Every time I sit down to watch a TV show or movie and they mention computers or hacking, I get amused. I know that I’m probably going to see some attempt to make computer hacking look cool or downright scary. Whether it be highly stylized like Hackers or fairly accurate like the power plant hack in The Matrix Reloaded, there are always little details that get glossed over. In many cases, one of these is the IP addressing of the systems themselves. If the producers and writers of the film even choose to show an IP address on the screen, it’s usually so wrong that I laugh at a totally inappropriate moment of drama.
The practice of using fictitious numbering schemes for things in entertainment goes back several decades. The first known instance of a movie using a fake number for something was in Panic in Year Zero back in 1962. For the first time, the writers used a fictitious phone number starting with 555 instead of a real telephone number. Even though 555 prefixes were used for things like directory assistance, they weren’t widely deployed. As such, the 555 prefix became synonymous with a “fake” phone number. 555-0100 through 555-0199 are the only official numbers in that range set aside for fictitious use, however many people still associate that prefix with a phone number that won’t work in the real world.
Hollywood has been trying for some time to come up with IP addresses that look real enough to pass the sniff test but are totally false. Sometimes that works. Other times, you end up with Law and Order. In particular, the SVU flavor of that show has been known to produce IP address ranges that don’t even come close to looking real. This page documents a couple of the winners from that show when the police start tracing an offender by their IP address. Some of them look almost real. Others seem to have an octet that jumps above 255. Still others have 4-digit octets or other oddities that don’t quite measure up. Sure, it heightens the suspense when people can see what the detectives are doing, but for those of us that know enough to be dangerous, it pulls you out of the moment. It would be like watching ER and hearing the doctors start talking about brain surgery, only to start cutting open a patient’s arm to get to it.
TCP/IP has a large number of address ranges that can be used in a fictitious manner. For instance, Class E experimental addresses (240.0.0.0/4) were set aside and hard coded into most OSes as unavailable. The address range for example use and documentation purposes 192.0.2.0/24 can also serve as a safe fictitious range. Then there’s RFC 1918. These addresses are used for private network ranges and must be NATed to work correctly on the public internet due to their non-routability. These would be perfect for use in movies, as they represent networks that most people use daily. They would look believable to those of us that know what to look for. However, I think the producers and writers avoid doing that because of the inherent curiosity of people.
The greatest example of this comes courtesy of Tommy Tutone. The band hit radio gold with their song “867-5309/Jenny” back in 1982. Unlike 555, 867 is a widely used prefix code in the North American Numbering Plan (NANP). There are numerous stories of people that have received that phone number and been cursed with popularity. One story from Brown university tells of unsuspecting freshmen that move into the dorm room with that telephone number. The phone calls never stop until a request is made to shut down the line. Even back in 1982, the regional Bell companies were seeing huge spikes in telephone calls to that one number. In many cases, they had to disconnect it in order to keep the traffic to a reasonable level. If you’re curious, you can hear some of the messages left for the unfortunate possessors of that cursed number over at http://www.jennynetwork.com
People are compelled to try things they see in movies. This article in the Chicago Tribune talks about the writer memorizing a realistic looking number from a movie and going home to call it several times before giving up. The movie Magnolia included the real number 877-TAME-HER which the movie studio used to record Tom Cruise giving an in-character speech about his system for the purposes of marketing. That’s all well and good in the real world when someone gets a few occasional prank calls or other harmless issues. What happens in a computer network when someone sees a 10.0.0.0/8 address on TV and then decides to try and hack it? What if they call the police and say that the computer address of a murder or a predator is on their network? This can cause huge issues for network admins. The nightmare of trying to explain to people that just because the Gibson in Hackers 3 is at 192.168.1.2 doesn’t mean they get to assault the mail server every day would get old really fast. And when it comes to IPv6, the opportunity for even more trouble arises.
I was a long-time player of the MMORPG City of Heroes. One of the reasons that I liked playing it so much was the lore and back story to the world. I was one of the players that read all of the fluff text to get a better sense of what the writers were trying to do. Imagine my surprise when I was playing a new mission a several months ago and ran across a little Easter egg. One of the writers decided that the imaginary world of Paragon City had long ago ran out of IPv4 addresses and decided to upgrade to IPv6. One of the consoles in the game had a reference to an IPv6 address – 3015:db6:97c4:9e1:2420:9b3f:073:8347. I was excited. Finally, someone in the entertainment industry realized we were running out of IPv4! Then I started thinking. Right now, the allocations to the RIRs all start with 2001. Eventually, once we get the intergalactic Internet up and running, we might end up getting into the 3000 range. It might be a hundred years before the address above is allocated to someone. By then, most everyone will have forgotten City of Heroes ever existed. Putting real IPv6 addresses in movies and on TV does run the risk of having people “hacking the Gibson” when you least expect it. I think you’ll see that even in those far-flung ranges, the odds of a fake address on TV coinciding with a real IPv6 server or workstation address, even on a global scale, is pretty slim. Despite the fact that all our systems will be globally reachable, the IPv6 address space is so large that no two systems are likely to even overlap. Add in neighbor discovery, duplicate address detection, and the uniqueness of a MAC address (which forms the basis of EUI-64 addressing and SLAAC) and you can see how difficult it would be.
In case the name of my blog didn’t warn you…I’m a nerd. When I see something inaccurate in a movie, I tend to point it out. That’s why I don’t watch Armageddon any more. I understand that writers and directors are trying to entertain people. When you’re trying to do that, sometimes the details get sacrificed for the sake of telling a good story. However, when it comes to something that can represented easily for the most realistic look possible, the creative team involved should do that. Whether it be the night sky in Titanic or the address of the mainframe in a techno thriller, I want the people that care about the production values of a movie to show me how much they care. With the advent of IPv6, I think creating fake addresses to put in movies and other entertainment will be easier. Given the vast range of available space it doesn’t take too much effort to pull out something “techy sounding” to put in a movie script. Trust me, the nerds out there will thank you for it.