July 19, 2024

Burn Notice, season 4, and the abuse of the MacGuffin

One of my favorite TV shows is Burn Notice. It’s something of a spy show, with a certain amount of gadgets but generally no James Bond-esque Q to supply equipment that’s certainly beyond the reach of real-world spycraft. Burn Notice instead focuses on the value of teamwork, advance planning, and clever subterfuge to pull off its various operations combined with a certain amount of humor and romance to keep the story compelling and engaging. You can generally watch along and agree with the feasibility of what they’re doing. Still, when they get closer to technology I actually know something about, I start to wonder.

One thing they recently got right, at least in some broad sense, was the ability to set up a femtocell (cell phone base station) as a way of doing a man-in-the-middle attack against a target’s cell phone. A friend of mine has one of these things, and he was able to set it up to service my old iPhone without anything more than my phone number. Of course, it changed the service name (from “AT&T” to “AT&T Microcell” or something along those lines), but it’s easy to imagine, in a spy-vs-spy scenario, where that would be easy to fix. Burn Notice didn’t show the necessary longer-range antenna or amplifier in order to reach their target, who was inside a building while our wiretapping heroes were out on the street, but I’m almost willing to let the get away with that, never mind having to worry about GSM versus CDMA. Too much detail would detract from the story.

(Real world analogy: Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch computer scientist who had some tangential involvement with WikiLeaks, recently tweeted: “Foreign intel attention is nice: I finally have decent T-Mobile coverage in my office in the basement. Thanks guys…”)

What’s really bothered me about this season’s Burn Notice, though, was the central plot MacGuffin. Quoting Wikipedia: “the defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.” MacGuffins are essential to many great works of drama, yet it seems that Hollywood fiction writers haven’t yet adapted the ideas of MacGuffins to dealing with data, and it really bugs me.

Without spoiling too much, Burn Notice‘s MacGuffin for the second half of season 4 was a USB memory stick which happened to have some particularly salacious information on it (a list of employee ID numbers corresponding to members of a government conspiracy), and which lots of people would (and did) kill to get their hands on. Initially we had the MacGuffin riding around on the back of a motorcycle courier; our heroes had to locate and intercept it. Our heroes then had to decide whether to use the information themselves or pass it onto a trusted insider in the government. Later, after various hijinks, wherein our heroes lost the MacGuffin, the bad guy locked it a fancy safe which our heroes had to physically find and then remove from a cinderblock wall to later open with an industrial drill-press.

When the MacGuffin was connected to a computer, our heroes could read it, but due to some sort of unspecified “cryptography” they were unable to make copies. Had that essential element been more realistic, the entire story would have changed. Never mind that there’s no such “encryption” technology out there. For a show that has our erstwhile heroes regularly use pocket digital cameras to photograph computer screens or other sensitive documents, you’d think they would do something similar here. Nope. The problem is that any realistic attempt to model how easy it is to copy data like this would have blown apart the MacGuffin-centric nature of the plot. Our protagonists could have copied the data, early on, and handed the memory card over. They could have then handed over bogus data written to the same memory stick. They could have created thousands of webmail accounts, each holding copies of the data. They could have anonymously sent the incriminating data to any of a variety of third parties, perhaps borrowing some plot elements from the whole WikiLeaks fiasco. In short, there could still have been a compelling story, but it wouldn’t have followed the standard MacGuffin structure, and it would almost certainly have reached a very different conclusion.

All in all, it’s probably a good thing I don’t know too much about combat tactics, explosives, or actual spycraft, or I’d be completely unable to enjoy a show like this. I expect James Bond to do impossible things, but I appreciate Burn Notice for its ostensibility. I can almost imagine it actually happening.


  1. I too love Burn Notice for many of the aforementioned reasons, including the brilliantly-acted, vibrant, non-emotionally-cliched characters and non-formulaic story lines.

    But I agree with the sense of irritation. Burn Notice seems to go to such lengths to keep things in the range of plausibility that it’s really disheartening to encounter such a glaring example of it not being so. It’s inconsistent with its own universe, and for such an otherwise tight show — indeed, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE it’s such an otherwise tight show — it’s hard not to notice; the effect is actually more jarring than it would be if this show were regularly sloppy with everything (at least then the fallacy WOULD be consistent with its own universe).

