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.