Protagonists, or their opponents, taking control of a city’s transportation management system is standard movie fare. The characters’ aim is to create either a traffic jam for pursuers or a getaway route for themselves. Hackers, Live Free or Die Hard and Taxi are a tiny sample of the artistic incarnations of this hacking scheme. The once-original set-piece has long since turned into a Hollywood cliché.
The trope most likely began with the 1969 British film The Italian Job. Unsurprisingly for that era, it was the only cyber-related incident in the movie. But the traffic sabotage plot point spawned many imitations, including in two remakes of the original picture, one by Hollywood (The Italian Job, 2003) and one by Bollywood (Players, 2012).
In its various iterations, the traffic-light scene remains pivotal. Thus, by comparing the three versions, we can trace the evolution of moviemakers’ and moviegoers’ attitudes about critical infrastructure hacks.
The Italian Job (1969), the British way
The future-oriented Turin is depicted basically as a smart city of the time. In the movie, a supercomputer controls every traffic light from a single center, where data from traffic cameras is also collected. The mastermind behind the robbery, who dies early on, bequeaths to main character Charlie Croker a detailed plan for a daring heist, along with malware for the supercomputer and an unexplained gadget that can disable cameras.
The program’s origin is unknown; someone probably got hold of the original source code and modified it with chaos in mind. Of course, in 1969 not only was there no Internet, but even local area networks were not properly rolled out. The only way to install the malware onto the computer is to sneak into the building and manually swap the magnetic tape in the drive. That requires the services of Professor Peach, supposedly the top computer expert in the country.
To get into the traffic control center and change the program, the computer needs to be stopped. Croker takes on the mission, hurling his bicycle into a power substation and cutting off not only the traffic control center, but also most of the rest of the city (and plunging a lavish mafia feast into darkness).
Now Peach enters the game, removing the tape reel from the drive and loading another. With the power out, that’s really all that’s left to do, anyway. So, they got a computer expert just to perform the task of a lab assistant. In case you missed that absurdity, that tech genius is played by funnyman Benny Hill.
The next phase of the plan is to knock out the cameras. To throw the traffic control center off the scent, and conceal the actual robbery, the criminals plant some devices — probably jammers, but the details are not revealed — on trash cans and roofs in the vicinity of the cameras. Traffic cameras in those days could not transmit wireless signals, but the mysterious gadgets manage to disable the cameras.
The result: Everything goes like clockwork. The cameras switch off, the traffic lights start blinking, the city roads are paralyzed, and Peach is arrested for indecent behavior on public transportation (don’t ask).
British version: Takeaways Cybersecurity The film displays a rather dismissive attitude toward the physical security of critical infrastructure. Both the power substation and the traffic control centerContinue reading