Fictional Hacking: Michael Westen

I don’t know if it is true or not today, but in fiction, spies depend on lots of high-tech gadgets. I do know that during World War II, the various secret services like the OSS and the SOE did have gadgets like secret transmitters and concealed weapons. But, like [James Bond’s] grenade-launching ink pen, to [Maxwell Smart’s] shoe phone, those gadgets came from some organized lab. (When you watch the video below, remember that at that time, a personal phone going off in a theater was unknown as cell phones were years in the future.)

westenThere’s a show that ran for seven seasons called Burn Notice that is decidedly different. The spy in question, [Michael Westen] (see right), has been cut out of his espionage job for some reason and is trying to figure out why using his wits and the few people who are still speaking to him. What’s interesting is that [Westen] uses a variety of gadgets ranging from a makeshift X-ray machine to a bomb made out of a microwave oven and some household products, [Westen] makes a variety of gadgets out of whatever he can find around or buy at Home Depot.

cantenna1Like any fictional work, I’m not sure how many of these things would really work. Using a stun gun to zap a vacuum tube with enough high voltage to generate X-rays seems a little suspect to me. However, it is interesting that when [Westin] is modifying a cell phone to work like a bug or something, he has at least some appropriate tools (like a soldering iron) and seems to be actually doing something. He also usually explains–at least minimally–what he’s doing with some plausible explanation. He did make a cantenna that could have been right off a YouTube instructional video (see left).

This is a far cry from most spy shows where gadgets just show up with no mention of how they might really work. In fact, some shows like 24 (which is sort of a spy show) routinely give explanations so flawed that you wonder how the writers could have such a misconception (my favorite being how when someone uses a GPS to get directions to an address, the government can access the satellite to find out the address; if that makes sense to you, go read about how GPS works). Of course, real spy work is probably more writing down numbers and operating broadcast radio stations. Pretty boring stuff for [Bond], [Westen], or even [Smart].

If you include computer hacking, there are lots of hackers showing up in TV and movies (ranging from the reasonably plausible Mr. Robot to the completely far-fetched scene from NCIS you can watch below). It would be interesting to know how the general public thinks about a hardware hacker like [Westen]. He’s certainly not the stereotypical nerd hacker. Clearly, the general public has an idea now of solving problems with ad hoc technology — pioneered, perhaps, by [MacGuyver]. Granted, many of the portrayals are not too accurate, but probably no worse than the depiction of doctors or lawyers.

[Main image source: Michael Westen from USA’s Burn Notice]

55 thoughts on “Fictional Hacking: Michael Westen

    1. I can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy that they are putting forth an effort to appeal to an audience like us. Weirdly, what breaks the illusion for me on the new Macgyver series is when he whips out the swiss army knife. Anyone who improvises that often would have switched to a leatherman with locking blades a long time ago. There was even a scene where some pliers magically appeared in his hands at the opportune time. I guess the bad guys left them lying around?

        1. For about 10 years I did the first build of every PC I had with a swiss army knife … but after that figured I wasn’t proving anything, I knew I could if I wanted to, and used normal screwdrivers etc.

      1. Yeah, I’m sure he’d have switched to a Leatherman Super Tool for a few years in the 90s. But since the new reboot is set in the present day, he’d have long since switched to an SOG. (Probably a Pocket Powerplier; while I prefer the full-size Powerlock models, they are better suited to belt carry — and compound leverage means the compact model still has more grip than a full-size Leatherman.)

        I know different people use their multitools for different things (e.g. I find a multi-tool knife blade mostly redundant, and would never carry a multitool configured with two blades — whereas some people find a selection of blades lets them leave their pocketknife behind), but if you use the pliers at all, compound leverage just can’t be beat; I’d strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t used a compound leverage multitool to try one.

    2. As a kid (watching reruns, I’m not that old) Macgyver inspired me to see the world differently. Things weren’t just things, they were parts waiting to be repurposed (legos also helped).
      As an adult it’s kinda meh, but it had an instrumental role in my love of fixing/repurposing things that most people throw away.

      1. This. So totally this.

        I was young when MacGyver was airing, so as a 5-year old the show did inspire me to view the world differently. More importangly it inspired me to view the world with the *imagination* /of/ a 5-year old.

        ie: Problem Solving- ‘I have a problem’. Most other people approach this as ‘what do I need’, where Mac approached it from ‘what do I *have*’

        …a small but very fundamental difference.

    3. I agree. I could never get the popularity of that show. I’ve seen it a few times, but never liked it. Scorpion, however
      is in that “so bad it’s good” category. It’s my idea of another Get Smart.

