vol 7, issue 10

The real ICT of James Bond

23 October 2012
By Dan Bradbury
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Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Licensed… to use mission-critical software

Still from Skyfall showing a large wide-screen TV

Skyfall promises to make IT a key plot driver, exploiting the visual impact of heads up wide-screen displays

Microsoft’s PixelSense

Microsoft’s PixelSense interactive surface allows users to use touch and real world objects to share digital content

Sensiotec’s Virtual Medical Assistant

Sensiotec’s ultra wide-band-based Virtual Medical Assistant ‘sees inside’ the body

Computer screen showing commander Bond's obituary

Despite the ‘filmic’ user interfaces, the SIS uses mostly standard desktop applications software

MI6 building, London

Standards bearer: the SIS uses many applications common to ordinary enterprises

The showy computer wizardry depicted in recent Bond movies is closer than ever to real-life technology; it even reflects changes in how actual enterprises are deploying their ICT resources.

James Bond fans know about 007's traditional penchant for gadgets, but there is another layer of technology underpinning the Bond movies that has comes to the fore since Daniel Craig assumed the on-screen mantel of cinema's favourite secret agent, and one that looks set to ramp-up in 'Skyfall', now on releasethe pursuit of technological realism.

Gone are the days when the average Bond movie viewer would know next to nothing about how clever things worked. Over the last decade we have become increasingly tech-savvy, so anything involving computers or communications that looks fanciful or unfeasible on the big screen is likely to erode credibility of the viewing experience, and therefore risk damaging the franchise's pulling power.

The first two Daniel Craig Bond films, 'Casino Royale' (2006) and 'Quantum of Solace' (2008), marked significant changes in the 007 attitude to technology. This Bond is not reliant on an armoury of gadgets lovingly developed for him by Q department.

He has his smartphone, of course, but its functionality is largely standard stuff. Instead the emphasis has shifted more to the sophisticated 'back office' computing and communications systems designed to support agents in the field. This could be an acknowledgement of the changing nature of Bond's work, and a nod toward the mobile enterprise. The 'Skyfall' plot centres around lost data, which is seen in real life, both in and out of government today. In the film, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) loses a disk containing the identities of all secret agents employed by the service, with far-ranging implications.

Some other technology-focused statements in the movie also ring true. Bond's reprised quartermaster Q tells him"I'll hazard that I can cause more damage from my laptop, sitting in my pyjamas, then you can cause during a whole year in the field."

Trigger for change

One specific piece of technology revealed in the 'Skyfall' trailer was an updated version of the Bond handgun, the Walther PPK. When Q presents it to Bond, he explains that it contains an optical reader designed to recognise 007's palm print, so that only he can fire it. There are 'smart firearms' on the market, although the authentication mechanisms have been different. In certain models, magnetic rings worn by the user have been used to release a magnetically activated blocking plate inside the firearm.

The ITC iGun uses a ring with a unique code that is matched against a reader in the gun to unblock the trigger. Another technology, VeriChip, relies on a microchip embedded into a police officer's hand that matches a scanning device inside the gun. These seem more reliable and faster than optical readers, which would need to scan and process an image from the authenticated user's palm, rather than simply matching a code. In 1999, Mossberg Shotguns developed a smart battery-powered shotgun that used RFIDthe ring used to identify the owner has a passive tag that relies on proximity to the gun for power. Last year Italian gunsmith Chiappa caused a stir by announcing that from 2012 it would be building RFID chips into its product line as standard for tracking and inventory management.

Big brother and big SIS

Bond has traditionally been an employee of the SIS, also known as MI6. It is one of several intelligence agencies operating in the UK, including the UK's signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, and the Security Service MI5, which handles inland intelligence activities. The agencies work together to gather information that protects the UK's interests at home and abroad.

