Cryptocurrency and Heists in Entertainment
The “heist” has become a recurring trope in popular culture, and it’s easy to see the appeal. For producers, it offers an adaptable narrative framework and the potential for a high-profile ensemble cast. For audiences, there is the possibility of drama, tension, and maybe a little schadenfreude as large financial institutions get taken down a peg or two.
Meanwhile, our contemporary reality is one in which the potential for being the victim of a heist is actually growing. We are increasingly reliant upon digital tools in our everyday lives; our finances, personal information, and professional connections are all online. Because of this, bands of criminals are less likely to storm physical banks at an attempt to steal cryptocurrency when everything can be taken from the comfort of their own home (or other shady location).
The risks are varied, and there have been some interesting attempts to capture these in movies and TV shows. We’ll take a look at some prominent examples, and where reality and fantasy diverge. Are there teams of good-looking but shady characters making plans to access our medical records, or are we just a bit paranoid?
The most traditional of all heist targets is cold hard cash. Whether it’s robbing a casino — as seen in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), or possibly even Ocean’s 11 (1960) — or one of countless bank jobs. Over the last couple of decades, though, the financial heist in pop culture has started to take on more technological methods.
2001’s Swordfish is perhaps one of the prime examples of financial heist movies that have joined the physical and digital worlds. A hacker (played by Hugh Jackman) is recruited to develop a “worm” that will siphon billions of dollars in government funds during a traditional bank raid. Meanwhile, Ant-Man (2015) is slightly more unusual among its peers in that the funds aren’t accessed for personal gain, but more as a form of remittance. At the beginning of the movie, we find the character Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) accessing a company’s finances in order to return money to customers that had been unethically overcharged, not unlike a modern Robin Hood.
We are yet to see many examples of cryptocurrency heists being undertaken in movies or TV. However, Bitcoin Heist, and the Sony Crackle TV series, StartUp (both 2016) may prove to be the start of a new trend. It may depend on how much of a presence cryptocurrencies present in our culture. We are still technically in the early days of cryptocurrency, after all, and the public, in general, doesn’t tend to use this form of finance in everyday life — therefore there isn’t much opportunity for the viewing audience to understand or relate to the stakes at play. However, as cryptocurrency becomes more and more common, we’re likely to see the plot device pop up.
One of the significant developments in our society over the last few decades has been the growing importance of data. While advances in technology have helped us all to become more connected, they have also highlighted how valuable our personal information can be, and how vital it is to adopt sufficient protection. While not as widespread a narrative as bank heists, there is a short history of data theft in pop culture.
For the most part, cybercriminals obtaining personal data in movies are usually doing so to manipulate individuals or government agencies. In The Net (1995) a systems analyst has her identity stolen and erased, with a new criminal identity being assigned to her social security number, in order to force her to hand over a disk. Both Mission: Impossible (1996), and Skyfall (2012) see cybercriminals attempt to illegally access the identities of intelligence community employees for release to the public or the highest bidder.
The reality of cybercriminal data theft is not usually dramatic enough to make it on-screen. Yet, its effects can be devastating to the individuals affected. The potential harm that can be caused by illicit breaches of patient health records has even resulted in changes to the jobs of medical professionals. The real-life stakes may not be of Hollywood proportion, but they are still a prevalent and scary threat in our world.
In movies, heists are not always purely for personal gain. It isn’t always enough for a screen criminal to be charismatic for us to support their illicit hijinks. This has given rise to the subset of narratives in which the criminal has purer ulterior motives for their thefts. Perhaps the most popular example of this being Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) — utilizing the enduring mythology of the character who robs from the rich to give to the poor.
It’s a trope that we see throughout popular culture, and it takes various forms. In the Starz series, Black Sails (2014), we witness various heists — on sea and land — wherein at least one of the central character’s primary motives is to ensure that the island of New Providence remains free of tyrannical government interference. 2013’s Now You See Me follows a group of illusionists undertaking heists which result in an audience filled with victims of white-collar crimes being reimbursed.
While there are likely examples of cybercriminals taking on the establishment for what they deem to be injustices (Anonymous), much of the time this only serves to remind us that the world isn’t always quite so black-and-white. In reality, cybercriminals are, for the most part, not intending to give back to the poor, rather their actions could put the most vulnerable at risk.
Heist movies are likely to continue to be a prevalent aspect of popular culture. As our society changes, we may see more changes from traditional bank robbery movies such as Den of Thieves (2017) to cybersecurity-centric narratives. However, it could be important and fascinating to see how fiction can more accurately portray the risks and consequences of the threats posed by cybercrime in everyday life.