      1. I watch Scorpion occasionally. I usually end up yelling at the screen when they do something to unbelievable, or conveniently have all the rare or unusual parts necessary to complete their mission.

  1. I have just finished all the seven seasons, There were some real effort done to make it look like they know something about the subject but, when they just simply put a smd package upside down, and called it a GPS tracker(pohot included), without any power source passives or antenna, that f*cked me up. In other situations at least they soldered a few CR2032 cells, and at least 1 IC on a protoboard and looked like a real device for a non-expert eye.

    1. Enjoyed Burn Notice quite a bit, especially since many of the explanations of how things were done (e.g. “When you’re a spy…. “) made sense. The early seasons were great, but unfortunately, the writers contradicted themselves in later seasons and did dumb things like [krisztian96] mentions above.

  2. I’m pretty sure that the NCIS writers are fully aware of how ridiculous their “hacking” scenes are and compete to see who can write the most ridiculous and over the top one..

      1. I’d like to apologise for my part in promulgating that stereotype….

        Few times fixing PCs for people I’ve been at their house and
        “Uh oh, it’s got a BIOS password set.. do you know it?”
        “No, dang.”
        “Well I’ll just have to hack my way in…*ratatatat* (AWARD_SW).. okay, we’re in…”

  3. If i remember my Burn Notice correctly, in the cantenna scene he connects a USB cable from the element in the cantenna to a usb port on a PC and claims he is capturing bluetooth data. Excellent show, but not to be held in high regard for doing their homework.

    1. I did that with a wifi stick, put it inside the cantenna….. didn’t “work” for what I was trying to do, avoid getting swamped by +60dB local stuff…. swear the USB cable was picking it up… could point the thing at the sky, all my neighbors wifi… EVERYWHERE!!!

  4. I personally liked the 1960’s TV series IT TAKES A THIEF (1968) with Robert Wagner. For some reason the writers were compelled to change the acronym yo S.I.A. as if we weren’t supposed to know who they really meant. The show was believable. So much so they did a remake with Jennifer Garner (CIA’s favorite actress) called ALIAS (2001-2006). It appears they really like her ex-husband better.

    MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1966-1973) was so much liked by “them” that “they” tried to imitate a lot of it. Life intimating art? The now famous Ben Affleck movie ARGO (2012) was based on the guy who copied the rubber mask technology from IMF TV show and he and his wife did a reverse technology transfer. Argo was based on his exploits to get some “journalists” (yeah right) out of Iran.

    The TV show BURN NOTICE (2007–2013) is VERY LOOSELY based on the life and times of REAL ex-spook named Michael J. Wilson (not real name). He was never burned but probably felt like it. He’s the technical consultant giving Matt Nix (Exec.Prod) all the tradecraft stuff for Jeffery Donovan to read on the TV show. I think all of the stuff sounds pretty good.

    If you watch the TV series THE BLACK LIST (2013- ), good show but look for Red’s helper Bazzel Baz. They don’t even change his name. He is the real deal and is still doing ops for “them” part-time. He has his own “agency” in where he rescues kids worldwide for their rich parents. He’s my spook hero. Met him once too. Really nice guy and knows his sh*t. Nothing at all like Steven Segal and others:

    1. I’ve just started watching Mission Impossible thanks to meTV!
      http://www.metv.com/shows/
      Great show, threw me for a loop a few times cause I didn’t expect the show to get into certain places. Columbo is still my favorite ‘old’ show, though it is kinda unrelated to this article. I might start watching The Blacklist. ;)

      1. notarealemail – Yeah I too thought that the tech from IMF (1960’s) seemed really cool but far fetched. But some people tried to copy it successfully. Like the RF auto-tracking system. Now we have GPS trackers which require no manual RF triangulation by the field asset(s).

        Burn Notice is the same way. When I saw that episode of how they dosed that Saudi guy with the toxic chemical that replicates a viral infection (without the bad part – death) I was flummoxed. They only just discovered that in South Africa from an attractive fruit tree that is used by the natives in magic potions. So how did Matt Nix get that for his writers so quickly? Obviously Wilson is violating his NDA (just a bit). A lot of tradecraft is exposed on that show.

