April 20, 2017, 3:26 p.m.
IT | Rants

Horrible Technobabble

We have had technobabble for a long time now. If you are old enough, you may recall the Star Trek TNG episode where they mentioned:

...reversing the polarity of the annular confinement beam through the warp-field flux capacitor.

This is clearly non sensical, but even for someone with a good understanding of science and physics, it is still coherent. A beam can be ring shaped and act to confine something, and even have some kind of polarity to it if it is an electron beam for instance. Warp is an imaginative construct, and flux capacitors an invention of Back to the Future, but the concept of flux is a valid electromagnetic phenomenon (magnetic flux) and so too are capacitors - a basic electronic device to store electric charge. So all in all, that statement would not raise the hair on one's back. It sounds cool - in line with the rest of the Sci-Fi series.

When it comes to IT technobabble however, things are much worse. In fact, there are two examples of IT technobabble that are just so absolutely ridiculous that I had to stop the show and not choke to death.

From a CSI New York episode:

I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic, see if I can track an IP address.

and most recently, from Blacklist:

You don’t believe me? Go try a layer four UDP/TCP in the OSI stacks. ...

The first example is akin in me saying "I'll build a telephone, then call someone and ask them to find an IP address for me". Why would you build a telephone? A GUI is simply a Graphical User Interface - basically everything you see on your computer monitor are GUI's - interfaces applications use to communicate with you and you with it. They could have at least said something like "I'll run a WHOIS lookup on the domain to try and find the registered account" or "I'll do a reverse name lookup to locate the IP address" or anything other than THAT.

The second example is just as bad. The OSI model is a conceptual 7 layer stack that acts as standard or reference for network based communications. For instance, Layer 1 of the stack is the physical layer that carries the raw electrical signals over physical cabling - such as co-ax or ethernet CAT 5 cable. Layer 3 is the network layer, where routing happens (think IP in TCP/IP). It is the layer that knows how to get packets from one network to another but it does not care what data the packet contains. Layer 4 is the transport layer (think TCP or UDP). This layer ensures that data integrity is maintained and handles sequencing and uniqueness of packets. So yes, TCP and UDP are in layer 4 of the OSI model. But what relevance that has to the case at hand nobody knows. It is the same as me saying "Go try a car that was manufactured." Ok... where else would a car be had from? And what relevance does a car have?

Much better would have been "I have hidden the site on the dark net in the Tor network - you will not find its real location".

I just do not understand why IT technobabble is so horribly incorrect. Even IT plot lines are way off. Take I.T. - the movie by Pierce Brosnan. In it, one major plot point was the hostile takeover of his smart home by the antagonist and subsequent terrorizing of his family by the antagonist's abuse of the system. Specifically, the antagonist caused his Maserati's brakes to lock up (this is possible), record video from one of the smart control panels his daughter took with her in the shower (this too is possible), turning lights / sprinklers / music on / off (all possible). However, the big fail comes when the secret government ally assists him in "going dark". Why rip out holes in the walls and smashing the smart control panels with a baseball bat and only having candles for light when you can simply...disconnect the internet router? The antagonist is clearly not in WiFi proximity so cutting internet access would stop all attacks dead. It is reasonable to assume that a reboot of the system would reset any specific overrides the antagonist had in place, and without remote access he cannot initiate any further nefarious actions.

But almost never in movie plots do we see the protagonist unplug the network from the internet. It is not possible to continue downloading information from a network or interacting with it if all network links have been severed from the internet (assuming remote access) - there is no magical, mystical way around that - it is just physics.

Sometimes they nail it - like in Matrix Reloaded where Trinity used nmap to locate an open port and sshnuke to reset root's password - both real hacking tools and using a real vulnerability. Clearly it is not good for movies to show real hacking, but movies do tend to give hacking an even greater aura of magic than it deserves.

Take Swordfish - a brilliant movie, but a huge failure when it comes to portraying real hacking - such as this shit. The problem with movies like these is that people just buy more into the mystique of IT. They feel even more convinced that hacking is all about typing really fast or breaking into government systems in mere seconds.

Hacking takes time. Some hacks take years to succeed - starting with social engineering, working the way up in privilege escalation until a trojan horse is installed on a PC with enough network access that the rest of the network can be (slowly) infiltrated. Hacking is not entertaining. It is boring - like watching someone play chess, remotely, making a move once every week.

Sure, a movie cannot follow real life as it too would then be boring. Or too realistic and give nefarious viewers bad ideas. But at the very least, we should demand a certain level of accuracy. Just like interstellar was a major turning point for showing how "close to reality" sci-fi can still be hugely entertaining - no need for warp drive, we need more movies to showcase hacking in a bit more realistic light so that people can get rid of their ill conceived ideas of what it is all about.