With phishing attacks on healthcare costing millions per pop, ransomware attacking critical infrastructures and online banking, The Net is a movie we should watch again and again–each time we think of clicking on a link, in fact!

And—amazingly—this Sandra Bullock masterpiece1 came out the same year as phishing was invented.The 1995 movie tells about the identity theft of a woman by the Gatekeeper—a pseudo security program that actually gives its programmers access to everything, including the FBI, the New York Stock Exchange and anyone else willing to become a client.

This Net came out at precisely the same time as the infamous Warez community executed the first known phishing attack by impersonating America On-line (AOL) employees to collect login credentials from AOL users. The film and the scammers both knew that a precious online database of user information was forming somewhere “out there” in the “cloud”, and which could be utilized for profit or worse.

Hackers—good & bad

Clearly, The Net doesn’t have the graphic finesse of The Matrix or the painstaking research of Space Odysseus. The plot holes are numerous and gaping: “How does Angela, a woman who sits at her desk for long hours and apparently subsists solely on vodka, M&Ms, and the ‘best pizza in cyberspace,’ have such a killer beach bod?” asks Cherly Eddy for Gizmodo, while admiring this 1995 film’s prescience.

Wired describes the film as “extremely computer-savvy for its time.” Bullock’s Angela Bennet orders Pizza and checks herself into a flight online when this was still only possible by phone or—at best—email. She knows how to use UNIX’s WHOIS to access a hacker’s identity. And her protagonist, Jack Devlin, manages to access her online records in order to learn about her and scam her.

In 1995, this was a shocking problem that people had to learn to deal with,” Chris Sims writes. “In 2013, it’s basically how Facebook works.”

Phishing for Income

And, indeed, this year, a staggering 61% of all advertising income is expected to come from digital—TV and video squashed down to 21% from its 2015 level of 38.4%, the last time it surpassed digital. This isn’t surprising since digital advertisers have access to something television doesn’t: precise information on each and every one of us and the ability to customize the pitch to the pundit. “Everyone is stored,” Bennet tells her arresting police investigator, “and there’s like this little electronic shadow on each and every one of us that’s just begging for somebody to screw with.”

But, advertising is the tip of the iceberg.

Brad Slavin has a much more ominous take: “the real wake-up call will come on the day a phishing attack gives hackers the opportunity to change medical records, which has the potential to put someone’s life at risk. Unfortunately, that day is here.” According to him, it’s already possible for a hacker to modify MRI scans, removing evidence of—say—tumors, blood clots, aneurysms, and so forth. It’s entirely possible for a hacker to murder by remote control, just as Jack Devlin does to Bennet’s ex-boyfriend Alan Champion, by tampering with his hospital computer records and deleting his allergy to penicillin.

Unfortunately, we have about as much control over phishing as we do advertising. Fortunately, in both cases, all it takes is a bit of awareness and caution before we click that link or purchase that bridge.



1 Sorry, but we’re suckers for Sandra Bullock movies. This is the lady who in 2009 won both an Oscar for The Blind Side and a Razzie Award for Worst Actress in All About Steve, making her the only actor in history to win both awards in the same year—both of which she received in person and with heartfelt grace and humor.