Although it's an uncontroversial statement to say that science fiction influences real-world design, whether in architecture or in technology, the security adviser for Mr Robot told Techworld that it could also have a calamitous effect on political policy and society at large.
Speaking at an intimate panel put on by Kaspersky Lab, Marc Rogers – principal infosec consultant for the runaway-success cyberpunk thriller TV series Mr Robot – put into detail the real-world impact that innocent yet dystopian fiction has had and will continue to have on the world.
"Look at the origins of the computer fraud and abuse act in America," Rogers said, responding to a question from Techworld. "It was created after Reagan watched War Games. He supposedly watched the film in the White House, in his private cinema, he came out and asked his advisers: 'is this real?'"
"And they said: 'yes, it's feasible'. And so they sat down to create legislation to protect them from these terrifying teenage hackers."
War Games is an early 80s film in which Matthew Broderick, a teenage hacker, accidentally gains access to a US military supercomputer and then has to prevent nuclear conflict and ultimately the third world war.
Rogers explained that there is a balance between scripting for a show like Mr Robot and demonstrating that the attacks used are actually feasible. Hacking is typically a boring affair, and Hollywood needs to be visual to drive the story – so there a lot of effort goes into finding that balance.
He described the scene in season two where protagonist Elliot hacks a cellular femtocell in order to gain access to the FBI's network traffic as an example of that balance.
"Technology, and hacking in particular, has two big challenges in films – in reality hacking is incredibly boring, and the other is typically the way scripts are written, the hacking scene will be written out by people who have no technical experience," Rogers said. "If the script calls for something like an airplane flying over a runway dropping a cable down to a car, they'll do it. But every time a new series comes out there's a Reddit group almost immediately, where people pick it apart, they look at the code, the feasibility of the hacks and they analyse it and criticise it."
"The criticism has created a kind of feedback loop – in the case of Mr Robot we get a script that's written but the hacks are much less well defined," he said. "They go through a second writing process, where the scriptwriter tells us what they want for the story's outcome, then we work as a group to find the right hacks that fit that, so we can do something plausible but without spoling the narrative."
"We can say it's not feasible you are going to throw down a USB stick, have an FBI agent pick it up, and plug it into his computer. It's easy to sell that to somebody in their house, but for an agency that's got protocols to protect against these things, it's not plausible."
"In that case we came up with a hack using a femtocell, that is plausible, that works, and can be demonstrated –they were happy to write it in."
"It adds extra time to the process but the net result is you get something which flows, you don't have this jarring disconnect of a completely unrealistic cable out of an airplane type scenario. But at the same time it can be done in a way that's visually interesting."
But the fact that groups of technical security experts and creative minds are now collaborating in the media creates another kind of feedback loop, where the terrifying and mindboggling attacks found in popular fiction have the very real possibility of affecting policy or being carried out for whatever end.
Each person on the panel – futurologist Dr Ian Pearson, cybersec evangelist at Kaspersky David Jacoby, and Adam Laurie, director of Aperture Labs – seemed to acknowledge that the 'cyber security industrial complex' is, indeed, a reality. And this led to a discussion onto the militarisation of science fiction, the dark side of the coin compared to the post-scarcity utopianism of shows like Star Trek.
"Militarisation opens up a fantastical field of hacking," Rogers said. "Some of the quantum hacks that are coming out now, for example, Rowhammer - because of the militarisation, people are now able to manipulate physical attributes of the systems they are attacking, in a way that can cause glitches that then compromise it."
"Not only did Google come up with a paper on it, they demonstrated it – and now we're seeing two or three practical attacks developed that use the Rowhammer-style attack to use the physical environment."
"I have an immediate fear," Rogers went on to say. "Wargames created the CFAA. I'm scared about what impact these increasingly realistic films and series could have on policymakers."
"It wouldn't take too much of a trend of terrifying hacking films to drive fear within policymakers, and force them to create increasingly draconian laws – that take away our already-threatened civil liberties."
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