Q created Bond’s ingenious gadgets, but how plausible or passé are they today?
When Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels, the state-employed agent was a breed apart. You cannot send just anybody out into the field. It seemed increasingly obvious to the producers of the movies that the special agent would be issued with equally special equipment to go on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. However, today you can pick up some of yesterday’s special-issue gadgets from a kiosk in your nearest shopping centre.
The tiny microfilm camera carried by George Lazenby’s Bond in 'On Her Majesty’s Secret Service' now seems almost absurdly big given that you can pack better optics into the back of a mobile phone or even more inconspicuous equipment. Today’s photofit software has surpassed the Identigraph from 'For Your Eyes Only' and variations on the same idea have turned up in opticians and high-street stores to let you try on spectacles and clothes virtually.
Others have been rendered more or less impossible to use. Bond would not get past security at any airport outside the UK with the kind of gadget briefcase Q expected him to use in 'From Russia With Love'. Then again, some of the jobs that a double-O agent like Bond would be expected to handle can now be performed from the relative safety of a desk.
Q in Skyfall tells Bond: “I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.”
Documents revealed by Edward Snowden underlined how similar the exploits of spooks in the security services have become to those of everyday hackers. Teams within the agencies set about creating toolkits for hacking into remote computer systems with gusto. In the wider world, so-called script kiddies use similar toolkits to try to con anyone from home users to the US Secretary of State into loading trojan-horse software onto their computers that open them up to the outside world.
The US State Department recently released emails showing how hackers, believed to be backed by Russia, attempted to gain control of Hillary Clinton’s private computer using fake parking tickets – the kind of phish that afflicts just about anyone with an email account today. Yet the phish is just one ‘exploit’ technique that can be used to gain access to a computer remotely.
In presentations leaked by Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) refers to a database called Tailored Access Operations (TAO) that contains information on “all the exploitable machines in country X”. Security expert Bruce Schneier sums up the database as “hacker tools designed by hackers with an essentially unlimited budget”.
The Internet of Things provides many new angles of attack for every class of hacker. The opportunities the IoT-enabled gadget throws up for hacking have become the focus of a working group formed last month by NMI, representing UK electronics businesses, and was the subject of a seminar at Bletchley Park earlier this year.
Ken Munro of security firm Pen Test Partners described how a Bluetooth Barbie doll could be subverted to become another piece of surveillance hardware without forcing the spy to go anywhere near the home. “She listens to everything while she is on,” says Munro. “It’s a case where the vendor has put some thought into their device: you have to press her belt buckle button to get her to listen. The problem is they offer the functionality for parents to log into the cloud to hear what the child says. But how is that password being stored?”
The doll has to be in the right place to act as a spy, which might be a problem for stealing official secrets. What about the living room TV, perhaps? Many of them now offer voice activation as standard, which implies that the device is able to listen to any conversation in the room and probably be missed by a classic bug sweep that looks for simple radio transmitters. “You are exposing what is a very private space to people on the other side of the world,” says David Rogers, CEO at security consultancy Copper Horse.
The commercial space offers potential for other kinds of mayhem. Rogers points to the hacking of Fox News’ Twitter account in 2011 to announce the “assassination” of US president Barack Obama as an easily performed way of panicking an ever jittery financial market. Other parts of the digital infrastructure that rely on “trusted data from a trusted source”, such as the atomic clocks used to coordinate the servers that underpin financial trading systems, represent lucrative targets for attackers.
Munro says there is an urgent need for education: “The problem is getting people in the industry to understand what security is. They make dolls or kettles. We need to reach out to everyone who does stuff that connects to the Internet. It’s rare that we get a consumer device that you can’t do something silly with.”
One gadget that has turned up in real life and looks surprisingly similar to its analogue in the movies is the car tracker. It is used by both Bond and CIA agent Felix Leiter on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean in 'Goldfinger'.
Today, you can buy a magnetically attached box that is not far from the cigarette pack dimensions of the Q branch version and pop it under your own car.
The only problem for the security services’ trackers in the movie is that the infrastructure to make them feasible would not launch for more than a decade after the first screening. If either of the two tracking scenes stayed close to the coast, they could conceivably have used a system similar to that of the LORAN network of ground-based radio transmitters. However, the tracker followed by Leiter wound up in a car crusher in Kentucky and Bond followed Goldfinger all the way to Switzerland.
Today’s tracking devices rely on the ability to capture timing signals from two or more satellites, use the differences to calculate a position and then send regular messages using cellular packet radio. Although the power demands are lower than those of a cell phone handset, the device needs a reasonably sized battery to keep operating for more than a couple of hours. This makes the pill-sized trackers for people, such as the one swallowed by Bond in 'Thunderball', far less likely to be encountered any time soon.
In his movie history, Bond manages to inveigle his way into a villain’s circle with the help of fake fingerprints not once, but twice. In 'Diamonds are Forever', Bond wears fake fingerprints to try to fool smuggler Tiffany Case. She dusts a glass and photographs it to decide that he must be her contact Peter Franks.
25 years later, the technology moves into the electronic age with a scanner built into a mobile phone. It virtually ‘lifts’ the image of a fingerprint from the greasy smudge on a lock used by media mogul Elliot Carver and then projects an image of the finger back onto the lock.
Today, digital forensic fingerprint scanners can take images of fingerprints from an object with a reasonably smooth surface, even if it has been mangled up. The Foster + Freeman Crime-Lite torch uses several different parts of the light spectrum to try to build up a usable image.
