From 25 years ago, it’s a movie I never got to see before. Maybe it was because I was going to college about then and didn’t have time. The topic intrigued me. I was acquainted through trailers running on TV, and I had the idea there was a double meaning in the title. It’s Sneakers from 1992 and starring Robert Redford and also Ben Kingsley. It’s hard to imagine these two guys are 25 years older now. Then, so am I.
This is from Universal Studios. I caught it on Hulu. Details are from Wikipedia.
“Sneakers” is, or was, the term for people who used remote access to break into others’ computers for fun and mischief. I had the idea “sneakers” also alluded to the juvenile mentality of these people. Anyhow, back in 1969 we see two sneakers, Martin Brice (Redford) and a person named Cosmo (Kingsley) in a college dorm breaking into bank accounts and transferring large sums of money. Brice assures Cosmo there is no chance they will get caught and punished for this. Then he goes out for pizza.
His VW minivan won’t start (cold and snowy), and he watches in horror as police raid their dorm room and haul Cosmo off to jail. Brice escapes and becomes Bishop.
It’s maybe 23 years later, and Bishop now has his own company. What his company does is break into banks and steal money. Here he is closing out a fake account he has created for himself. $100,000 in bills go into his briefcase. He then dumps the money onto the table in the bank’s conference room and explains how it was all done and what the bank needs to do to spruce up its security. He pockets a check for his services and goes back to his company’s digs, which appear to be in a warehouse of some kind. This is a shoestring operation.
Two feds show up. They know Bishop is Brice, and they are not friendly. They are with the NSA and either he cooperates with them, or he goes to jail. They want him to steal a device from a mathematician who has developed it for nefarious purposes.
Bishop enlists his employees, one of whom is a cashiered CIA snoop named Donald Creas and played by Sidney Poitier). Here we see Bishop sneaking past a hotel clerk while a co-worker distracts the clerk with a phony package delivery.
They get the device, a “black box,” and the horror sets in. While the crew is celebrating their score and contemplating the big check they will receive at the hand off the next morning they discover the value of what they have stolen. It provides the user means to crack the most advanced encryption in use. They realize this is a prize many would kill for, and that turns out to be true. The two “NSA” types are not (currently) with the NSA, and they plan to kill Bishop and not make the payment. At the hand-over Crease, waiting in the getaway car discovers from a newspaper headline the mathematician has been murdered, and he summons Bishop back to the car before he can get the payoff check, which check was likely just an illusion.
The box is gone, along with the two phony NSA spooks, and the crew is out the payoff. Then the group that obtained the box kills a Russian spook and his driver, and they kidnap Bishop, taking him to their headquarters and a room with a massive computer that has all the appearances of a period piece Cray supercomputer. Head of the operation is Cosmo, who did not die in prison as advertised. Cosmo warns Bishop off any future interference, and Bishop is dumped off on a deserted street.
To cut to the chase, the crew figure out where Bishop was taken, and a massive sneaker escapade gets them the black box. No time to celebrate, though. The real NSA is onto them, and once again threats of prison are leveled at Bishop, by none other than James Earl Jones, here playing NSA Agent Bernard Abbott. Bishop’s crew agree to cough up the box in exchange for all the goodies they had expected to obtain with their expected payoff. An agreement is reached, and Bishop hands over the box.
Ha! The joke’s on the NSA. Bishop has retained the crucial circuit that does the decryption, and the movie ends with a TV announcer giving the sad news that the Republican Party treasury has been looted. On the bright side, on the same newscast, anonymous donors have made huge contributions to Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the United Negro College Fund.
This plot is quaint on a number of points. About 1969 I was working with one of Seymour Cray‘s first computers, so I was sort of aware of what the computer world was like back then. 1969 was too early for big banks to have their computer operations on-line and vulnerable to remote looting.
The encryption cracking was developed by a mathematician named Dr. Gunter Janek (Donal Logue), and his process has been incorporated into an integrated circuit. This device would be truly amazing if it really had the ability to crack modern encryption, even back in 1992. That is definitely a bit of science fiction, as the difficulty of cracking these codes is well-studied mathematics. The cracking can be accomplished, in principle, but requiring massive, need I say “astronomical,” amounts of computation. The short answer is, no.
Bishop hands over the black box to the two phony NSA types. One of them reaches into a briefcase, ostensibly to retrieve the payoff check, but suspected of about to pull a gun. No. There is no way, with this much at stake, the two were going to blow Bishop away in a public place. After shooting Bishop their next act would have to be quietly slipping away and hoping nobody noticed the gunshot and the dead body.
Anyhow, Cosmo has multiple opportunities to kill his former friend and former dorm mate, and he does not. Old college ties and all that. Cosmo is revealed as super altruistic—he’s doing all this to bring down major industries and the entire fabric of world economics. That will reduce humanity to a level playing field with everybody equally impoverished. And to accomplish this in the name of world peace he has a Russian spook and his driver gunned down on a public street?
In the final encounter, Bishop’s crew has the black box, and they are back at their safe place, and in bursts the real NSA with real guns. And Bishop negotiates the handover of the box? If the NSA team was ready to negotiate, why the guns in the first place?
It was pleasant, in today’s political climate, seeing in the end the Republicans looted and all their money going to liberal causes. Who could have imagined 25 years ago?
I first caught Poitier in what may have been his breakthrough role. It was Blackboard Jungle in 1955, and it introduced film goers to rock and roll, with Bill Haley & His Comets playing Rock Around the Clock. Poitier was a high school tough, and Glenn Ford was a newby teacher at South Manual Trades high school in New York City.
A lot is made in the movie of cracking passwords. The truth is that fairly simple passwords, involving non-language combinations of letters and numbers, are beyond the ability of a computer to crack. Direct password attacks are routinely thwarted by the simple device of locking accounts after multiple log in failures and by notifying users of such attempts.
Successful intrusion is typically accomplished by:
- Social engineering, convincing somebody to give out a password
- Phishing, tricking a user into suppling a password in order to execute a bogus login
- Security compromise, rogue or careless system administrators [This was the approached used by Edward Snowden.]
- Network snooping, intercepting network traffic and decrypting secure communications and stealing passwords sent in the clear
These approaches do not provide the drama and rapid development required of this movie plot.
A fact not reflected in most fictional tales of military espionage is that secret information is not kept on computers connected to outside lines. Thefts of classified government information have always involved somebody walking out of a secure facility with a copy of the stolen data. This is the approach used by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.