        Like did you know your local LEO (PD) has access to DHS resources? That’s scary knowing Officer Friendly can pull up a federal dossier on you usually only available to the alphabet soup. There was an eps where Michael broke into the local LEO / Fed DHS center under the guise of doing Pedophile backgrounding and “parallel construction” policies. Local LEO’s can use that guise to justify pulling your “jacket”. Imagine your local cop knowing WAY too much about you than he should. Couple that with “bad-blue” and you should have shivers! The extent of their knowledge should be NCIC and FBI fingerprints & DNA database. What’s next? Local LEO asking NSA for your metadata and data & voice intercepts (via parallel construction undocumented policy)? Congress should shut that sh*t down now…

        Yeah THE BLACKLIST is cool, however, James Spader is a bit too stuffed shirt for the part. I mean he shoots Mr. Kaplan and leaves her for dead in a wooded field!!! I mean who shoots their #2 person (Mr. Kaplan is his fixer – a woman). Jimmy has too many weird mannerisms too. And who is that plugged into EVERYTHING? Reminds me of the SMOKING MAN in X-Files. I like it when they write in some non-sociopathic scenes for him. I still can’t believe Jimmy is a high school drop out (dropped out of Andover in 11th grade). I hate the way he purses his lips too.

        Another show, Person of Interest. is cool too. However, Jim Caviezel, makes a really cools spook. But he speaks too low like the way James Dean used to mumble. I know Jim drives the audio technician crazy. Can you see him in a fishbowl conference like this and they have to say “Agent Reese, can you please speak up?!” https://youtu.be/GotatU0i4RQ?t=50s

        Also the POI writers have no idea what ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is. How could they when scientist have no idea what HUMAN intelligence really is?

  5. Telling a story that’s reasonably logical or coherent is nice, but being told a story thats impossible, well, thats when stuff gets made.
    MacGuyver will always be the North American version of Gerry. To Gerry Rig something is a world war II throwback.
    MacGuyver has a character based on German ingenuity and adaptive principle. The writers of the show probably steered clear of the true way of making something real because the idea was that you could be legally liable if someone tried to make a laser with a watermelon, a screwdriver and a snorkel. What if they managed to kill themselves? Ok, MacGuyvers solutions were clearly wrong but, it appears if the principle was right. In theory, you could launch someone into the sky on a catapult made from dead raccoon carcasses. But in practice youd have to get precise measurements to build your own catapult. And making it with dead raccoons is nuts. That aside, lest we forget the hacker crackdown of 1983, where Steve Jacksons Games was shut down because they published real documentation on real info. Assic Asimov et al of the Futurists were under scrutiny also.
    In our community, we have a certain amount of information at our disposal that runs the risk of being government proprietary or Secret or Top Secret. Its in our nature to try to see the truth. We always run the risk of being rounded up and detained and potentially charged, and being potentially executed.
    Discretion with the information transfer is best practice.
    Discretion with the facts is standard.
    We watch for knowledge. Others watch for entertainment.
    Which do you think you will find?
    I find humor and enlightenment. Along with new recipes of converting avacodos into laser guns with nothing but a paper clip and a rubber band! Lol!

  6. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat Person Of Interest for realism. Not a lot of gadgets and still a lot of “magic” like being able to tap into the feed of every camera in the world (or at least the city), but it definitely felt a lot more real than many other shows.

    Too bad the series was canceled by Samaritan.

    1. IMO, the movie “Enemy of the State” was a bit more believable for that sort of thing, they didn’t make like everything was connected a click of a button away, but relied more on practiced social engineering techniques to get them into systems.

      1. Well back then (1993), everything wasn’t connected at a click of a button.
        Nowadays, IoT notwithstanding, most things are truly connected. Probably poorly too. One need only skim Shodan,watch CCC, HOPE, BlackHat, or DEFCON talks to see the very real vulnerabilities out there. Intelligence agencies don’t need to plant bugs when poorly configured devices and cities do it for them.
        Person of Interest is plausible in world cities like New York, LA, and most famously London. The story telling is just too dry IMO to make the series watchable.

        1. Leithoa – The problem with POI is that no secret agency would send boots on the ground on the word of a machine. Most of those sociopaths like to have some CYA in case things go sideways and they can finger point to a live human to take the fall for the hard decisions.

          Next – all of those cameras are NOT online. A lot are but most municipal CCTV is exactly that “closed circuit”. Convenience stores only have Internet links if they are franchised and need for home office to link in via satellite dish on back roof of the store. There are a lot of unsecured Intern webcams and you can “hack” (?) into them here: http://goo.gl/6h2fKD

          Hardly any of them have microphones as that is supposed to be federally illegal. So how can POI AI computers hear anything? Also how is it controlling non PZT cameras and zooming in, putting up graticule-overlays around objects, etc? How does it call a payphone when mostly all AT&T payphones have ringers disabled? Some still ring though. How does the AI know which camera it has accessed when it is usually a physical paper label on a wall monitor at the control center? The CCTV does NOT a have digital label in the signal. Webcams are different as there is usually something on the webpage that is a label.

