The Operatives Behind ‘Sneakers’ : Movies: Three co-writers of the weekend’s big box-office draw tell a high-technology cautionary tale.
It may be fortunate for society that Walter Parkes, Larry Lasker and Phil Alden Robinson have focused their talents on Hollywood rather than the world of organized (or disorganized) crime. Otherwise, a number of financial institutions and technological research institutes might have found themselves missing a few significant items over the years.
Lasker, co-writer with fellow producer Walter Parkes and director Phil Alden Robinson of the techno-caper “Sneakers,” admits to a certain predilection for trespassing in unauthorized areas.
“I think all three of us share a compulsion for breaking and entering, for getting past security,” says Lasker. “When I was in college, I was known as the person who could always ‘get into things,’ like sold-out rock concerts. I think a lot of people have this urge. Bob (Redford, who stars in the movie) told us that once he and a friend put on tuxedos to sneak into a premiere to which they weren’t invited. They got in by pretending to haul cable for a television crew. Once in the theater, they hid in the bathrooms until it was safe to join the rest of the crowd.”
“Sneakers,” which grossed $10 million in its opening weekend to lead the nation’s box office, tells the story of an eccentric and motley company that tests the security of institutions. Led by Bishop (Redford), the group is composed of ex-CIA operative (Sidney Poitier), a blind audio whiz and phone freak (David Strathairn), a teen-age hacker (River Phoenix), an ex-con/techno junkie (Dan Aykroyd) and an unwilling piano teacher (Mary McDonnell). Approached by supposed operatives of the highly secretive NSA (National Security Agency . . . sometimes known as the No Such Agency), the team is blackmailed into stealing a device that later turns out to be the mathematical equivalent of the Holy Grail--it can virtually unlock every secret on every computer in existence.
“We first came across the term ‘sneakers’ when we were researching ‘WarGames,’ ” says Parkes of the movie for which he and Lasker received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay in 1984. In that film, starring Matthew Broderick, a teen-age hacker accidentally taps into the nation’s defense department computer and sets off events that almost start World War III. The film was the first to show the vulnerability of computer systems to dedicated hackers.
“We were at a convention in Chicago, and I happened to mention ‘sneakers’ to a guy at the Atari booth. I thought the term referred to kids who were hackers. The guy got a very secretive look on his face and proceeded to tell us about these teams of high-tech security guys,” continues Lasker.
Parkes recalls it was easy selling the concept of a “high-tech ‘Dirty Dozen’ ” when they pitched the idea in 1983. They were teamed with Phil Robinson, whose career was just getting off the ground with his screenplay of “Rhinestone.” Although it seemed an unlikely pairing, the trio’s shared enthusiasm for the subject matter and similar political perspectives gelled the group. Nonetheless, it took almost 10 years for the project to be realized. Robinson went on to write “All of Me,” “In the Mood” and “Field of Dreams,” directing the latter two. Parkes and Lasker also produced such films as “True Believer” and “Awakenings.”
“It was a difficult script to collaborate on, and not just because we were all involved in different projects,” says Robinson. “It is a very complex story, both in terms of the plot and the hardware. When you move a comma on page 9, suddenly you have to throw out pages 35 to 45. Also, every time one of us would come across some new technology, we would yell, ‘Yeah, let’s put it in there!’ At a certain point . . . you just have to say, ‘OK, enough is enough.’ ”
All three filmmakers agree that the story really took off for them when they came in contact with the hacker legend, Cap’n Crunch, a.k.a. John Draper, who provided the inspiration for the movie’s other lead, Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley.
Draper got his nickname in the late ‘60s when he found that the whistle from a Cap’n Crunch box could give him unlimited, free travel in an area called cyberspace, a world available through phones and computers. Unfortunately for Draper, it was also highly illegal.
The story took another techno-leap when the writers found John Strauchs, founder and president of Systech Group, a security consulting firm.
“In addition to being a former member of the CIA, John is also a writer,” says Parkes. “So when you sit down to talk he doesn’t just fill the air with a lot of abstract jargon. “
The filmmakers discovered that most “sneakers” such as Strauchs do not need elaborate operations to test the security of buildings.
“My company has done sneaks, and we have found that the human factor is almost always the weak link,” Strauchs says from his Maryland headquarters. “Another waste of money is closed-circuit television. There was a study done among convicted felons a few years ago, and they ranked closed-circuit television 13th out of 13 security measures.”
Looming over all this sleight of hand, gadgetry and techno wizardry, however, was the trio’s continuing fascination with cyberspace. “So much of the world’s communications and business exists in cyberspace, that realm which is accessed by telephones and computers,” says Parkes. “We started looking into the area of secured communications and found again and again that the really hot field was cryptography,” writing or deciphering messages in code.
“It is relatively easy to guess or research someone’s password and get into a system,” Parkes says, “so the way to protect it is to encrypt all the information.”
“We learned that the NSA had put out a standard encryption called the DES, or data encryption standard, for banks, telephone companies and other systems whose information needed to be protected,” continues Lasker. “The NSA was the only one with the key. There is a rumor that there is a trapdoor, a way to bypass deciphering the numbers and get right into the system.”
The existence of a DES trapdoor raises many of the same issues raised by the filmmakers in “WarGames.” In “Sneakers,” the existence of a trapdoor that would allow access to a hacker or a spy from hostile or competitive country to the most sensitive information systems in the country is an even more sobering thought.
“The movie raises many questions not only about the vulnerability of our privacy, but the vulnerability of the information itself,” says Robinson. “If everything can be accessed, then the information can not only be stolen, but altered.”
Yet, while all involved in “Sneakers” admit being drawn to the secretive and techno-toy-laden world of hackers and sneakers (“especially for those of us raised on James Bond movies,” Parkes says with a laugh), the message they are interested in conveying is more cautionary than laudatory.
Says ex-agent Strauchs, “The message hasn’t changed for a thousand years: We have to make sure we are masters of our technology and not mastered by it.”