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Heat, Kelso and the Hacker Mindset


In Michael Mann's 1995 classic Heat, the character of Kelso occupies a unique position in LA's criminal underworld. He's an old-school hacker with a mysterious background who knows how to grab information out of the air, synthesize it, and package it up as background intelligence for criminal crews. In a new podcast on the movie and its hacker ethos, Meg Gardiner, the co-author of Heat 2, and Casey Ellis, cofounder of Bugcrowd, join Dennis Fisher to talk about Kelso and his connection to the hacker mentality.

Dennis Fisher: I wanted to Casey asked you specifically about the Kelso character who's one of my favorites even before I got into the security world, and Meg I know you love him too. He plays a big part in the book. You'll love it Casey whenever you get a chance to read it. But he's only in I think maybe two scenes in the movie total and it's basically the same scene they just cut back and forth to it. Him and DeNiro up in his house on this hill with all the aerials and everything. You don't know what the hell's going on up there. Actually in 1995, I had no idea what the hell was going on up there. But you sort of get the sense that this guy is one of the few people that really understands how information moves around at that point in history and has a grasp on it and where to find it and where to grab it. It just comes to you, just flies through the air.

Meg Gardiner: It’s just out there.

Dennis Fisher: What was your impression of him as sort of a proto hacker type?

Casey Ellis: Wow. I mean, just that idea of having the technical prowess, like understanding the nature of the flow of communication, like being set up in a way that allowed him to exploit that and having this almost omniscient kind of capability as a result of that. It was cool. Like straight up, it was just cool. I'm trying to think of a more articulate way of framing that, but seeing that guy in the character, you know, he's, he's this kind of nerdy dude. So there's not a lot to, as a character, admire necessarily or aspire to, but that ability that he had and the things that it allowed him to do, there was a coolness factor to that, I think, that I got from it the first time. He's one of my favorites. He's the character that's stuck in my head as the outlier beside DeNiro.

Dennis Fisher: He does remind me of some of the literal gray beard hacker types that we know, folks that probably worked at DARPA or something along those lines in the 70s, early 80s, which is, we don't know it in the movie, but that is Kelso's backstory, right, Meg?

Meg Gardiner: It is, yes. Yeah.

Casey Ellis: There you go. Yeah. I mean that totally checks out, like someone coming in from, from the IC or from defense, at the very least he would have been some sort of technical kind of radio operator back in the day, but to hear that he had the defense side of it, that makes a ton of sense. What he was doing, i mean back then, a lot of stuff was getting whipped around unencrypted, so the idea of just being able to put antennas up and capture and store and process and actually start to weaponize some of that information, that checks out from a technical standpoint. It's a nice bit of detail there. And then to be able to actually create a plan off the back of that as well. Cause you think about the amount of information, you know, he's able to see and that's pretty overwhelming probably. So to be able to actually take what he's getting and say, okay, here's an opportunity that I can see forming out of the stuff that I'm able to learn. Like let's put a plan together. Let's figure out who the right people are to get the job done.

Dennis Fisher: And there would have been a very finite number of people that had that ability in 1995 or 94 as he was filming this, a very small number of people.

Casey Ellis: Yeah. I'm thinking about the crossover between the hackers, because back then you've got the BBS community you've got, you've got folk in the very early stages of DARPANET and all that kind of stuff.

Dennis Fisher: Meg, when I mentioned Kelso's name he must have been so much fun for you to write.

Meg Gardiner: Kelso is a wonderful character. He's indelible in the film. He lives in this house, the aerial house, which is a real place. And it's still there. If you look on Google Maps, you can see the house, and what's he doing up there? He's got, you know, a house full of computer equipment and microwave receivers ah and all kinds of stuff. And so, he's selling bank robbery scores, but he is so serene. Tom Noonan plays him so beautifully that he's serene and he's got this sort of little elfin smile that just kind of lights up his face when he talks about all the alarms in the bank and how you're going to turn them off.

Dennis Fisher: Yeah. But see, they don't go anywhere.

Meg Gardiner: Yeah, exactly. He's a wizard and he's sort of mysterious. So in the book, what can we do? I was desperate to have him in the book and he's in both the prequel and the sequel portions of the novel. And we wanted to learn a bit about him, but have him maintain his sense of mystery. You don't need to know where he went to elementary school, that kind of thing.

Dennis Fisher: No, I don't want to know any of that about him. I just want to know he somehow got there. He's really smart. He knows how to do all this shit and you don't. So you have to go to him. DeNiro and his guys have their skills. He's got his skill, you know?

Meg Gardiner: Yeah, in the book, it was fun to actually let Neil and Nate, who was played by John Voight in the film, let them go into Kelso's house. And he takes him into his server room where he's got it set up as a Faraday cage and everything like that. So, McCauley's kind of like, huh, what's all this stuff?

Casey Ellis: And you could tell as well that that moment in the film where McCauley's like, I genuinely don't understand how you got access to this stuff. Like he's like, I don't really know how this stuff works, but there was this point where it's like, you know what, I'm going to decide to trust your competency, your skills and the fact that this is all legit, which is interesting because there's not really, you can't really see a good reason for him to do that.

Meg Gardiner: He's worked with him before. i mean Yeah.

Dennis Fisher: Yeah, they have some sort of backstory because I think Nate says to him Kelso called, he's putting out a score and Neil says, what do I need his for? I've got my own. One of the things that hit me last night again is even probably five or six years later, if Michael had not been able to get this picture made, if it had to move to even 2000, the technology part would have had to change a lot. Yes, there are still mainframe computers in banks in 2000, but getting into them and doing what they did and plugging in a new board and that kind of stuff, you know there would have been a lot of different things that he would have had to deal with as you did in the book, Meg. That technology part of it, they hit it right in the sweet spot where this stuff was still possible. And you could physically cut into a bank's floor, remove a board and replace it with a malicious one, and Casey we have seen supply chain attacks, you know not to that extent, but things like that in the last few years with software updates and certified pre-owned hardware that makes its way into the marketplace. you know I think Michael Mann was ahead of his time with that.

Casey Ellis: Yeah, it's funny how a lot of those patterns just kind of repeat themselves with the technology updates. in some ways. Even coming back to the cat and mouse piece, you know the different incentives, the technology side of it, the innovation side of it, which is kind of what we're talking about right now. There's certainly versions of basically exactly the same thing that happens today. But yeah, to your point, it was very ahead of its time, kind of early cut on that.

Meg Gardiner: Well, I may be needing to talk to you about what's going on these days for whatever my next thriller is.