November 25, 2007

Dear Viewers:

Please do not believe everything you see on TV. I am a huge fan of shows like CSI and Law and Order, but I pull my hair out when I see them using computers to do EVERYTHING. They make it seem like on a whim a random detective can "hack" a computer, look up every single email ever sent, get the IP address of the sender, then get a map to their house based on the IP address alone, then put a stop on their credit cards, order a pizza to be delivered to the house they are about to raid, and they do it software that has an amazing 3d interface and works in seconds.

Take this image from an episode of CSI: Miami

Lets look at what is wrong with it.

  1. It is not a real IP address. I'm sure they do this becasue they don't want people to do something with that info (same reason they use fake phone numbers) but there are IP addresses that are real and can be used like the 169.x.x.x series (which is the default private IP network) or the 192.X.x.x or 10.x.x.x network and of course All are real IP addresses and are no risk to put online.

  2. You cannot take an IP address and translate that into a real address on the fly. You would have to take the IP, give it to the provider who it is assigned to, have them check their logs and see who it was assigned to at the time the incident. To do this, you need a warrant, and it will take days since ISPs work slow.
You also have random detective who are now expert hackers. They flip on a computer and "crack" the password on it in seconds with nothing more than the software on the computer. Cracking a password on a computer is not hard, but you do need software to do it. In addition to that, they seem to be able to do it on every computer they encounter. Who cares if computers run different operating systems, everyone knows everything.

In addition to that, the user interfaces on every computer are outstanding. I wish every piece of software I had included a nice 3d interface, and ran as smooth as theirs. No programmer is going to program nice interfaces on utilitarian software built for the government, its un-needed and a waste of system resources. There is no need for a great user interface if you are just typing in an IP address, and why would it just show you the physical address of the home(which isn't possible) instead of say the registered owner of the account? Software is designed first for functionality, then for how it looks. When dealing with people like the government, they don't pay for a great 3D design.

What about "enhancing" pictures. How often do we see them take this ultra grainy video or photo from an ATM machine a block away, then enhance it to be nearly High Definition quality. It just isn't possible. The way cameras work are they take a picture, and what is sees is all the data you have. as you blow that picture up, a computer can try and "enhance" it some by guessing what other data would be there, but you don't go from barely legible to perfect. Maybe from almost legible to barely legible.

They do the same thing with forensics. They make it seem like DNA is the end all and can be found anywhere and prove without a doubt who committed the crime. Not only can it be done, but it is done in seconds. Real labs take WEEKS to get DNA results, it isn't done in 10 seconds.

This stuff, as fun as it is to watch, is an insult to the people who do it for a living. Forensic Technicians work hard, they work long hours and spend years learning to properly gather forensic evidence (either digital or physical) and some random person does it in seconds.

It also spreads false information to viewers. In the picture above, it makes you believe an IP address is like a fingerprint and is rock solid proof a person identity. The truth is, it isn't. IP addresses are used by many people and are cycled through users. Sure they can be traced back to an account at a specific time, but there is still no way to tell who was using the computer. What if the jurors on the Jamie Thomas v. RIAA case thought that IP addresses were solid proof, like DNA. Then they were basing their decision on false facts. I wonder if any of the lawyers asked if any of them watch shows like CSI and know how digital evidence is gathered. Probably not, and becasue of that, the jurors have false knowledge of how things work.

What about if jurors in a murder case hear the defense talking about there being a lack of DNA evidence. What if they think "wow...no DNA must mean he is innocent because DNA is really easy to get. I saw it on CSI last night!"

So please, enjoy the TV shows and movies, but realize a lot of it is fiction. Just like your favorite action hero can't really take 5 shots to the chest, jump off a building and catch a helicopter that is taking off, while throwing a grenade into a window and destroying a building while rescuing a woman who is falling from the upper floors. Its all great to watch, but just isn't true.

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