The Art of “WarGames”

Is this real or is it a game?

— “WarGames” screenplay by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes

My fourth week as a student at Flatiron School’s Web Development bootcamp, was kicked off two days ago with a lecture on the early days of the internet, including its very first transmission, “l o”. I asked whether that transmission made any use of telephone lines; and my instructor said no before good-naturedly busting my chops for having based my question on a Hollywood movie. In 1983’s “WarGames”, directed by John Badham, a young Matthew Broderick plays an undisciplined high school student who uses his home computer, and, yes, his home telephone line (which we’d now call a landline) to hack into his school’s database and alter his grades. He’s also a gamer who engages in what used to be called “demon dialing,” a technique whereby one programs one’s computer to automatically dial every telephone number in a local area code in search of other computers. He does so in the hope of finding a game company, but winds up connecting with a computer that doesn’t identify itself. It offers him the chance to play several new games, though, including “Global Thermonuclear Warfare” if he can figure out the password, which he eventually does through tenacious research.

It turns out that that particular number in California is actually connected to WOPR, the artificially intelligent supercomputer at the Colorado Air Force base that’s in charge of launching our nuclear missiles. He accidentally almost starts World War III with the Soviet Union, but eventually convinces WOPR to stand down.

The movie wound up grossing the 5th-highest North American box office that year; and the process of “demon dialing” thereafter became known as “war dialing”, a practice that hackers continue to this day.

A few days after the movie opened, US President Ronald Reagan asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whether something like “WarGames” could actually happen. The Chairman looked into it and was able to answer him just one week later, “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.” This led to President Reagan signing the classified NSDD-145, the “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security”, which was informed by a small group of spies and scientists who had been concerned about that since two years before the aforementioned “l o”. In 1967, engineer Willis Ware authored “Security and Privacy in Computer Systems”, a paper about the potential pros and cons of what was then called ARPAnet. It described a potential risk of “on-line” networks, explaining that when a computer stops being isolated, and becomes accessible to multiple users from multiple locations, anyone with the right skill set can hack into it.

In 1980 the screenwriters of WarGames consulted with Willis Ware, who had participated in the design of NORAD, on which the film’s WOPR is based. They asked him whether demon-dialing would be a realistic way to hack into that system. And he said yes; that even though the computer is supposed to be closed, some people like to work from home on the weekends, so they leave a port open; and that theoretically anyone could gain access if they dial the right number.

Modern-day wardialing programs can be downloaded for free. They analyze the answering tone for each call they make. If it’s the distinctly annoying one you’ve heard when calling what turned out to be a fax number, the computer knows it’s contacted one of its own. Then it keeps track of which ones were able to connect to the modem. Some of these programs can even identify which operating system is running in the other computer, and might even automatically try gaining access to the system with a bunch of common passwords and usernames.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Most Americans don’t know that less than four months after the movie’s theatrical release, we came to within one hour of an actual nuclear war due to a technological failure. On September 26, 1983 Stanislav Petrov was on duty when the Soviet Union’s early-warning system alerted him to signals for what seemed like five incoming missiles from the United States. Their appearance on that system meant that they had been confirmed in more than two dozen different ways. But there was a group of radar operators who told him they weren’t detecting anything. Still, his official duty was to pick up the phone and report the missiles, thereby launching the protocol that would’ve resulted in a reciprocal nuclear attack against us.

Instead he waited and waited and finally chose to report a technical malfunction, even though he really believed that the odds were 50/50. Half-an-hour later he knew he had made the right guess. And half-a-year later they finally learned that Soviet satellites had somehow mistaken the sun’s reflection in some clouds for the launching of American missiles…

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch