Authentication and the Movies: How Hollywood predicted our cybersecurity present


Spaceships and little green men; self-driving cars and self-flying drones; virtual reality and alternative universes; and, if you can believe it, the cybersecurity authentication in use today, all “predicted” decades ago. The movies aren't just a place to go to get away from it all; they're a place to go to learn about what we can expect in the future. 

The list of future tech predicted by Hollywood is very impressive – maybe even in some cases prophetic – when you look at them in aggregate. But among the most surprising predictions from Hollywood over the years have been those relating to cybersecurity – or, more specifically, security authentication to access systems, offices, buildings, etc. At a time when “security” meant two locks on the front door, and the term “cybersecurity” wasn't even a gleam in the eye of Webster, films depicted the dangers that could ensue for advanced systems that were unprotected – and presented ways to ensure that they remained secure. Here are some examples: 

Passwords: Wargames

Passwords are among the most popular methods of authentication, and the movies are full of them. The first “authenticated” use of passwords in the movies was in the 1983 cyber-thriller Wargames, where a couple of kids hack into an Department of Defense computer whose favorite game is “thermonuclear war.” The film, even long before the computer age, predicted not only the widespread use of passwords, but their weaknesses as well; kids are shown breaking into their school computer system changing their grades (using a password that was written down in the school office), breaking into the wargames computer with a backdoor password, and changing or disabling a password in order to keep others out. 

Biometrics (Phony thumbprints):  Diamonds Are Forever 

On the other hand, biometrics may not be all that it's cracked up to be – which is why NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recommends against using thumbprints and the like as a single authentication factor. Thumbprints, after all, could be lifted and fabricated into a “fake thumb” - which is exactly what James Bond did in order to pass an authentication test in the 1971 thriller. Back then, of course, you had to be a Bond to pull that off – but today, it's been done

Biometrics (Retina Scan): Demolition Man

Authentication is generally based on three possible factors – what you know, what you have, and who you are. While “who you are” is not an infallible authentication method when based on thumbprints or fingerprints, it's a hell of a lot more secure when it's based on retina scans or iris identification. This technology is currently under development, and it's likely to be a much more secure take on biometrics – unless, of course, you're pitted against Simon Phoenix, who had a unique, if gory, way to hijack the retina scan process. 

Biometrics (Retina Scan): Minority Report 

There are credit cards, loyalty cards, club cards, entry passcode cards, passwords, and all other manner of identifying customers or members of a group to ensure that the appropriate individuals get entry to a building, receive a discount, or get a benefit reserved for an insider. But cards can be stolen and passwords can be compromised. With retina scan technology now under development, you, too, could one day walk into a Gap and get the same service Tom Cruise did. 

Voiceprint: 2001, A Space Odyssey[1]  

Voice is yet another authentication technology that one day could open doors, turn on computers, allow us to bank or shop online, etc. Already there are devices (from Amazon, Alexa, and Apple) that can identify what we say. It's not a stretch of the imagination that they will be able to soon identify who is saying it. Since everyone's vocal tone is a bit different, voiceprint might make for a very secure authentication system – unless, like HAL, the AI in it decides that it is going to do what it wants, regardless of who's talking to it. 

Multi-Factor Authentication: Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail (1975) 

If passwords, thumbprints, and even retinas don't get the job done in Hollywood (or in the office), then a multi-pronged approach to authentication may be the best answer. In 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we have an example of three-factor authentication. The merry Python gang needs to cross the Bridge of Death, and to do so they must answer three questions. Two are super-easy, but one is very hard – and it varies from individual to individual. That kind of unique authentication is more secure – and could presage where authentication methods are going. 

The movies are where we go to get away from reality – but sometimes, the movies are where we get a real dose of future reality. So far, Hollywood has gotten things right when it comes to authentication technology. Will we find that the systems we use in the future – safer and more secure than what we have now – were also predicted by the movies? Here's betting that they will be.

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