Nov 27

Notice: This post contains mild spoilers, but it’s nothing you can’t gather from the trailer.

The fact that Skyfall is in theatres right now is pretty impressive, considering that MGM died and came back to life just to bring us more Craig-Bond. Still, it’s a pretty good movie. Except for how it deals with technology.

Given the day and age we live in, it’s hard to ignore technology in modern movie plots. This makes it all the more bewildering that so few writers manage to do it well. Much, much more commonly they do a terrible job with it. Skyfall is a perfect example.

Here’s a rundown of the top ten things that went wrong with technology in Skyfall’s script.

THINK ON YOUR SINS

1.) IP Tracing Backwards

At one point early on, the folks at MI6 have the opportunity to trace a computer attack in progress. They run through it like a phone trace. The attack is coming from the UK, specifically London. Gasp! The attack is coming from inside MI6!

Here’s the problem: that fact would have been immediately obvious. There are only three ranges of IP space reserved for private networks, whether it’s your home wifi or a first-world intelligence agency. If the attack had originated from inside the private network, they would be able to identify the asset it came from instantly.

Egregiousness factor: Minimal. They arrived at the same conclusion with a bit more pizzaz. Something happens that precludes the next phase of the investigation (who’s connected to that asset as a relay point?) on-screen, but in the real world this investigation would have continued into containment and then prevention.

2.) Don’t Click Shit!

Later, M receives another fun little message from the hacker-sauce villain. The theme of the message follows on one that punctuates the scene I described above, which was a personalized multimedia presentation designed to her to incite a response. This time, the message includes a link.

Naturally, M clicks it.

Oh, it’s only a link to an online video; that’s lucky! Granted, the attacker already has enough control over M’s system to steal focus on an active console session. It’s unlikely he would actually need human interaction to do further harm on that system (or, following on the previous scene, that network). Still…

Egregiousness factor: Irritating, but plausible. As the head of an organization that certainly traffics independently in information and security, this kind of thick-headed ignorance to information security is shocking. Has she neither the training nor the sense that clicking on an obvious hacker payload is a terrible idea? Why was the IT department not her first phone call after clicking it?

3.) Let’s Plug It In, I’m Sure It’s Safe!

At one point, the villain is captured and brought to MI6’s headquarters. They do the sensible thing with his meatworks — they put him into a holding cell where his captors have access to him to interrogate, but he does not access to anything outside of the cell. That’s how holding cells work, generally.

Meanwhile, they are far less sensible about his laptop. They plug it into the network to explore its contents. Not an isolated DMZ for untrusted or possibly malicious assets. A trusted network! With access to important subsystems, like the controls to the physical holding cell.

Predictably, things do not go well for MI6.

Egregiousness factor: Idiotic. Q is not a genius.

4.) It Takes Two

The aforementioned laptop has not one, but two ethernet interfaces. It’s a really, really beefy machine. I bet one is for all the packets in and the other is for the packets out. Computers work like that, right?

Egregiousness factor: No. Computers do not work like that. Not without unnecessarily a very convoluted environment-specific configuration, but this does not and should not convey that the machine is any more super. It just makes #3 twice as dumb.

5.) Jargonizing

On the heels of the scene I described in #3, there’s a frantic hacking scene. The good guys are trying to unravel the loot from the villain’s laptop. Technical terms are flying back and forth, regardless of whether it fits or not. The screen is a mess of nonsense visualization, mostly just to try (and mostly fail) to represent how hard this is.

I’ll dig into some of the finer points of awfulness, but this scene is a classic example of throwing as much jargon as the writers could find at the script and hoping beyond hope that something sticks.

Egregiousness factor: This is slightly less bad than the horrifying programming/hacking sequence of Swordfish.

6.) Polymorphic Encryption

One of the more irritating examples of nonsense jargon to come out of #5 was the following utterance from Q: “He’s using a polymorphic encryption algorithm. It keeps changing!”

Let me be clear. This is not a thing. This doesn’t even make sense.

