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The CSI Effect comes to RSA Conference

Ira Winkler | Feb. 17, 2016
The conference organizers didn’t expect the outrage that followed the scheduling of a session on the TV series CSI: Cyber. They should have, though.

The point is that the franchise has perfected an approach. The writers and producers look at the news, find interesting crimes that could make good television, then produce an episode with a “ripped from the headlines” feel about it. The thing is, though, that as buzzy as “cyber” sounds, the actual profession doesn’t really lend itself to compelling TV. For those of us working in it, it can be very interesting and rewarding, but there’s no way that a mass audience is going to plant itself in front of its TV sets to watch us tapping our keyboards and squinting at our two, maybe three monitors.

So what can the producers do? Add more monitors, of course, just for starters. Then equip the cybersleuths with guns and muscles and witty repartee. Speed things up, so that the cybersecurity experts aren’t seen as painstakingly plodding along, and make them the center of every investigation, and not just some supporting role in a much larger operation. Check the news for actual cybercrimes, but realize that you will have to jack them up by imagining “future evolutions of past crimes.” In other words, make things up.

And so, when the producers read about hackers being able to listen in to baby monitors, they take it up a level, and we end up with random kidnapped babies being auctioned off over the Internet. When they read about the (questionable) hack of an airplane system in flight, they come up with a virtual hijacking of an airplane by the Chinese government. Who’s going to watch what cybersecurity pros really do?

Even less defensible is the way that the characters in CSI: Cyber have been rendered as stereotypes. Of course, the lead technologist has to be an obese, insecure, socially awkward geek prone to incomprehensible technobabble. The supporting cast offers up social misfits, ex-criminal hackers and one special agent who gets to beat people up. Worst of all, the show frequently depicts the investigators committing crimes to solve crimes.

In the real world, FBI special agents have physical fitness standards and are frequently lawyers or have other work experience. I know this because the Irari Report once interviewed Donald Good, deputy assistant director of the FBI for cyber. On the show, the cyber agents are few and work out of Washington. In reality, most of the FBI’s scores of cyber agents are stationed in field offices around the world. They also spend extended periods of time supporting non-cyber cases, as well as performing long-term investigations. You know, boring stuff.

When the original CSI series first aired, it had a real-world impact that came to be known as the CSI Effect: Juries were setting criminals free because jurors who watched the series believed that there should be a mountain of forensic evidence in every case. They had unreasonable expectations of the forensic science profession, entirely based on what they had seen the CSI investigators do on TV. As a sort of side effect of the CSI Effect, some criminals began to plant evidence, incriminating other people, based on what they had seen on TV.


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