Getting the fingerprint back onto a sensor takes more hardware, but it is possible, as security researcher Jan Krissler demonstrated at the annual meeting of the Chaos Computer Club in the end of 2014. He didn’t even need to go near the target or their glassware. He used high-resolution photographs of a German politician to reconstruct an image of her fingerprint before creating a picture of it. Then it would be sensed by the TouchID sensor on an Apple iPhone, albeit one keyed to the synthetic image rather than the target’s actual thumb or finger.
Many Bond gadgets are too small for anything that looks like them to be effective in real life. Not like the Snooper that tracks Bond down in California at the end of 'A View to a Kill'. Modelled on a dog, (albeit one with wheels that could slowly amble through a house) the movie’s robotic drone now looks surprisingly large and ungainly.
Although machines such as the Knightscope K5 surveillance robot, which was developed to act as an automated security guard, have the looks and dimensions of a garden composter, surveillance robots can easily be made much smaller. They now scale down to the size of a toy car. An example that carries on the idea of the loyal dogbot is Superdroid’s MLT ‘Jack Russell’, which resembles a World War One tank in all but size.
This robot was designed to survive a 3m fall so that it could be tossed up onto a balcony and land intact. Small flippers are meant to help the robot overcome obstacles.
Researchers are working on alternative ways of getting the spybot to move around, with some adopting legs for spider-like motion, or using articulated bodies to move along the ground like snakes.
Narrowly avoiding death by turning up in Bond’s hotel room unannounced, Q delivers a specialised gun in 'Licence to Kill'. Once keyed to the spy’s palm print, no-one else can fire it, as Chinese agents found when trying to turn the gun on Bond.
A decade after the state of New Jersey passed a law designed to encourage the use of similar ‘smart guns’, the idea reappears in 'Skyfall' as one of the few gadgets employed in the latest reboot of the Bond movies. Although the smart guns in the Bond movies are meant to sense 007’s palm print, the current crop of smart guns either use electronic aids or focus on the grip pattern of the owner using a network of pressure sensors sitting underneath the grip cover.
Real-life personalised guns go back 40 years with the development of the Magna-Trigger system. As its name suggests, the safety catch only unlocks if a magnetic ring is worn on the hand. Later products have replaced magnets with RFID transmitters that are meant to be harder to hack as they transmit a coded signal to the trigger lock. Yet both gun proponent and gun control groups have criticised the idea: for making guns too complicated and potentially unreliable, and for making them seem safer than they are, respectively.
After the watch, a pen is a pretty good cover for a Bond gadget, leading to inevitable ‘poison pen’ gags, such as the acid-tipped version that appears in 'Octopussy'. A decade later in 'Goldeneye', Q packed a pen with explosive and placed it in a dummy’s chest pocket. The top half blew to smithereens. Would it be possible?
Discovery Channel’s ‘Mythbusters’ examined how much bigger the pen would need to be to obliterate the top half of a plastic dummy. A pen-sized quantity of explosive was enough to chop the dummy in half but left a huge chunk of its body in place. But the show used a dummy made of polystyrene, noted for its ability to resist sudden compression. Real-world weapons tests use animal carcasses. No one wants to see that on screen.
When Bond faces the prospect of either drowning or being eaten by Emilio Largo’s sharks in 'Thunderball', he pulls out the incredibly useful Rebreather – a device shaped like a miniature dumbbell that seems to pull oxygen out of the surrounding water so that he can swim away.
It was such a useful plot device that the writers gave the rebreather a second outing in the last of the gadget-heavy movies, 'Die Another Day', with much the same design – even though the only way it could function would be to remind Bond to hold his breath.
Researchers have gone some way to dealing with the problem of building a Rebreather that works. Professor Christine Mackenzie and colleagues from the University of Southern Denmark published a paper last year that described a crystal able to absorb large quantities of oxygen from the surrounding air. A scuba tank full of the crystal could store three times more oxygen than a traditional pressurised canister.
“A few grains contain enough oxygen for one breath,” Mackenzie says and the grains could, in principle, absorb dissolved oxygen directly from water. The problem is finding enough oxygen underwater without having to expend huge amounts of energy to split the water molecules themselves.
Unfortunately for would-be secret agents, oxygen dissolved in water is at a much lower concentration than it is in air: tens of parts per million even in well-oxygenated water versus hundreds of
thousands above the surface. A swimmer simply does not move through water quickly enough to be able to capture sufficient dissolved oxygen from their surroundings to keep them breathing, even if a Rebreather worked at 100 per cent efficiency.
Bond, ever the showman, flicks a switch on his magnetic watch in 'Live and Let Die' and M’s teaspoon flies across the room to stick to it. Bond then tells his astonished boss that the watch generates an electromagnetic field strong enough to deflect a bullet.
Metin Tolan, professor of experimental physics at the Technical University of Dortmund, says that Bond’s watch would need to produce a current of five amps to do this. “Unfortunately a five-amp battery small enough to fit onto a watch has not been invented,” he says.
Tolan, who lectures on the physics of James Bond, says that Bond is one metre away from the watch and one metre is a huge distance for a magnetic field. “The magnetic field will decrease to one ten millionth of its original value by the time it reaches the spoon,” he says, adding that a superconducting magnet could help, but this would also be difficult as you would have to cool down the superconductor.
Tolan explains that a strong electromagnetic field would take three seconds to build up enough power to attract the spoon to the watch, the exact time it takes in the film, though he thinks this is probably a coincidence. “If Bond wants to use the watch to deflect bullets, he would have to switch it on three seconds before the gun is fired.”