Just Enough Tech -- "The Net" Works Well

by Richard Seltzer

This movie review is scheduled for publication in Media Wave magazine. For information on that publication, contact the editor, John Shinnick. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim electronic copies of this article for non-commercial purposes provided this permission notice is preserved on all copies. All other rights reserved.

"Our whole world is sitting there on a computer," explains the heroine of "The Net." That means that if bad guys get access to critical systems -- like government records, medical records, and air traffic control computers -- they can erase your identity or even kill you with a few keystrokes. And by altering police records they can prevent you from turning to the police for help, giving you a criminal history and making you a desperate outlaw.

This is not sci-fi, although many viewers will probably think it is. All the capabilities in the rich texture of everyday uses of the Internet -- from ordering pizza, to socializing in chat groups, to making air line reservations from your desktop -- are available right now, and are used regularly by people like the main character -- a computer programmer/hacker in Northern California.

The plot also is quite credible. Hackers could selectively cause paranoia about computer network security, inducing government agencies, banks, etc., to adopt a particular security solution in which they have planted a "Trojan Horse," hidden code that will later allow them to gain access to those systems whenever they wish.

In an interesting twist, the hackers are the bad guys, and the government is vulnerable and gullible. There's no specter of Big Brother here. There are no competing super-sleuth government agents a la James Bond. The Cold War is over and forgotten. And like the old New Yorker cartoon, "no one knows your a dog on the Internet." A few hackers in collusion with the president of a small Internet software company (that has a security product), are poised to take control of and reshape big business and government.

There's no mention of international threats or implications. They could have added a line in the script to explain that sophisticated security software such as the fictitious "Gatekeeper" product is currently subject to export controls and hence the problem would (at first) be limited to the US. But they didn't bother because that information wasn't central to the plot. Similarly they could have raised issues related to encryption and decoding (which was central in the movie "Sneakers"). But they by-pass that, with communications appearing as clear text -- presumably the results of decoding, without all the rigamarole of how it was done. Throughout they provide just enough tech to be credible and interesting, without confusing matters.

Computers and the Internet are presented as tools that ordinary people can and do use all the time. The heroine and her nemesis have relatively deep knowledge and talent to accomplish feats that most others would not be able to, but while "the whole world" sits on a computer, the whole world uses computers as well. In the world of "The Net," computers and the Internet are familiar and comfortable, not alien and confusing. It strikes the viewer as a revelation that something so commonplace as the Internet could in the hands of a small band of hackers be turned into an instrument of destruction and subjugation.

The woman at the center of the story is a loner ("Computers are your life." "Yes, the perfect hiding place.") who loves her work beta-testing and troubleshooting software ("Business or pleasure?" "Is there a difference?"). When trouble struck, there was no one she could depend on, no one who could come to her rescue. She had to -- and did -- do everything herself; and she was very credible in doing so. Hackers created the problem and she, a hacker, acting alone,could put an end to it; before police and government agencies even had a clue that anything was amiss.

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