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Serial hackers: Stranger Things

Author: Leon Jacobs, Chief Technology Officer, Orange Cyberdefense South Africa

‘Stranger Things’ has got the cyber community talking: its technological approach is as crazy as the plot itself

Launched in 2016 worldwide on Netflix, Stranger Things is set in the primarily fictional town of Hawkins. When a small boy vanishes in the Midwestern town in the 80s, a terrifying mystery unravels, unleashing supernatural forces, secret experiments, and a very bizarre girl.

Life is pretty normal until a small boy is abducted and taken into an alternative dimension known as ‘the Upside Down’. A sinister place ruled by The Mind Flayer who is a terrifying monster.

As the community rallies around to find the small boy a world of evil monsters and portals emerges.

Stranger Things is packed with 80s technology, from Sony Walkman devices to walkie-talkies, but dig deeper and you can see the results of rapid technological advancement and the security risks it has opened.

Is the creepy Upside Down our Dark Web?

People trapped in the parallel universe known as the Upside Down can only make contact with the real world through electronic devices in this tale of 80s nostalgia. A simplistic take on the internet, perhaps.

What if the Upside Down is our dark web? A reality that has existed parallel to our universe since the internet was born. The dark web is home to all sorts of data. But, because it is not answerable to any governance or content policies and documents don’t pop up on search engines, it has gained a reputation as a mad and sinister place, full of illegal behaviors. In truth, it isn’t all shadowy underworlds. Whistleblowers, for example, have used it to expose wrongdoings without fear of revealing their identities.

And is the Mind Flayer today’s ransomware?

When the Mind Flayer made its debut in season 2, it was quickly apparent the monster had enormous, intimidating powers as part of a hive mind that controlled the giant superorganism that resided in the Upside Down. But its sights were set on a bigger, parallel universe.

But it was also hiding a weakness. Everything shared by the hive mind found it impossible to deal with heat. If the biological matter is burnt, the Mind Flayer and his other hosts that form the elaborate mind share the pain.

Much like today’s ransomware, the Mind Flayer could take control of his victims and make them carry out its evil work. In the same way, ransomware accesses an enterprise’s valuable assets and secrets, so the monster accesses his victims’ thoughts and memories to annihilate all in his path.

From a cybersecurity perspective, the moral of the story is that enterprises must protect their critical assets using cyber defense capabilities and tools or leave them exposed to being infiltrated by evil beings who are as intent on taking over the world as the Mind Flayer.

Breaking down the big hacking scene

The hacking scenes are not supposed to be taken too seriously, but there are some exciting outtakes and glaring mistakes. On purpose, or not, who knows!

Take the hacking scene in season 4, for example. The code being used is Microsoft’s C Sharp designed as a pretty straightforward, general-purpose, object-oriented language. Push back to the scene set in 1986, and the truth is the language wasn’t invented then – it didn’t see the light of day until 2000!

We move on, and our team of intrepid young investigators dip into HTML – again not invented in the 1980s. Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first version of HTML in 1993.

What is interesting, however, is that the code on the screen is for the Wayback Machine, an essential archive of Web content founded by The Internet Archive in 1996. It lets you trawl for any changes to web content. The downer is we can’t see what website they were trying to copy the source code from, so that remains a mystery with the writers.

You can always get back on track – no matter how dark the ride

And so, the town fought on with more heartbreak and action in season 4, minus its heroic sheriff Jim Hopper. At the same time, a terrifying new villain arrives in the shape of Vecna who we learn, controls the Mind Flayer.

The stage is set for season 5 with our favorite hero Eleven to the rescue. Her bad guy remediation powers draw a parallel with incident response services that are much needed if one comes across a villain. As well as her ability to check out on her friends when they are in danger. Because if you don’t know if your friends are in danger (or where your organisation is vulnerable), how can you defend them?

The big question is, did the Upside Down world have spies working for them in Hawkins, and who are they? Expect more monsters and super-powered agents. Enjoy the new season!

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