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.
This article appears in the December 2021/January 2022 issue. Subscribe now.
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