kasper, Debbie V. S. “The Evolution (Or Devolution) of Privacy.” Sociological Forum 20.1 (2005): 69-92. Print.

Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Grove Press, 2013. Print.

“List of Films About Computers.” 2013. Wikipedia. Digital. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_about_computers>.

Oja, Dan and June Jamrich Parsons. Computer Concepts, 2010: Comprehensive. Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Stewart, Bill. Living Internet. Bill Stewart, 2000. Digital. <http://www.livinginternet.com/i/is_crypt_pgp.htm>.

 

 

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