James Bond, cyber warrior, takes on some familiar foes

By Ross Gianfortune

November 13, 2012

In the 50 years since James Bond first appeared as a film hero, the world has changed quite a bit. Many of the British spy's famed gadgets have become reality -- 1963's From Russia With Love featured the crazy idea of a phone in a car. More, though, the Cold War's end in the 1990s made the Eastern Bloc villains of the Bond novels mostly obsolete. Taking down the West -- often with nuclear arms -- was no longer a viable motivation for a villain. The new Bond needs to watch as cyberwar unfolds.

Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the franchise, explores this more than any film in the series. While encryption, discs and passwords were parts of previous Bond films, Skyfall uses cybersecurity as a backdrop for the main antagonist.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, a former Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) agent, is the film's villain. In lieu of stealing conventional weapons or attempting to poison the world in order to create a super race on the moon (unbelievably, that is the plot of 1979's Moonraker), Silva's motivation is revenge on the MI6's leadership and British government for abandoning him when he was an agent, resulting in his torture. To get back at MI6 chief M, he first causes an explosion in the MI6 offices, and then hacks the computer system spurring an Anonymous or 4chan-like animation ending with "THINK ON YOUR SINS" flashing on M's laptop. He then releases -- partially in the name of transparency -- the names of deep cover secret agents, resulting in three of them dying.

Much of the middle third of the movie echoes the recent debate about war in the 21st century. After Bond's return to MI6 offices -- he's shot in Turkey during a fight on top of a train and thought dead -- he finds a group of people working on computers underground. "Welcome to the new MI6," he's told, implying the computers are paramount in this conflict. Judi Dench's M is grilled during a public inquiry about the preventative failures of MI6 and is asked about her agency's role in the "future of our national security," a phrase echoed in the Pentagon budget conversations.

In another scene explaining the changing nature of intelligence and conflict, the agent meets series gadgetmaster Q, with Bond writing him off. "Youth is no guarantee of innovation," Bond says. Q quickly explains his bona fides by saying "I'll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field." Q's role in the film does not simply consist of giving Bond cool toys, but rather also explaining the cyberthreats, including a scene warning Bond of a possible hacking of British public infrastructure systems.

Skyfall is just a movie and, indeed, it's one in the always over-the-top James Bond vein. In the movie's first third, Bond jumps from trains, gallivants around Shanghai and Macau, removes shrapnel via Bowie knife and looks impossibly perfect while doing so. But the dangers in the film are not completely insane -- again, look to the Moonraker plot or the over-the-top Goldfinger. Rather, these are real-world possibilities.

We've written extensively on the hacking of systems of public services like the railway system and the power grid. Silva's hacking echoes Anonymous' tactics and his exposing of agents mirrors the absolute transparency goals of Wikileaks. Biometrics -- a common government IT topic -- make an appearance in the film when Q gives Bond a gun that's fitted to his palm print.

While a fantastical movie, Skyfall isn't ridiculous. The threats in it are not completely fictional and are ones that the real MI6 -- as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Administration, Defense Department and other agencies -- will have to confront soon.


By Ross Gianfortune

November 13, 2012

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