How Matthew Broderick Shaped U.S. Cybersecurity Policy

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 24, 2016 10:00 AM

It's not often that Hollywood influences national policy. We have still not prepared for the dino-disaster foretold by Jurassic Park, for example, and The Martian has yet to inspire dramatically increased NASA funding. (Not to mention Roman Polanksi and those stubborn extradition laws.)

Which is why this recent bit of trivia from Fred Kaplan, author of a soon-to-be-released history of "cyber war," is so surprising: apparently, Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and 1983's hit film "WarGames" had a major impact on early U.S. cybersecurity measures.

Hollywood: D.C. for Pretty People

"WarGames," if you haven't seen it, tells the story of David Lightman, played by Mathew Broderick, a teen hacker in Seattle who breaks into a

The answer was no. In order to allow army officers to work from home on weekends, NORAD computers were online and completely unprotected. All you needed was the right number to dial in.

Gen. Vessey reported to Reagan that, not only was "WarGames" possible, but that "the problem is much worse than you think."

From the Silver Screen to NSDD-145

Of course, Vessey, Reagan, and Mathew Broderick weren't the first to highlight the risks shown in "WarGames." As Kaplan notes, a small group of scientists had been worrying about cybersecurity risks since the very first days of the ARPAnet and American intelligence was already exploiting "WarGames"-style security holes in Russia and China.

But it was "WarGames" that inspired America's first cybersecurity directive: NSDD-145, the "National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security." That directive established initial objectives and structures for "safeguarding systems which process or communicate sensitive information from hostile exploitation."

But it also put the NSA in charge of securing both government and civilian networks and gave leading roles to the Department of Defense and National Security Council, a troubling mix of domestic and foreign intelligence and civilian versus military approaches to security.

Concerns from Congress and civil libertarians, the type that still play out today, eventually killed the directive, proving that Matthew Broderick's on-screen magic can only go so far to solving real world cybersecurity concerns.

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