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Like most of the world’s population, I recently saw Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. If this was any other site, we’d start by discussing Catwoman/Anne Hathaway’s leather-clad ass — but this is ExtremeTech, dammit, so we’re going to talk about something far more interesting: the Gotham Stock Exchange heist. Specifically, is it really possible to raid a stock exchange and completely destroy a company’s stock value?
If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a basic outline of the scene: Bane, Batman’s nemesis in the movie, attacks Gotham Stock Exchange with a bunch of armed flunkies. Bane coerces a trader into unlocking his terminal, and then uses Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints (which he obtained earlier) to bet all of Wayne Enterprises’ stock on bad futures. The futures don’t pan out (obviously), and the next morning his company is bankrupt. The feds try to interrupt the heist by cutting the stock exchange’s wired connection, but there’s a backup wireless link that the baddies use instead.
There are two key points that don’t quite ring true, which we will investigate the veracity of:
- Can you simply walk into a stock exchange and execute a bunch of trades?
- Does a stock exchange only have one or two links to the outside world? Is it easy to cut them?
To begin with, let’s assume that Gotham Stock Exchange is modeled on the New York Stock Exchange. The scene in the movie is shot at the NYSE on Wall Street — but more importantly, the comic’s creators have admitted that Gotham is based on New York City.
The first point, as far as we can tell, is true. There are certainly computers at the New York Stock Exchange that allow you to execute trades, or deal in futures. A stock broker — i.e. someone authorized to act on behalf of a stock holder — could sell all of Bruce Wayne’s stock, if he wanted. We don’t know if fingerprints are actually used at the NYSE (it could just be a password), but presumably this is Bane’s way of authorizing himself as a legit stock broker.
As for “cutting the hard line,” it’s a little bit harder to get exact information on the NYSE’s connectivity. It sounds like the NYSE is connected to other stock exchanges via the Secure Financial Transaction Infrastructure (SFTI), which is a private network of high-speed (up to 10Gbps) fiber links. Most cables are pulled through ducting that is fairly easy to access — so as long as you know where the cables run (quick, phone the network admin!) it shouldn’t be too hard to cut them.
I doubt that the NYSE has a redundant wireless link. If we assume the wireless connection is local to the building in Wall Street, which is fairly squat, then it must be a satellite link — which doesn’t have the capacity or latency to be a viable connection for market trading. It’s possible that the NYSE has a short-range wireless link to another nearby building — but then you could simply cut the hard line that feeds into that building.
Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that every action on the stock market is logged. Every time you buy or sell a security of some description, there is a digital paper trail. There has never been a real-world stock market heist like the one in Batman, but I suspect it would be easy enough to reverse the fraudulent transactions. It is also possible for stock markets to initiate a trading curb if the market suddenly drops in value. In the US, “circuit breakers” were introduced after Black Friday to prevent any future catastrophic market crashes.
So, is it possible?
In short, yes, if you can gain entry to a stock exchange — hopefully by bypassing security, rather than force — you could pull off a similar heist. In reality, due to the ease in which a stock exchange can be shut down, and the digital paper trail, you are unlikely to get away with it. It would be far more effective (i.e. less traceable) to commit the theft slowly, over a longer period of time — and historically that’s exactly what rogue traders, such as Nick Leeson at Barings Bank, have done.
In other Batman-related physics trivia, a bunch of British university students have calculated whether Batman’s cape is actually large enough to perform a bat-glide. I would spoil it, but you can probably work out the answer yourself.