          Also DEAD SPOTS are so annoying to humans, I can’t imagine how an AI would build a likely scenario from a bunch of static cameras with a plethora of scene dead spots between them. Even security guards can’t build a likely scenario as to what a person will do next from those lousy cameras. You need boots on the ground to follow perps to do that.

          Then there is broken and poor connections that make the CCTV system useless. Maladjusted flood lamps and sun wash outs. Kids spray painting lens. Birds sitting on them and pooping on them. The writers of POI are just pie in the sky geeks with over-active imaginations. You never have to worry about AI taking over the world as we don’t even know what AI is really. And as long as we have this thing we never have to worry: https://goo.gl/t6iIQ4

          1. “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”
            Sorry for the duplicate postings…

            Leithoa – The problem with POI is that no secret agency would send boots on the ground on the word of a machine. Most of those sociopaths like to have some CYA in case things go sideways and they can finger point to a live human to take the fall for the hard decisions.

            Next – all of those cameras are NOT online. A lot are but most municipal CCTV is exactly that “closed circuit”. Convenience stores only have Internet links if they are franchised and need for home office to link in via satellite dish on back roof of the store. There are a lot of unsecured Intern webcams and you can “hack” (?) into them here: http://goo.gl/6h2fKD

            Hardly any of them have microphones as that is supposed to be federally illegal. So how can POI AI computers hear anything? Also how is it controlling non PZT cameras and zooming in, putting up graticule-overlays around objects, etc? How does it call a payphone when mostly all AT&T payphones have ringers disabled? Some still ring though. How does the AI know which camera it has accessed when it is usually a physical paper label on a wall monitor at the control center? The CCTV does NOT a have digital label in the signal. Webcams are different as there is usually something on the webpage that is a label.

            Also DEAD SPOTS are so annoying to humans, I can’t imagine how an AI would build a likely scenario from a bunch of static cameras with a plethora of scene dead spots between them. Even security guards can’t build a likely scenario as to what a person will do next from those lousy cameras. You need boots on the ground to follow perps to do that.

          2. Part 2
            Leithoa –
            Then there is broken and poor connections that make the CCTV system useless. Maladjusted flood lamps and sun wash outs. Kids spray painting lens. Birds sitting on them and pooping on them. The writers of POI are just pie in the sky geeks with over-active imaginations. You never have to worry about AI taking over the world as we don’t even know what AI is really. And as long as we have this thing we never have to worry: https://goo.gl/t6iIQ4

  7. I watched MacGyver during its original run but mainly for the improvised weapons/etc that felt like they were lifted from The Anarchist’s Cookbook – who remembers that? Once you got past those clever bits it was pretty formulaic.

    Watched Burn Notice from episode one and the first few seasons were quite good. The later shows often rehashed old material or strayed out of their areas of expertise – the later episode where Mike & Fiona masqueraded as hackers was painfully unwatchable. They tried to shoehorn the familiar “Michael BSes his way through a situation” storyline into black hat hacking and I bailed less than halfway through. Didn’t even bother sticking around for Bruce Campbell’s shtick.

  8. I recently watched quite a bit of MacGyver and A-Team reruns and wondered who would make a better real-life hacker role model for kids: Mr T or MacGyver. It was fun to look at their strengths and weaknesses to figure out who kids could connect with better.

  9. re: Mr. Robot- I felt the RaspPi scene was kinda panderish. Like they knew this thing /could/ be done and didnt want to get roasted like what happened with NCIS so they opened up google and searched until they found ‘what the hacker kids are using these days’ (probably came to HaD and there just happened to be a Pi hack on the first page).

    I love Pis (owner of two 3’s, a 2 and four Zeros- so definitely not in the Pi-hater club), but feel that for the purposes of TV they are these little magic black boxes that with a couple wires and a couple dozen keystrokes of code could ground all air traffic, disable the power grid and give chicken pox to all children under the age of 7 with a single call from a cellphone trigger.

    …and yes- I know that we use them as little magic black boxes too but we don’t make kids sick- we just flash LEDs… lots and lots of LEDs.

  10. I’ve always enjoyed the use of tech on Burn Notice. As a lock picker, I noticed when Sam casually mentioned in one scene how he was stymied by an 8 pin dimple lock. It was a great small thing I remember noticing.

  11. (1) Can’t they get an actor that has actually *touched* a keyboard before they film them flailing away at the thing like a baby at a busy box?

    (2) I always like it when they hack into the “city computers” and bring up the precise detailed floor plan of the building where the hostages are being kept…right down to every telephone jack and sewer pipe. If only.

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