As a major civil service directorate SIS does not have as much cash to spend on state-of-the-art technology as we might think. Not even Bond could save it from the recent broad-reaching government spending review, which imposed a cut of at least 11 per cent after inflation. The SIS had to share '1.996m with the other two intelligence agencies this year, and the figure reportedly will not be upwardly revised for at least four years.

Perhaps the scriptwriters sensed the irony, then, when the first technology that they showcased in 'Quantum of Solace' was the tracking of bank notes. Bond and SIS director general M are escorted into a room with a table-top computer system display.

An analyst explains that SIS has been tracking tagged bank notes across the world, before placing one on the table's glass surface, which then scans it and produces a hardcopy of its history.

"We introduced tagged bills into [terrorist financier] Le Chiffre's money laundering operation by intercepting illegal pay-offs. We traced money through several of his bank accounts around the world," explains the analyst, before pointing out that another bank note just showed up at a bank in Haiti.

Elements of this particular scene are realistic. The table with its built-in display is reminiscent of the Microsoft PixelSense interactive surface computing platform, released around the same time as 'Quantum of Solace'. Scanning the bank note is more difficult, because an opaque surface is needed as a reference plane, explains Toby Weir-Jones, head of portfolio marketing & strategy for business continuity, security/governance at BT, which sells technology to the UK intelligence community. However, "you could set the depth of field in the scanner given that the bank note has a certain thickness", he adds.

But for a note to show up in Haiti, it would have to be scanned upon reception. Are Haitian banks likely to be scanning every note paid into the bank, let alone making that data available via an information-sharing agreement, in real-time? Highly unlikely, though arguably it is not down to a lack of technological possibility. Some devices are designed to track data all the time, which turns the barrier into a political rather than a purely technological one.

In 'Casino Royale', made some six years ago, Bond filches a mobile handset from a bomb maker, and then analyses the SIM card using a dongle plugged into his PC. His software finds a text message and determines from where, and when, it was sent.

In a real-life equivalent to this scene, the metadata required would not be in the text message, but as BT's Weir-Jones points out, it would be stored in the mobile carrier network. Mobile phones communicate with carrier networks all the time; they must, to remain functional. With cellphone towers doing such a good job at triangulation, it is possible for the carrier to know your every move, along with when you communicated.

Green Party politician Malte Spitz proved this by suing Deutsche Telekom in 2011 for the data that it had retained on him, and then analysing the 35,830 lines that documented his activity over six months. The resultant interactive map showing his movements, including the time that he made calls and sent text messages. A special case, perhaps, but it demonstrates that where resources are focused on an individual, quite exceptional results are achievable.

Data sets

For Bond to have pulled off his SIM card analysis, SIS's ICT systems would have needed to query the carrier's systems to cross-reference the data about the text message contained on the card. To do this before the fact would require a list of phone numbers to track. The alternative, querying the carrier's systems on the fly, based on the number found on the card, would be highly problematic, especially given the speed with which Bond gets his results.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block here, however, is the law. "That's the biggest liberty taken in films: the 'due process'," says Weir-Jones. The SIS would need carte blanche access to retrieve data of that kind. There are laws in the US, such as business record requests made under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, that enable law enforcement officials to request data from carriers, but these are generally served on an ad hoc basis.

Later scenes in 'Casino Royale' push the ICT envelope still further. A tiny tracking device is injected into Bond's arm, enabling the support team back at SIS to track his location in real-time anywhere in the world, along with his vital signs. This is later used to save his life when he is poisoned and has to self-administer emergency treatment under the direction of SIS support staff monitoring him back at base.

This presents significant difficulties, although at least some of these are being overcome. Size is one. Todd Humphreys, aerospace engineering assistant professor and director of the University of Texas's Radionavigation Laboratory, explains that GPS devices are being rapidly miniaturised. You can now fit one into a key fob, he says; tomorrow, you'll be able to buy dot-sized GPS units in bulk and stick them to everything.