    My source of irritation though has less to do with the USB stick and more the scenes involving lawyers. I didn’t like the plotline earlier this season with the criminal defense attorney (I really don’t like the underlying message that a lawyer who defends bad people is himself bad), but I was ready to throw the remote through the TV in the season finale when they masqueraded as lawyers and berated the court clerk. NO NO NO!!! (a) Pretty much everything federal is online, there would be no files to get; (b) NO federal court clerk is going to stand for being berated (practice tip for lawyers: BE NICE TO COURT CLERKS!!! Nice ones will save your ass…); and (c) they were risking huge penalties from the judge and/or state bar discipline by behaving in this way. Yes, yes, I know lawyers are not regarded as being the paragons of civility, but they would NEVER act like this and expect to get away with it. OK, maybe in state court… but NOT FEDERAL, which was the plot point.

    (BTW, yes, IAAL….)

  2. I had the same issue with the ability to (not) copy from the USB device. One of the big suspension of belief issues that I’ve had is the exceedingly short time it takes for them to whip-up impromptu devices and explosives.

    Also, spies are so supposed to leave virtually no evidence behind. In one scene, as they were walking out the door, they were tossing away their latex gloves and other paraphernalia. Just think of all forensic information they were making available!!

    Despite all the flaws its a fun show to watch.

  3. Sue Baskerville says

    Ostensibility? Is that the word you want?

    • Maybe “plausibility” is better, although “ostensibility” seems to be a synonym for “truthiness” which might still make it a good word for what I like about the show.

  4. Really, that this particular technological MacGuffin collapsed so obviously, is not really that surprising. Hollywood is famous for not showing dealing with computers or technology all that well. Writers traditionally don’t want to realistically depict technology; rather, they treat it like the supernatural, so that it does what they want it to do, at the moment they need it done, in order only to advance the plot along intended lines, and that’s it.

    I suppose it started, on television anyway, with Star Trek‘s trademark technobabble, in which the writers either made up their own science, or used real-world science in ways it couldn’t possibly operate. That alone was bad enough. When computers got into Hollywood, it became much worse.

    That Hollywood staunchly refuses to depict computers realistically, is old news. The Web is littered with lists of ways in which Hollywood misuses them, e,g. here, here, and here.

    What astonishes me about it is that most screenwriters themselves now use computers in order to do their jobs. This means they no longer have any viable excuse for what they do to them on-screen.

  5. These are just start-ups in initial stages and they have not yet solved the problem of taking a photo of the screen, but have a look at DynamicShield by Concealium (http://www.concealium.com/Technology/functionality/) and WatchDox by Confidela (https://www.watchdox.com/). They both address exactly such use cases and come up with very promising solutions.
    I am affiliated with neither of them, just happened to see demos a few weeks ago.

  6. The spreadsheet app prevented them from copypasta’ing the data held on the USB flash card, too. It was hokey.

    I’m not too happy about Burn Notice, yet I watch it and talk about it a lot. You stated the reasons well — I like to see the teamwork spy trade and I’m into the characters’ relationships, humor, romance, etc.

  7. Nick Coghlan says

    Yeah, I had the same problem with that aspect of the storyline. Deliberate suspension of disbelief was working overtime at the idea of something that could be read and displayed on-screen but not copied. That said, it’s kind of fun to figure out a half-plausible excuse for the storyline.

    Probably the closest you could get is a bootable USB key that allows you to view the file contents, but shuts down power to the USB components if the USB link is up for a certain amount of time without the boot sequence being initiated. In that case, you couldn’t really read the raw data without cracking the case open and they may not have been game to do that for fear of a self-destruct mechanism.

    A hardware screen recorder would have handled the problem, but people don’t have those lying around and they aren’t that common in electronics stores either.

    That still leaves the idea of video taping or still photos of the screen… perhaps some hand-waving explanation about the way the pixels are arranged… yeah, I got nothin’ for that part 😛

  8. That’s what I thought the last couple episodes.