How Realistic Is the Ocean’s 8 Heist Tech?

Photo: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Some spoilers below for Ocean’s 8.

All you really need to pull off a robbery is a bit of practical know-how, a well-balanced lineup of collaborators, a shipping container’s worth of elegant couture, a dash of sublimated sapphic tension with Cate Blanchett — and the right tech. For Debbie Ocean, the wily crook portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the new caper film Ocean’s 8, assembling an elite crack team was only half the job. Her scheme to boost a priceless diamond necklace right off the neck of fictitious starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) during the hubbub of the Met Ball could never have gotten off the ground without some sophisticated gear, much of it courtesy of hacker expert 9-Ball (Rihanna). Infiltrating one of the most well-monitored museums on the planet during its biggest night to lift a hunk of jewelry so expensive it comes with its own security detail requires stealth, and the digital age has revolutionized the art of not being noticed.

To get some professional insight on the gadgetry featured in the star-studded new release, Vulture took a trip to The Spy Store in New York’s West Village, the one-stop shop for Manhattanites dabbling in surveillance. While shop proprietor and one-time Mission: Impossible 2 consultant Bob Leonard declined this writer’s request to record him (“obviously not,” came the reply), he did still offer a wealth of knowledge about the wild world of surveillance, counterfeiting, and assorted shenanigans. As such, however, the conversation has been reconstructed from memory and liberally paraphrased. The whole afternoon was very Ocean’s 8, come to think of it: be guarded with your trust, and leave no trail.

The diamond printer
The Toussaint necklace from Cartier provides director Gary Ross with his MacGuffin, the shiniest bauble a career thief could hope to purloin. To get the six pounds of rocks off of Kluger without rousing suspicions, the ladies would need a suitable knockoff with which to replace it, and that’s where virtuoso forger Amita (Mindy Kaling) comes in. Assembling an ersatz copy on the fly falls to her, and she’s able to falsify the necklace so hastily by using duplicates of the jewels pre-made using a 3-D printer loaded with cubic zirconia. Pop the faux diamonds into the chain and nobody will be the wiser — until, that is, a jeweler takes a close look at it.

Has dummying up bling really hit full automation already? Leonard is unfazed by my bare-bones description of the film’s premise, nonchalantly informing me that I could get that done at a place down the hall that very moment. Loading up a 3-D printer with a diamond substitute is simple enough, but the results only pass muster to the naked eye. He says this technique isn’t so common because the fakery is easily discerned by any inspector worth his salts — not a problem to Ocean and her gals, gone in the breeze by the time Cartier’s people realize the jig is up. When I ask if this is all legal, Leonard replies that legislation is slowly coming together, and that what the lawmakers are really worried about is 3D-printed guns.

The camera glasses
Acquiring the specific cut and shape of the Toussaint diamonds to use with the printer requires an even more specialized device. Ocean’s woman on the inside is Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a designer on the skids who lands Kluger’s Met Ball ensemble as her big comeback. 9-Ball outfits her with a pair of spectacles concealing a camera intended to scan and transmit the geometric details of the jewels back to the printer’s computing unit, which then reproduces the object. The online connection between the glasses and the printer can be a bit spotty, especially in the necklace’s subterranean storage zone, but one Fonzi-style slap to the receiving console and it’s in good working order.

Visibly unimpressed, Leonard explained that using a real-world image to reconstruct a three-dimensional plane then fed into a printer is common practice. He was dubious only of the methods by which the film depicts this process, suggesting that the percentage-by-percentage real-time upload had been thrown in for the sake of movie magic. On a real job, Rose would get a handful of angles and then report back to her home base to link the glasses to the computer the old-fashioned way instead of risking discovery by doing so near her mark. Anyone who’s wrestled with an email attachment that just won’t attach knows not to execute such careful operations in a high-pressure scenario.

The blind spot
9-Ball’s greatest coup involves outfoxing the Met closed-circuit team by slowly but surely creating a small blind spot near the bathroom where Ocean plans on swapping the necklaces. With a little Hollywood hacking — which, for us viewers, amounts to a determined-looking Rihanna tapping some keys on a multicolor computer keyboard — she can take remote control of their cameras and shift them a fraction of an inch several times each day, right below the guards’ difference threshold. With their eyes glued to the art, they don’t even notice the 12 feet of nothingness allowing a body to pass by unseen.

Again, Leonard rules that the question isn’t of plausibility but practicality. If you know the right code, the right back door, the right way around security, then sure, tinkering with a closed system of cameras is perfectly doable. But somewhere like the Met or other facilities on the Fort Knox tier have employees on the payroll whose entire job revolves around noticing and neutralizing mischief in this precise form. Leonard says that the instant some regular patron vanished into thin air, security would have attended to the situation, and prior to a shindig as high-profile as the Met Ball, they’d conduct a full sweep of the system to prevent any eventuality such as the one coordinated by Ocean.

The magnet lock
The biggest hiccup comes when Rose discovers that the Toussaint necklace can only be put on and taken off by deactivating a magnetized lock on the clasp. The Cartier officials have a specialized tool that works some manner of science sorcery when pressed to the lock; to the film’s credit, 9-Ball provides a rudimentary explanation of how the mechanism works when she calls on her wily sister to jerry-rig a makeshift magnetized key. In the nick of time, the girl devises a workaround and all goes semi-according to plan.

Leonard takes no issue with the technology itself, but scoffs at the team’s solution in a pinch. The magnet doohickey isn’t as rare as the movie makes it out to be — just take a look at your local department store’s anti-shoplifting tags. Integrating a magnet element to the existent standard wouldn’t take too much additional effort, but thwarting it would. The whole point of proprietary tools is that they can’t be copied without specific information on their design held by the original party. (Apple does this, which I know because I am one of the 17 people who saw the Michael Fassbender Steve Jobs movie.) It’d be impossible for her sister to mimic the magnet-key without one of her own to work from, no matter how cunning the Rihanna bloodline may be.

How Realistic Is the Ocean’s 8 Heist Tech?