It’s a common complaint within Silicon Valley that science fiction makes the general public fear technology. But what if it’s just a matter of accuracy? For decades, movies and TV have made tech jobs look like a lot of things: sexy, dark, mysterious, cool, widely efficient, even magic. Of course, people actually in tech know the reality is anything but glamorous — so we decided to ask them which laughable, sometimes irritating myths they’d like to bust about their own professions. Here’s hoping screenwriters will take note. (And before you ask, we left facial-recognition software off the list because it’s totally real and totally works. Gulp.)
The Technique: “Cleaning Up” Security Footage
The Myth: “Magnifying/enhancing” recordings can show police a detailed shot of a perp’s face.
As Seen In: Ocean's Eleven, NCIS
The Expert: Trevor Newton, sales director for Tyco Security, a company that makes surveillance cameras and equipment
The Reality: “We call it the ‘CSI effect,’” Newton says. “Because when CSI first came out, we’d go do a presentation, and people were like, 'Wow, I should be able to get these cool things,' and we have to be like, ‘No, that's not really reality.’ On TV, a casino, for example, can digitally zoom in and do all these magic things — and then suddenly, they can see a person's reflection in a spoon. That's not possible. [HD video] is about the number of pixels you're recording; like a still photo, you can only zoom in so much. And there's no way to fix that [afterward].”
But do they make cameras that are high-definition enough to catch the killer in a spoon’s reflection? Well, yes — but also no.
“Right now, technology doesn't allow those high-megapixel cameras to actually stream that information fast enough,” Newton explains. “There are different factors here. One is: How many pixels do I have? Then, how fast can that information be relayed back to the system to record it? It's really like trying to eat an elephant — when you have too much information, how fast can you actually eat that? How many frames can I swallow when there are so many pixels? With high-megapixel cameras, usually the frames per second is a lot slower. You can get a lot of information, but it won’t be fluid on the screen. In the case of real-life casinos, they kept analog cameras for a long time [because] they have regulations; security cameras need a certain frame rate for the fluidity. There are cameras that can stream faster, but they can’t use them because the images won’t be high-enough resolution.”
The Technique: Hacking
The Myths: Hackers are evil criminals; hacking is both quick and dramatic, but always failproof.
As Seen In: Swordfish, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, House of Cards
The Experts: Michael Bazzell, former hacker and technical assistant for Mr. Robot; John Graham-Cumming, programmer and founder of Source Code in TV & Film
The Reality: “The most irritating misrepresentation to me that is commonly portrayed in a hacker plot is the absence of failure,” Bazzell says. “A television episode [or movie] has limited time to tell a story, but I credit Sam Esmail for the willingness to display hackers encountering failures in Mr. Robot, from failed Wi-Fi hacking to malware detected by antivirus software.”
“While there are criminal hackers, being a hacker itself is not a bad thing," Bazzell says. "Hackers like to learn about technology, dissect it, and reverse-engineer how things work. Most of the hackers that I have met are amazing people. They have unique ideas and are very relatable. Some of the most genuine people that I have ever met, professionally and personally, are hackers. I really hope that the term hacker someday loses the negative connotation that it unfairly receives.”
John Graham-Cumming adds, “Quite often this is portrayed as some sort of dramatic battle between a human and a computer, even involving flying through a 3-D interface and battling firewalls. (I'm looking at you, Swordfish.) In fact, it's hours and hours of work at the command line — no glamour, no Halle Berry.”
The Technique: Tracking Perpetrators of Digital Crimes
The Myths: Any digital act can easily be traced by law enforcement to the computer, tablet, or phone that performed it.
As Seen In: Scandal, Law & Order: SVU, CSI
The Expert: Bryan Glancey, CTO of OptioLabs (formerly Samsung, Motorola, Google), mobile-security expert
The Reality: “In fact, one of the biggest problems with cell phones, from a security standpoint, is that they are identical and can’t be differentiated from one another,” Glancey says. “Text messages, voice mail, and all other attributes of a phone cannot be trusted or verified — every element of a phone can be duplicated or spoofed by a knowledgeable attacker.”
“Crime shows like CSI often show the bad guy getting caught through the tracking of their IP address, which is portrayed as a unique identification number.” Glancey explains that this conveniently leaves out the fact that almost every device’s “address” is defined by the IP address of the internet router it was connected to, not its own address.
The Technique: IP Encryption
The Myth: On the flip side of the last myth, there's also the belief that criminals can, without fail, obscure their illegal online activity.
As Seen In: Yep, the same shows as the last myth — especially Law & Order: SVU and CSI
The Expert: Kelly “Aloria” Lum, infosecurity at Tumblr
The Reality: “First off, something like a ‘encrypted IP address’ isn’t really plausible,” Lum says. “[An IP address] is sort of like an address on an envelope: In order to get a packet from one place to another, the IP address needs to be known to the routers that are responsible for getting it from point A to B.”
Lum suggests the wording regularly used by screenwriters is essentially shorthand for a method that would be harder to explain.
“[Screenwriters] could [be referring to] an anonymity network like Tor, which uses layers of encryption on the data, including the IP addresses, to hide users. There are some ways to de-anonymize a user, but they’re a little more complicated than copying and pasting and then hitting a 'decrypt' button in an app.”
The Technique: DNA Testing
The Myth: Running someone’s DNA through "the system” is quick and thorough.
As Seen In: Every cop show made in the last 15 years, but definitely Dexter
The Expert: Suzanna Ryan, forensic DNA consultant/expert witness, Ryan Forensic DNA Consulting
The Reality: “You can get a DNA profile relatively quickly — if it’s a rush process, we can work overtime and get it done in 24 hours, but that’s not at all the norm,” says Ryan, who has worked in both public and private DNA labs and has been accepted as an expert witness in more than 70 criminal and civil cases. “There’s usually a million other cases ahead of it. [Once an analyst gets to it,] she might start screening the evidence the first day, then extract the DNA the next, and then by third or fourth day she might have a DNA profile, but then after that, she has to interpret and compare the results, then write a report. Then, before the report is issued, [two separate peer analysts] have to screen the report and agree with it, to make sure you did all the calculations properly. We might know the results [quickly], but we can’t release them until it’s been through technical review — you don’t want to release the wrong results.”
She adds that when DNA does get entered into “the system,” as folks like Detective Olivia Benson refer to it (real professionals call it CODIS, a.k.a. the Combined DNA Index System), it comes with pretty minimal information. “It may seem like you can get someone’s picture and where they live and how much they weigh [from CODIS], but we don’t need it in the lab,” she says. “We log [profiles] in the database once a week, and each includes a name and whether they’re incarcerated or not. Law enforcement can look up driver's licenses in their own databases.”
And just a word to the wise for would-be forensic students: CSI isn’t as exciting as you think.
“[Shows like CSI] are a disservice, because there’s been a rash of people getting into this field thinking investigators do everything along the way — inspect the crime scene, all the way to tracking down and arresting the killer — and it’s completely not like that,” she says. “If you’re CSI, you go to the crime scene, and you spend hours and hours and hours documenting it. It’s hot and smelly and not fun. Also, even on actual science shows, they always make it seem like we’re working in the dark. Who can work like that?!”