The Net

The Net. Winkler Films 1995.
The Net. Columbia Pictures 1995.

Before watching the movie:

I first heard of this movie at least five years ago, and pretty much every time it comes up, it’s being mocked for confusing the Internet with Magic. However, that’s hardly unique in Hollywood, and the main examples I’m thinking of seem less implausible now that the Internet of Things is a trendy consumer electronics buzzword on the horizon.

Basically, Sandra Bullock gets on the wrong side of some Hackers for Reasons, and they use the power of the Internet to destroy her life. The drama comes from the fact that since the assault is Online, her antagonists are basically everywhere yet nowhere. At the time, this was clearly New Things Are Scary But We Don’t Really Understand Them, but I want to see if it’s any better now that technology has gotten its hooks into more things.

After watching the movie:

Angela Bennett works from home as a highly skilled computer systems analyst, carrying out pretty much her entire life on the internet and on the phone, aside from periodically checking in on her mother who’s institutionalized with Alzheimer’s. When a colleague sends her a program to check out that contains a strange icon which turns out to be a backdoor access to secure systems, they both write it off as an oddity to investigate more, and Angela takes her planned vacation to Cozumel. In Cozumel she meets a suave computer expert and they get close, but he turns out to be an agent hired to retrieve the floppy the suspicious program was on and dispose of her. She manages to escape, but when she wakes up in the hospital, she finds that all of her credentials have been destroyed in the incident, along with the disk, and her identity records have been tampered with. According to any computer check, she’s not Angela Bennett, she’s Ruth Marx. Returning home on a temporary visa under that name, she finds her entire life stolen, false criminal records on “Ruth Marx”, and the people who did it wanting one of two things: the disk, or her death.

Perhaps the biggest misstep in plausibility is setting it in the modern day. In 1995, hardly anything was online. Records were only beginning to be widely digitized, and most still had extensive paper backups. The contents of Angela’s purse are destroyed, and she’s a loner who doesn’t have many people who could ID her, but that’s the only way the movie acknowledges that the internet in 1995 couldn’t steal identities so perfectly. I thought I remembered reading something about the bad guys hacking a car to crash it, but that doesn’t happen in the movie though it could happen now or very soon.

The thrust of the movie is the idea of whether so much trust should be given to technology, which is a valid argument to make, but its villains work for the most popular security program that secretly provides the company that sells it with backdoor access. I could have done with a bit more explanation of how such a corrupt company got to be the number one cybersecurity firm, but I can’t hold the fact that there are apparently no white-hat hackers finding and reporting these exploits against the film, because even today that profession isn’t widely known.

I find myself without much to say about the acting. It works. Everyone provides what’s expected of them. I couldn’t get a handle on how likable Angela’s only ally was supposed to be, but I think that was more from the writing than the performance. The effects are mainly some painfully 90s viewer-friendly UI graphics, but there’s also a solidly-done plane crash.

This story is halfway prescient, but is far more plausible 20 years later. If they’d set it in a vague near future, it still would have been expressed in ways the 90s could understand, but it would probably have been more believable. I don’t think it’s due a remake though, because setting it now would lose a lot of the foresight and maybe someone can come up with a way to make the premise work within the next horizon of cyberterror, but I don’t think I can. I’ll have to just leave it as a shaky example of sci-fi that doesn’t think it’s sci-fi.

One thought on “The Net

  1. Mark Wood July 17, 2015 / 7:42 pm

    Definitely sci-fi. As in: *what if* bad guys could actually do that? Could really look *everywhere*. Could really destroy an identity without leaving unexplainable messes. All over the world there are vaults full of backup tapes: offline copies that can’t be accessed without involving several other humans, signatures on logs, etc. It’s quite probable that a high-powered systems analyst would have left encrypted documents that must be there and *can’t be falsified* without knowing something that only she should know and that can’t be feasibly guessed, even with mechanical help, quickly enough to be worth the trouble. Emails (perhaps cryptographically signed) get quoted, copied, multiply archived, printed and squirreled away in binders, even published.

    Creating a *complete* false identity is not so simple, either. It requires too many people in on the secret. People who knew this person in school and can give a plausible amount of detail. A list of employers to substantiate the records. Doctors. The person who witnessed the signature card at that bank. In the case of a criminal identity, “victims” who won’t slip up when confronted. None of this can be mechanized, nor can it be done *quickly*. And the vaster the conspiracy, the more rapidly it unravels. Everyone who knew the person’s real identity must be kept away from the false one — if indeed you are able to discover them all. If the real identity just disappears, people start asking dangerous questions, and some of them won’t stop.

    The story may be *less* plausible today. Today there’s orders of magnitude more places for information to be missed, more copies, many more backups to fiddle, and lots more (and much tougher) encryption. (I should hope that by now at least some of the backups are encrypted!) Anyone can become moderately well known throughout the world, at least within the circle of his particular interests.

    It sounds like a solid conspiracy yarn, though. I never believed in Venusians, either, but the stories are entertaining.

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