Getting tracked

Perhaps such devices could transmit within a few metres, but transmitting their position halfway around the world is still a way off. "The problem with the secondary function of transmitting any telemetry is the antenna and transmission power problem," Weir-Jones says. Even transmitting to a local terrestrial network would need half a watt of power, especially as there's no antenna other than the case itself, which will find its signal attenuated by human tissue. Work has been done on using the body for power, but to date it has been inefficient. Weir-Jones adds"Such tracking devices do exist, but they are designed not for transmission, but for storing the data."

While global cellular GPS tracking of tiny implanted devices may be less than plausible, using them to communicate vital signs to a central location is entirely feasible. Indeed, it is a central tenet for mobile health (mHealth). MHealth initiatives seek to improve patient monitoring using devices in or around the body. (Sensiotec's Virtual Medical Assistant product, for instance, monitors heart and respiration rates, providing a constant feedback loop going out to pagers, smartphones, and tablet PCs.) While cellular transmission across long distances from implanted devices may not be easily achievable, it is possible to have them deliver information to a more powerful smartphone, which could then be used to beam the data where needed.

Several projects use implants to communicate data, including a University of Michigan research initiative to implant pressure sensors into patients with congenital heart disease. These sensors are wireless and battery-free. Placed inside a heart chamber, they enable doctors to measure pressure inside the heart while the patient is being seen in the outpatient clinic. In the future, researchers hope that these devices will be remotely monitored.

Others are taking this further, developing flexible electronics that can be placed on or under the skin to monitor vital signs. Electronics firm MC10 is creating 'bio stamps' that can be attached to the skin almost like a transfer tattoo. This can monitor vital statistics such as temperature and heart rate. The company also hopes to deploy variations of this system inside the body, either as a flexible electronic sheet across the brain that can monitor neurological activity, or as a catheter-delivered sensor that can monitor the heart.

Multiple scenes pivot around gathering and interrogating information back at base. In one, operators take minimal information and use it to retrieve lots of records from a complex, unstructured data set. In another, they use complex data for the query itself, aiming for a single, exact match.

In'the first scenario, from 'Quantum of Solace', Bond runs across the name 'Dominic Greene'. Calling HQ, he asks an official to find out about him from just the name. An impatient 007 waits for 15 seconds while the database churns, before spitting out the largest hit - the besought Dominic Greene. The official, looking at a blur of newspaper headlines and maps whizzing across the large wall display, gives Bond a condensed overview of the villain's activities. He owns "a utility company, but [he's] doing a lot of philanthropic work, buying up large tracts of land for ecological preserves", he says.

There are many Dominic Greenes in the world. Could a database accurately narrow down a search to one relevant individual based on just a name? And could it then retrieve and collate the necessary unstructured data for that kind of profile?

Clever searching

Password crackers test against known and likely alphanumeric combinations to avoid trawling through millions of random meaningless combinations. "If I am Bond, looking for people, I'll be looking for those that have heaps of money, overt criminal pasts, or significant criminal interests," says Weir-Jones. "So it reduces your search space from the guy who is on the list."

As for condensing heaps of unstructured data such as newspaper reports and financial records, pulling aggregate information certainly is not unrealistic - especially if it is regularly batched rather than done manually. "You see people doing this with SEC filings, where they pull all the filings for particular companies and look for the story between the lines," he continues. (An SEC filing is a financial statement or other formal document submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission).

With much archive material now stored as image files - PDFs, say, or even meta-tagged image formats - standard search engines, if used by an operator experienced in effective search term management, can track down target information quickly.

Face recognition

Later in 'Quantum of Solace', Bond photographs a series of strangers across a darkened opera hall, many facing partly away from him. The photos are beamed to the SIS's backend systems and the software analyses the faces by breaking them into geometric shapes. They are referenced against a database, and the individual's identities are rapidly returned.