Whether you’re using symmetric or asymmetric encryption, the point is that the key will decrypt the cipher text. That key doesn’t change. If there’s an active system re-encrypting the cipher, it’s still using the same key pair in the end, so you haven’t changed that the same key unlocks it all in the end. If you’re worried about the integrity of the cipher text itself without the presence of the key, your algorithm isn’t very good — it doesn’t matter if you keep changing it with a derivative key.

Egregiousness factor: High. This is entirely unnecessary. If I start talking about ACTUAL ENCRYPTION THAT REALLY EXISTS, I will make most people zone out within minutes. You don’t have to invent bullshit to tech-impress the audience.

7.) Gibberish != Hexadecimal

During the same hacking sequence I described in #5, Bond’s contribution is to identify non-hexadecimal pairs of characters in a block of what is otherwise clearly a hexadecimal block. This isn’t a great observation - these couplets are literally in a different color on screen.

Egregiousness factor: This is utter nonsense. The stuff you’re putting on screen, it’s either hexadecimal or it’s not. Anything that isn’t 0-9 or A-F is not hexadecimal. Make up your mind. This was not a clue, it was stupid.

8.) An Ultimately Weak Lock

Those non-hexadecimal characters I mentioned in #7 quickly anagram out to form a word, a name. “Try that as a password,” Bond suggests. It works. The tangled knot of nodes and edges quickly unscrambles into the protected data.

Egregiousness factor: My brain is exploding because of the bullshit.

Given how they pointed out in #6 that the bad guy is using mythical encryption functions to protect his data, you would expect the key to rival the effort he’s put into protecting his data.

No, that might make sense. Instead he’s using a password. A case-insensitive password of a single character class and about 10 characters. A password that is barely better than “password”. A password he left lying around in his data on the device.

The more believable setup to this whole moronic scenario would be if he’d written the password on a post-it on the bottom of the laptop. Oh, I forgot; he’s a spy. Maybe put the post-it in a secret compartment.

9.) Radio is Awesome Technology

Skyfall has no hesitation expressing its love for radio. This might be touching, if they spent any amount of time thinking about how radio works (or at least how it doesn’t work).

First is the tracking transmitter Bond if given by Q early on in the film. It’s one of the only two “gadgets,” if you can indeed call them that, that he’s given. It’s not a GPS tracker — that point is made amply clear through dialog from multiple characters.

The thing is the size of a keychain, which means it’s powered by a watch battery. Let’s go nuts and assume it’s powered by two watch batteries. That’s not enough power to transmit a signal from a remote area of China to one listening stations where MI6 could receive it, let alone the three it would take to triangulate a signal.

Later on, Bond finds himself chasing our super villain through Underground tunnels. Meanwhile, back at MI6, a little icon labeled “Bond” zips through a 3D map of the tunnels. How is he being tracked? Presumably it’s the same radio transmitter. But it turns out radio waves don’t travel all that effectively through rock — there are physical limits to how radio travels through dense material like rock and concrete. So, apparently I was wrong before: that transmitter is powered by magic.

Egregiousness factor: Forgivable. If this were the worst of the movie’s offenses against science, it would hardly be worth mentioning. I bring it up largely because the script goes out of its way to applaud low tech, even while abusing it as thoroughly as it does high tech.

10.) “There’s only 6 people in the world who could code this.”

No. You’re wrong, Q. This statement is foolish and you’re an egotistical ass.

It might be true (though a stretch) that only a handful of people in the world could originally come up with a programming trick, but once it’s been done it can be replicated. Despite everything Hollywood has tried to convince you of, the world has no shortage of very smart people who are very good at expanding good ideas if not cooking them up on their own. In fact, there’s entire sub-industries within IT of them.

Pro tip: almost none of the aforementioned very smart people work for governments during peace time because the pay is dirt.

Round up

Skyfall may be the least Bond-like Bond film I’ve seen. With Daniel Craig in the suit, MGM has been reaching for a grittier Bond. They’ve added a few dashes of John McClaine in the mix. I would say this experiment has been a mixed bag but is mostly successful. It’s with disappointment (and a fair amount of catharsis) that I write this post because I want to see Hollywood do tech well and even when it’s doing other things right, so much goes awry with the wrong consultants on the job. So, Hollywood! Bubbe! Give me a call next time, alright?

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