How many times have you heard this line, usually following an extremely dumb scene where a character “hacks” into a computer or database. The word “hack” in this context is used loosely, as these scenes almost always involve a character using contextual clues from their physical surroundings to somehow guess a password.
For example, a character is trying to gain access to someone’s computer, but it’s locked with a password. They look around the room and see a painting of a fisherman and guess that the password is “fishing.” Said character is then able to gain access to the computer (the Batman & Robin example below is the perfect instance of this.)
Password hacking scenes: An unrealistic trope
The problem with this approach is that it assumes the characters who set their computer’s passwords are dumb…which to be fair, could actually be the case. Or, the password guessing trope is a deus ex machina style plot device that lazily removes barriers for the protagonist so that they can resolve a plot issue. The latter is worse because it assumes the audience is dumb.
In reality, blindly guessing passwords is a surefire way to either get locked out of a system or drive yourself crazy. Even if someone uses a weak password—one that is short and meaningful, such as their birthday or kid’s name—it’s still practically impossible to guess in, say, three tries.
Read more: Infographic: Common passwords by country
That said, it’s still imperative to use strong passwords. That means ones that are long, complex, and random. You can create strong passwords with our Random Password Generator
The characters in the movies we list could have used better passwords. But there are other factors at play, like social engineering. Let’s take a look—and as always, spoilers ahead!
Good password-hacking scenes in movies and TV
Starring a pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick, WarGames follows the exploits of high school student David who unwittingly gains access to a military computer, which he mistakens for a video game.
But early in the film, David is shown hacking his school’s network to change his grades by using the password “pencil.” He then claims that while the school changes the password every few weeks, he knows where it is written down.
This scene wins points for being realistic because of a failure to store passwords securely.
National Treasure (2004)
Leave it to Nic Cage to have one of the better entries on this list.
In the scene above, cryptographer and historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nic Cage)—yes, that’s the protagonist’s actual name—and his friend Riley (Justin Bartha), a computer expert, are attempting to figure out the password to an access panel outside the preservation room within the National Archives. Why, you ask? To steal the Declaration of Independence.
Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), an archivist at the National Archives, has unknowingly touched a chemical which has left behind a residue on specific keys of the security access panel—specifically: A, E, F, G, L, O, R, V, Y.
While Poole runs these characters through a program in an attempt to find an anagram, Gates figures out that the password must be “Valley Forge”, a reference to an important event in the American Revolution, and that Chase used “E” and “L” twice each.
This scene wins points for being fun more than anything else.
With an all-star cast including Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, and Ben Kingsley, Sneakers is an entertaining action, comedy, heist, tech thriller hybrid. Security specialist Martin Bishop (Redford) is tasked by the NSA with retrieving a top secret black box.
At one point in the film, Bishop’s team needs to gain access to a secure facility that is partially protected by the use of vocal recognition codes. The team identifies a target, Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky), whose voice print is required for entry into the facility. An elaborate scheme is hatched whereby Brandes is set up on a date with Liz (Mary McDonnell), who is tasked with getting Brandes to talk long enough so that the team can construct the following phrase from the conversation’s records: “Hi, my name is Werner Brandes. My voice is my passport. Verify Me.”
Another great example of social-engineering-as-a-hacking-method in action.
We’ve written about Mr. Robot before and how it is considered one of the most realistic depictions of hacking on television. Starring Rami Malek, Mr. Robot follows the life of cybersecurity engineer and vigilante hacker Elliot Alsderon.
In one episode in the show’s fourth season, Elliot requires physical access to a laptop and has to break into his target’s apartment. He then proceeds to reset the Windows password by booting the device into recovery mode and altering certain files. It is, apparently, a common way to hack passwords on older versions of Windows.
Bad password-hacking scenes in movies and TV
When Sherlock came out in 2010 it was a smashing success, launching the career of the now mega-famous Benedict Cumberbatch.
In the first episode of the series’s sophomore season, A Scandal in Belgravia, Holmes obtains Irene Adler’s phone. Adler, a dominatrix, has sent Holmes her phone for safekeeping as she is in danger. Unsurprisingly, the phone is locked and constantly displays: “I AM _ _ _ _ LOCKED.”
He finally figures out the code is “I AM SHER LOCKED”, and chastises her for using a guessable password driven by her feelings for him.
It’s…clever and a nice reveal…but honestly also quite hokey.
In the episode that directly follows this, The Hounds of Baskerville, Holmes hacks the computer of a high-ranking major in order to access confidential CIA files. How, you ask? By using contextual clues in the Major’s office which include family photos, children’s drawings, maps, and military history books. From this, Holmes is able to deduce that the major is fond of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher—and that the password is “Maggie”. A classic example of a very good, very unrealistic guess, even for Sherlock.
Also, a computer containing sensitive government documents was accessible using a single word password that was somebody’s first name, with no method of two-factor authentication. Also unrealistic.
Batman & Robin
Whew! You want a dumb password scene? Try this on for size:
Widely considered to be one of the worst superhero films of all time, Batman & Robin stars George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as the titular Batman and Robin, respectively. Along for the ride are Arnold Schwarzeneggar as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl—for some reason, this version of Batgirl is Alfred’s niece and not Commissioner Gordon’s daughter.
The film is a master class in disrespecting source material.
Toward the end of the film, Barbara Wilson discovers the entrance to the Batcave and becomes Batgirl. How does she access the Batcave you ask? Just watch the clip above…no words can describe how dumb it truly is.
Funny password-hacking scenes on TV
Ok, now for the fun part! The following scenes are neither good nor bad, they’re just here for laughs!
After an office blackout, employees at the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company are attempting to figure out what the password to the server is or they won’t be able to access their tools to do any work. They eventually figure it out, and how they get there is absolutely hilarious.
As with The Office scene above, this scene from Brooklyn 99 has the exact same energy. It’s better watched than described!