I know that I am not the target demographic for CSI: Cyber. Just as I assume anyone who does anything remotely related to law enforcement isn’t interested in watching a cop procedural, I don’t generally watch shows that feature “hackers” – not just because my perspective might make the viewing experience frustrating, but because “hacking” is incredibly boring to watch and I’m probably not going to enjoy anything that tries to convince me otherwise.
None of this has anything whatsoever to do with why I watched CSI:Cyber when it aired. I watched it because I wanted to witness the birth of a new CSI Effect – or maybe because I hoped it would be like the 90s movie classic Hackers – but I’m writing about the CSI Effect. The general thrust of the CSI Effect is that shows like CSI are making it harder for prosecutors to obtain convictions on the same amount of forensic evidence prior to the show airing. For better or worse, it brought many phrases and ideas into the common vernacular; much like CSI: Miami did with puns expertly delivered by Lieutenant Horatio Caine.
CSI:Cyber opens with a burglar holding a baby in front of a baby monitor. We hear muffled foreign voices coming from the device. The parents of the baby are startled awake, but it’s too late! The intruder has left with their child. Tragic, or as (Special Agent?) Simon Sifter says, “Oh, those poor parents. They buy a baby cam to protect their child; it’s the very thing that gets them abducted. That is truly horrifying.”
This all seems very similar in feeling and tone to reporting on so-called “insecam” sites, sites that feature live feeds from insecure webcams, which either have a default password or no password at all.
However, as the show plodded along, there wasn’t actually that much to judge in what ways a “CSI: Cyber Effect” might be extrapolated from the pilot episode. Sure, there were some painfully awkward exchanges, the usual techno-jargon, just like you would expect, but nothing that happened was technically impossible (aside from the overly dramatic special effects). It was just amazingly implausible.
Without the show exploring the methodology by which cyber criminals are caught, there doesn’t seem to be as much room to influence the kinds of evidence juries will want. Because of how new cyber crime is and how impenetrable it can be, the methodology is often what is on trial.
For example, during the recent Ross Ulbricht Silk Road trial, the prosecution had to spend a huge amount of effort explaining to the jury the finer intricacies of the crypto-currency “bitcoin” and the anonymizing Tor browser. During the trial, DHS agent Jared Der-Yeghaiyan walked the jury step by step – in what amounted to tutorials – on the finer points of looking up bitcoin transactions on blockchain.info, as well as encrypting e-mails with PGP.
With the original CSI effect, juries were previously ignorant of what kind of standard of proof should be required. The kind of cyber crime seen today is too mind-bogglingly complex to explain to someone with no context that there is no real equivalent to “Did you collect fingerprints from the grass at the crime scene?” – an anecdote commonly referred to in regard to the CSI effect.
Not only that, but the CSI: Cyber pilot didn’t offer us the usual fare of technobabble nonsense. This is TV, so there has to be some, but even what I saw wasn’t excessive. Nor was there that much of it in favor of snipers killing witnesses and burning off their fingerprints with acid. Heck, they even had the FBI putting electronics into Faraday bags to block any signals to or from the device; just like they’re actually supposed to do. Probably the most cringe worthy scene we got to see (besides the end, but I can’t give that away without spoiling it) was the following exchange:
There are a few reasons this is silly, but it’s just that: silly. In fact, if I try hard enough I can think of some scenarios where this could mostly make sense. However, just because it doesn’t horribly butcher the tech the way some of us cynical folks really wanted, it doesn’t make the latest CSI iteration a good show. Critics have covered those problems quite well. Despite what those critics say, I’ll keep watching for a few more episodes in the hopes they manage to capture some of that campy magic that makes the 1995 classic Hackers so special to me.