The ’80s Classic ‘WarGames’ Apparently Set The Stage For NSA Spying

WarGames is an ’80s classic and, for many people, their first introduction to the concept of hacking. Matthew Broderick plays a hacker who thinks he’s found a fun war simulation, but is in fact talking to a NORAD supercomputer that controls the nukes, and nearly starts World War III. And believe it or not, it not only had a basis in reality, it set up how the government perceives, and deals with, cybersecurity.

Why? Because Ronald Reagan saw it and, in a Joint Chiefs meeting, asked chairman John Vessey to investigate whether it was Hollywood fantasy or if American military systems could really be compromised by an industrious kid or a Soviet initiative. Vessey came back with an answer a week later: Not only was it possible, it was in fact becoming increasingly probable.

In part, Vessey knew this because the United States was actively breaching the computer systems of the Soviet Union and other countries to gather intelligence, and there were very public instances of hackers cracking passwords and invading systems in the United States. And WarGames reflected the concerns of a group of computer scientists and intelligence officials worried about security, including, most importantly, Willis Ware.

Ware is a rarely discussed, but important part of computer and Internet history. Ware was the first to realize that as computers become more commonplace and more connected, security and privacy concerns we could only dream of would not only suddenly manifest, but cause massive and dramatic changes in social and government policy. Despite working on highly classified systems, Ware was publicly available for comment in his role at the RAND Corporation, so when a few screenwriters asked whether the urban legend that government computers were connected to public phone lines was real, Ware cheerfully confirmed that they were. He’d know, as he built NORAD’s system, including the open phone lines employees could call into to work on the weekends.

Despite the respect Ware commanded, he couldn’t get anyone to take his concerns seriously, until Reagan saw the movie he’d pitched in with. It was Reagan who decided that the NSA should be responsible for securing American computer systems, a decision that Congress acted against because it specifically violated the NSA mandate. Of course, this didn’t stop the NSA from spying, laying the groundwork for the programs Edward Snowden would reveal and setting the stage for a larger argument between security and privacy. So, if you’re wondering why Apple and the FBI are at loggerheads, or why the NSA is collecting your nudes, you’ve got Matthew Broderick to thank.

(Via The New York Times)