Facial recognition is getting increasingly sophisticated, according to BT's Weir-Jones, arguing that the key factor is how much of the face the system needs to see to return a match with a confidence level of 80 per cent. "You used to need all of the features, such as both eyes, mouth and hairline," he says. That is not the case now. "The Holy Grail is when all I can see is the back of your head, but I still know that it's you." We may not be there yet, but we are moving quickly toward that reality, Weir-Jones believes.

The polygon analysis normalises the faces, mapping elements and examining their positions. Even if you cannot see all features, the proximity of the visible ones to the edge of the head helps the system to derive the angle of view. "You can derive the straight-on geometry," explains Weir-Jones.

If the people being scanned are on file (as these characters would have been), then they can be identified relatively quickly, he says, suggesting algorithmic processing in fractions of a second. In 'Quantum of Solace' that processing actually took longer.

What must the databases in which this information is stored look like? Would the SIS require bespoke software with innovative secret algorithms to work such magic? Unlikely. "What's important is how you build the front end to those tools," says Weir-Jones. "I don't think you need a proprietary back-end, but you need significant expertise in database architecture and performance optimisation." Specialist tools already use open source databases such as MySQL to store facial and other images for look-up.

Further information

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Spook look: real-life ICT was shakey but now steered...

Commercial off-the-shelf solutions form a large part of the Secret Intelligence Service's systems estate, and its IT projects generally follow trends found in the commercial sector.

The SIS is a Microsoft 'house', running Windows operating systems for tasks including document management and Active Directory. Its management processes are also relatively industry-standard. Understandably, given that it was developed by the Office of Government Computing, it uses ITIL V3 for service management. It is a proponent of service-oriented architecture, for instance; it uses IBM Datapower Appliances to help manage its Web services deployments, and Software AG CentraSite to help manage its application lifecycles. That the SIS uses open-source software - including the LifeRay enterprise collaboration portal, the Apache Web server, and Linux - is also known.

The secrecy surrounding the 'MI' agencies, combined with their glamorous depiction in the movies, tempts the assumption that they are extra-highly-sophisticated, well- polished operations, with IT systems specified beyond the scope of those found in more conventional public sector organisations; however, the limited information available in the public domain suggests otherwise.

Much of the insight we have about the intelligence community's IT capabilities comes from the Security Service, also known as MI5. In February 2011, its director general Jonathan Evans admitted"Our technology was in a better state than it had been in 2000 to 2005, when, not to put too fine a point on it, we were in a bit of mess, really". The Service still faces significant challenges in making its technology stable and consolidating its information, it revealed. Record-keeping has been an issue. Such was the extent of the problem that the organisation invested most of its funding from a 2007 spending review in upgrading its computer systems.

The Security Service's technology spending is split between four streams. These include an IQ program to help manage investigations, a digital intelligence programme (DIGINT) established in 2009 to help gather and analyse digital information. Bond would yawn at the infrastructural stuffan applications hosting and storage (AHS) programme, and a networks programme, which ballooned 43 per cent in budget during 2011. A separate electronic information management system was delayed until after the Olympics.

While the SIS, along with GCHQ, are separate agencies to the Security Service in the UK intelligence community, there is some overlap. In some cases, the agencies are being forced to work together to deal with some significant shortcomings. As it stands, for example, neither GCHQ nor SIS have sufficient data centre capabilities to continue operating effectively if their primary sites failed. SIS has been forced to work on a Joint Data Centre with the Security Service which, as of last year, was still under construction. GCHQ decided not to participate, leaving it vulnerable, with MPs calling on it to solve the problem as soon as possible.

Other technology projects include improved communications between head office and SIS stations around the world, along with another technology project, which has been redacted. For now, then, if Q branch is working on technologies for SIS, they are likely to err on the side of work-a-day pragmatism rather than designed to impress any sultry temptresses 007 encounters in the course of his assignments in the field.

It's somewhat depressing, therefore, to learn that one of the biggest technological hurdles facing the agency is making sure its data is properly backed-up. In the rarefied world of spying, just as in the mundane one occupied by the rest of us, it seems that at least some of the problems are the same.

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