Hard to believe, but the internet has been around long enough now for there to be aging computer hackers out there, sitting around and reminiscing about the good old days. Scary but true, as evidenced by what constitutes the bulk of director Jennifer Read’s surprisingly bland documentary “Owned.”
Stars in this universe consist of guys like John Draper. A.k.a. “Cap ‘n’ Crunch,” he invented a device called the blue box that gave phone phreakers a back door into the worldwide phone system; the closest thing there was at the time to a pre-internet global communications grid. Another marginally familiar name here is Kevin Mitnick. A convicted felon and uber-hacker, Mitnick talks about his glory days while driving around and pointing out dumpsters through which he and his cohorts used to dig looking for information to help them with their hacking. Trust me, this is far more interesting to him than it is to you or me.
Read supplements segments on these hacking legends with (better) pieces on today’s hackers. A trip to Vegas for a convention of hackers known as Defcon tries to polish the modern hacker’s image a little bit. Similarly, Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of “2600: The Hacker’s Quarterly,” heroically casts the hacker as a political activist eternally engaged in a quixotic quest for free information. Even so, hacking today is probably still best personified by the likes of Fuqrag. A paranoid, depressed, chain-smoking recluse with an ever-present, disturbingly nervous laugh, Fuqrag fulfills every stereotype of the hacker as he mows down government websites like a logger in the Pacific Northwest. Finally, the Feds make their obligatory sternly dour appearance in the film, looking every bit as square and exciting as a cardboard box.
For a subject that seems as inherently hip and cool as hacking — even old-school, pre-internet, phone-phreak hacking — “Owned” is a surprisingly uninspired and laconic documentary. Could be that hacking just isn’t a good spectator sport or that it doesn’t seem as fun, exciting, or innocent in today’s troubled times. Maybe since we’re all wired in a sense now, we’ve forgotten the thrills gleaned from the illicit tapping into of forbidden knowledge. Or maybe the vague queasiness that people seem to feel when someone wistfully remembers his or her glory days takes all the fun out of the film. Whatever the reason, “Owned” seems as quaint and hip as a dial-up modem.