Computers in Movies, Part 2: Systems designed for suspense...

Following up on the previous post, we're again dealing with how movies on TV and in movies differ - dramatically - from those in real life. Last time it was the sounds they made, this time it's how they're set up - specifically, for security and access. Don't worry, this won't get technical - I don't know much about the nuts and bolts (or bits and bytes) of large-system computer security. But I do know that a lot of what we see on screen has to be just plain ridiculous.

Once again, go ahead and view any movie or TV show where computer access or control plays an important role; and as always, "24" is a perfect choice. You'll invariably find systems designed purely for suspense, not for defense: you need access to a specific terminal to get some data or shut down a system. That terminal is in some remote or special location; maybe you have to break in, defeat some sensors (laser arrays are a favorite - and they always leave just enough room to get through, right?), hack a password, or fake your identity to biometric sensors. And yet, even in such beefy security systems, the right pieces are always missing to just barely allow access with the right skills and usually a quirky sidekick or two. At the same time, the enemy has been able to compromise the system remotely, to thicken the plot. Nifty. But rigorous security design can and does close these loopholes.

More generally, there are plenty of examples of TV realities being made up as they go along, bending and twisting to fit the needs of the plot. A favorite example is Springfield, hometown of the Simpsons, which is (according to various episodes) a small town and a metropolis situated around several mountains, a grand-canyon-style gorge, a river, an oceanfront, and forests. This is more acceptable because it's a comedy, and doubt is further suspended because of the "reset" that tends to happen with every episode of most cartoons. But once the show gets serious ("24" for sure, and "Star Trek" definitely had a piecemeal approach to technological capabilities and limitations), a coherent and somewhat plausible model of the underlying truths becomes more desirable.

In the end, what's the big deal? It's easy to say that these shows are just entertainment, and the worst result would be plot holes created by implausible computer systems. But in a world where fictional entertainment is increasingly substituted for real information and news, and where the electorate judges the effectiveness of counter-terrorism techniques based on fictional demonstrations, I can't help but worry that elements of the flawed computer designs onscreen will work their way into real systems. Just because we're too willing to believe what we see on TV!

1 comment:

rafael said...

How about those animated 3D graphics?
Looks more like a PC game than a high security OS.