Ever since humans banded together, there have been spies gathering information and battling for territory. The 21st century has brought advancements in technology through espionage with secret codes and daring agents tasked to deliver top-secret information to stop the bad guys and save the world.

Films about security breaches, cyber theft, and espionage started in the early 1980s as computers and the internet grew. The first attempts in this genre cast the new digital age in prophetic terms of technology run amok. Others looked at the human side of the new cyber threat industry. We have come so far in the marriage of cybersecurity and film that Groundhog Day can be used as a metaphor for end-user risk assessments.

Films About Security Breaches

The truth about cybersecurity breaches is often much less glamorous in real life than on screen, it’s actually much more frightening: most breaches are perpetrated from within a company. Employees use insider knowledge and tools to access customer or colleague information, and they sell it or use it themselves. In fact, businesses now are encouraged to cover their data and liability with insurance specific to this issue.

Movies about cybersecurity and hacking instead characterize data breaches as outside threats perpetrated by a faceless hacker sitting in front of a bank of screens in a dark room.

Takedown (2000)

Based on the nonfiction book Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw - By the Man Who Did It, this movie takes the viewer into the world of computer hackers. Based on the true story of Kevin Mitnick, charged with multiple counts of wire fraud and other crimes during his years as a computer outlaw, the film version displays an accurate portrayal of the hacker community.

Skyfall (2012)

James Bond goes digital in the 23rd installment of the 007 franchise, where a hard drive of the information on hundreds of secret agents has been stolen. This installment of the series took the beloved character Q and made him into a super cybersecurity expert rather than the man with some quirky gadgets.

The Imitation Game (2014)

Although this thoughtful historical drama takes place during World War II, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of computers and decoding military secrets by machine. Benedict Cumberbatch playsAlan Turing, the real-life mastermind behind hacking the infamous Enigma Machine, the device created by the Germans in the early 1920s that was once thought uncrackable.

Films About Cyber Theft

Cyber thievery has been around since the beginning of the computer. Hacking into computers to steal information once had a Robin Hood-like nobility to its cause, and still does in some movies. But depicting ones and zeros on a screen doesn’t make for riveting entertainment, so filmmakers revved up the action outside the computer terminal and made hackers more exciting and multidimensional in the process.

WarGames (1983)

Matthew Broderick stars as a teenage hacker at the beginnings of the computer age. The film introduced many technologies we take for granted now, like the internet and cybersecurity. Yet it is the chilling depiction of Cold War-era tensions and nuclear Armageddon that kept viewers on the edge of their seats. So chilling in fact that the film inspired actual legislation in Washington DC to prevent cyber intrusions into the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Enemy of the State (1998)

Another thriller that introduced new technologies, Enemy of the State starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman was a blockbuster that explored cyber-surveillance and the federal government running amok, hiding bad guys and dark secrets. The film introduced complex issues of national security and privacy, which would be exposed by Edward Snowden 15 years later.

Snowden (2016)

The controversial figure of Edward Snowden came to the big screen in 2016. Some would call him the Robin Hood of cybersecurity who exposed intrusive government surveillance, others the treasonous criminal who uncovered secrets of the U.S. intelligence communities, the story makes for good movie fodder.

Films About Espionage

Once the advent of computers and the internet became widespread, so did taking cyber criminality into the world of spy movies. The espionage genre was ripe for the secretive world of hackers and cyber-criminal capable of taking down governments or preventing World War III.

Sneakers (1992)

Robert Redford stars as a security expert that uncovers a black box that can decipher any encryption, making an Alan Turing-like discovery to discover the bad guys, which in this case, as in many others, includes the ubiquitous rogue national security agents. 

Mission Impossible (1996)

Reviving the mothballed Mission Impossible franchise for a modern audience, Tom Cruise and director Brian De Palma created a new cyber-espionage star in Ethan Hunt who tracks down an undercover agent hit list with the help of his Impossible Mission Force (IMF). Although its use of floppy discs is dated, Mission Impossible is full of action and suspense. 

Mission Impossible - Fallout (2018)

The sixth edition to the Mission Impossible franchise finds Hunt and his IMF team preventing nuclear war with the help of secret broadcasts and cyber-surveillance to track down the bad guys and win the girl. Despite 22 years and a half-dozen releases of the Mission Impossible film series, this latest installment shows it has no intention of slowing down. 

The Future of This Genre

The end of the 2010s doesn’t mean the end of films about security breaches, cyber theft, and espionage — just the opposite as more documentaries and feature films look to the digital world for inspiration and riveting storytelling. The dominance of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and newcomers Apple and Disney+ will undoubtedly unleash more tales of hackers and spies looking to destroy (or save) the world.