Lights, camera, and… hacker

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Lights, camera, and… hacker

There was a good article in a recent issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the portrayal of national security issues on film and TV (http://tinyurl.com/dec6v). As you might imagine, modern fiction is often, well, fictional in its portrayal of nuclear weapons, "homeland security" and the like.

Now that the current series of 24 has finished, I miss the weekly game of Security Breach Bingo. Given the near-magical nature of modern technology, it amazes me that there is still a need to make things up, but they do.

Of course, computers don't escape lightly either. Admittedly, we've come a long way from the chattering teletype of The Forbin Project (a classic "machines taking over" film), but there seems to be little connection between reality and the silver screen when matters of computer security fall into the plot.

Password cracking always involves some rapidly-changing symbols on screen, big enough to read from a distance. The Good Guys always have magical cracking technology for the latest encryption (Bruce Schneier took a good-humoured ribbing on his website after they promptly broke Blowfish in a recent episode of 24). The classic film Wargames launched the careers of a large number of hackers, but most would be disappointed to find NORAD doesn't use dictionary passwords any more (although, ironically, the false alarm scenarios in that film correspond closely to real events, perhaps accidentally).

Now this may seem like harmless fun. After all, film and TV are about entertainment aren't they? Unfortunately, though, we are increasingly seeing "docudrama" TV, in which a fictional tale is presented in documentary fashion. It is becoming much harder for the average person in the street to distinguish between what is fact and what is "realistic drama".

It is particularly easy to see how easily such productions influence popular opinion. Real jurors have suffered from the so-called "CSI effect" and demand ever-more precise forensic analysis, assuming that the TV world matches the scientific one.

This stops being an amusement and soon becomes a problem when faced with a senior manager or director who has had his opinion on the current risk delivered by the previous night's TV.

Of course, it could be argued that "real" computer intrusion doesn't make good television, but in most cases, there's no reason why the plot would be ruined by a healthy dose of realism. But then again, it would stifle the coffee room conversation, so maybe we should just sit back and enjoy it.

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