Movies and TV shows have a long history of making hacking, coding, and other tech tasks look quick, easy, and borderline magic. But in real life, those jobs aren’t quite as glamorous as Hollywood makes them look. Below, check out six common technology-related myths constantly perpetuated on the big and small screens.
1. Zoom and enhance
The idea that you can magnify and “clean up” surveillance footage to get a perfect shot of a perp’s face, ID tag, or some other detail has been captured time and time again on shows like NCIS, CSI, and Law & Order: SVU and in countless films, including Enemy of State and Ocean’s Eleven. In real life, that’s not exactly how it works. First of all, how legible you can make an image or video largely depends on the original quality of the media you’re working with. And, with a still image, you can only zoom in on HD video so much before ending up with a pixelated, blurry mess.
While there are certain HD cameras that allow for more detailed close-ups, they aren’t typically used for security purposes — and even those wouldn’t allow you to blow up a crystal clear image within a matter of minutes. The bottom line: zooming from a wide angle into a small, detailed space is beyond the capability of the vast majority of camera systems.
If hacking was as easy as TV and movies make it seem, everyone would be doing it. But there’s a reason that’s not the case: Unlike what you’ve seen in that famous Swordfish scene and Demolition Man or on House of Cards, hacking usually takes significant time and effort, and there are always roadblocks along the way.
Of course, since TV and movies are working within specific time limits, most of that gets left out, making it seem like anyone can hack into a system with a handful of taps on a keyboard. While the majority of on-screen works get it wrong, there is at least one recent show that has been widely credited for giving a more realistic portrayal of hacking: USA’s drama thriller, Mr. Robot.
Granted, coding can get complicated and it’s not necessarily the most captivating thing to capture on screen. But some shows simplify it down to a new level of ridiculous (we’re looking at you, CSI: Cyber). It’s not just a matter of treating various source code as if it’s all interchangeable — which does happen quite often — but it’s also a matter of how Hollywood makes code look visually.
For example, CSI: Cyber‘s freshman season featured a scene (above) in which good code is pictured as green and the bad code as red, leading Bow Wow’s character to proclaim, “All I got is green code here.” If only it were really that easy.
It seems like every movie and TV show character — even those supposedly in high-security government or military positions — has a password that can be guessed in just a few tries, usually by using clues from a room or desk or using the name of the owner’s child or pet.
Besides the fact that people with highly sensitive information on their computer do not, in fact, typically use the name of their dog for their password (or a 12345 combo like 1987s Spaceball, above), it’s also not that easy to get past security software, firewalls, and complex passwords — no matter how simple Hollywood makes it look.
5. DNA Tests
Dexter, Law & Order: SVU, and pretty much every other cop procedural in recent history has a tendency to portray DNA testing as a fairly simplistic process; just a quick run through “the system” and out pops detailed and thorough results.
In reality, DNA testing usually takes several days and requires screening the evidence, building a DNA profile, interpreting and comparing results, and eventually filing a report that has been checked by someone other than the original analyst. While DNA testing can be rushed in certain circumstances, so that it’s completed in about 24 hours, that’s not usually the case.
6. Digital tracking
If things worked as simply off camera as they do on screen, law enforcement would be able to easily and quickly trace digital crimes to the exact device that performed it. The reality is that the inability to track actions back to the perps is a big problem these days — and an IP address won’t usually give you all the answers. The process doesn’t happen at the speed of a movie or TV show either. It takes time to gather and analyze computer forensic evidence.