It was 1995, and I was a 14-year-old freshman at Stuyvesant High School. My classmates, back in those glorious 1990s years when Gopher and Mosaic were high tech, had hacked into email accounts at Columbia, Bucknell, and Princeton. Students at Stuyvesant, an elite public high school that offered (and still offers) a private-school-quality education to a student body largely made up of immigrants and outer borough strivers, had excelled at what they always did: Hacking the system.
But this time was different: This real-life hack happened just a few months after much of Hackers, the cult cyberpunk flick that launched the careers of Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller, was being shot at my school.
Stuyvesant had a very real hacker subculture at the time that gave the school a public relations crisis as the movie came out. The hack in question involved a circle of computer aficionados who used Unix shell accounts to find poorly protected password files that could then be hacked by brute force. The Stuyvesant hackers were motivated less by malice than by boredom and teenage kicks–there was no vandalism or lasting damage involved. School authorities did not crack down heavily on the students behind the hacks. One reason for this is that the hacks took place around the same time an English teacher at the school was in the news for allegedly telling sophomore students about sexually charged dreams in class–that, understandably, occupied much of the school’s attention.
Pop singer Elizabeth Chan, one of my high school classmates, remembers the school’s hacker subculture. “I was hanging out with actual hackers, and when I saw the movie, I kept thinking ‘Are hackers really supposed to dress this way?,’” she told me recently. “I remember buying a clear vinyl jacket!”
Ah yes, the jackets. While some memories from that time have faded, the jackets remain quite clear. The Hackers shoot, in fact, involved lots of vinyl jackets, wallet chains, chokers, and other period fashion, and took advantage of the fact that our school had a brand-new building. There were high-tech looking escalators, and common areas that looked like the high point of 1990s college campus interior design.
Students were offered roles as extras in the film as well. Another classmate, baker Allison Robicelli, says she remembers the school’s principal encouraging them to sign up as extras:
“All I remember is (former principal Eugene) Blaufarb making the same announcement every day: ‘Are you the next Tom Cruise? Are you the next Melanie Griffith?’ I remember this because I have an alternate Hackers in my head that stars Melanie Griffith, which is 100% more awesome than the real one.”
Washington-based journalist Daniel Nasaw, who also attended Stuyvesant in 1995, remembers that the movie was filmed at the high school on a weekend and how it influenced his choice not to sign up as an extra.
Between 1995 and 2015, something massive happened: Computers became woven into the fiber of everyday life, and disrupted daily life in rich countries just as television, electricity, and the automobile had done before. There was no Netflix in 1995; we had video stores. Instead of Spotify or Apple music, you would track down a friend of a friend to copy that Social Distortion record you wanted. Ebay was a long way in the future, and parents still purchased encyclopedias for their children.
Hackers was set to a particularly 1990s backdrop of tech chic that took its inspiration from authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The Matrix was a few years off, and virtual reality was something largely limited to awkward kiosks at suburban shopping malls.
Although it was cutting edge back when it hit theatres in 1995, Hackers feels very much like an artifact of its time now. I can’t watch it without remembering that my backpack had a pocket full of dubbed tapes for my Walkman that year, or that I went from watching film crews set up to grab a burrito from the Taco Bell Express at the World Trade Center, which was nearby (the mind remembers odd things). I remember spending too many hours on AOL with my family’s dial-up modem, and my joy at getting to play with Netscape Navigator for the first time on an IBM PS/2 computer.
As for the filming of the movie, my main memory is seeing film crews set up for the first time. As a student from far-away Staten Island, seeing equipment being hauled into my school’s hallways opened up a new world. It gave students who were saddled with too much homework something to talk about, and it gave us a laugh and the chance to see our hallways on screen when it came out in theaters.
Grady Summers, CTO for cybersecurity firm FireEye, told Fast Company that the world of hackers was different back then.
“The threat actors and techniques are totally different,” Summers says. “In fact, it would have been foreign to talk about ‘cyber threat actors’ 20 years ago. And the stakes are a lot higher, since so much of our business and personal data is just a hop away from an attacker.”
While that is most certainly true, Summers also says that some things have not changed significantly over the past two decades.
“Like a lot of things in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he says. “If you’d asked a security professional what mattered 20 years ago, they would have talked about good authentication, knowing your data, and system hygiene–keeping your systems well maintained and current. While the tools to do all of this have changed, these concepts are still fundamentals of good cybersecurity.”
Years later, Hackers remains a cult classic. The movie influenced the depiction of technology in movies for years to come, and launched the careers of Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, among others. The vinyl jackets may have been flung onto the dustbin of history, but Hackers lives on.