Saturday, July 30, 2022

Dear screenwriters: Bits can be copied

There's a new thriller movie out on one of the major streaming services.  I don't think it matters which movie or which service.  If you're reading this years from now, that statement will still probably true, at least to the extent there are still streaming services.  If you're pretty sure you know which 2022 movie this is referring to, but haven't seen it yet and want to, be warned.  There are mild spoilers ahead.

As with many such films, the plot revolves around a MacGuffin, a term apparently coined by Angus MacPhail, which Alfred Hitchcock famously glossed as "the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn't care."  In other words, it doesn't really matter what the MacGuffin actually is, only that the characters do care who gets it and so spend the whole film trying to make sure it ends up in the right place and doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

The plot device of a MacGuffin is much older than the term itself, of course.  The Holy Grail of Arthurian legend is one, and the oldest recorded story known so far, The Epic of Gilgamesh, sends its protagonist to the Underworld in search of one.

Clearly there's something in the human brain that likes stories about finding a magic item and keeping it away from the baddies, and in that sense the MacGuffin in the big streaming service movie is a perfectly good MacGuffin.  The protagonists and antagonists vie over it, it changes hands a few times, lots of things explode and eventually the MacGuffin is destroyed, ending its magic powers.

Except ...

The MacGuffin in this case is basically a gussied-up thumb drive containing information certain people do not want to become known.  Our protagonist receives the item early in the film (with suitable explosions all around) and promptly sends it off to a trusted colleague for safekeeping and decipherment.  Later we learn that the trusted colleague has, in fact, received the drive and cracked its encryption, revealing the damning information.

In real life, this is when you would make a backup copy.  Or a few.  Maybe hidden in the insignificant bits of JPEGs of cute kittens on fake cloud accounts with several different services.  Maybe on some confederate's anonymous server somewhere on the dark web.  Or at least on a couple more thumb drives.  For bonus points, swap out contents of the original thumb drive for a clip of the Dancing Baby or some similar slice of cheese.

(As I understand it, there are some encrypted devices that are tamper-resistant and designed not to be readable without some sort of key, so you can't easily copy the encrypted bits and try to crack the encryption offline, but here we're told that the encryption has already been cracked, so they have the plaintext and can copy it at will.)

The problem with that, of course, is that the drive would then cease to be a MacGuffin.  Why send teams of mercenaries and a few truckloads of explosives after something that might, at best, be one copy of the damning information?  The only real reason is that it makes for an entertaining way to spend an hour or two and screenwriters know all about writing MacGuffin-driven thriller plots.

Which is fine, except ...

If you think about the practicalities, there's still plenty of tension to be had even if the bits are copied.  Our protagonist has reason to want the secret information to remain secret except in case of a dire emergency, but they also want to be able to preserve it so that it can be released even if something happens to them.  How to do this?

If you've uploaded the bits to one of the major services, then who gets access to them?  Do you keep the information in a private file, memorize the account password and hope for the best?  What if you're captured and coerced into giving up the password?  On the other hand, if you die without revealing the information, it will just sit there until the account is closed, unless someone can figure out enough to subpoena the major service into handing over access to a bunch of cat pictures hiding the real information.  Which you encrypted, of course, so who has the key?

Maybe you share the encrypted bits with a journalist (or two, or three ...) with an "in case of my death" cover letter saying where to get the encryption key.  But what if they decide to go public with it anyway?  The more journalists, the better the chance one of them will publish if something happens to you, but also the better the chance that one of them will publish anyway.

Maybe you put the encrypted bits someplace public but write the encryption key on a piece of paper and lock it away in a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank.  Now you've traded one MacGuffin for another.  But maybe someone at a different spy agency has a backdoor into your encryption.  The baddies at your own agency are going to keep the contents to themselves, but maybe one of them has a change of heart, or gets double-crossed and decides to go public as revenge, and they need your copy since they no longer have access to the original bits and didn't make their own copy.

And so forth.  The point is that information doesn't really act like a physical object, even if you have a copy in physical form, but even so there are lots of ways to go, each with its own dramatic possibilities depending on the abilities and motivations of the various characters.  Most of these possibilities are pretty well-used themselves.  Plots driven by who has access to what information have been around forever, though some have paid more attention to the current technology than others -- "Did you destroy the negatives?" "Yes, but I didn't realize they'd left another copy of the photographs in a locker at the bus station ..."

Opting for a bit more realism here gives up the possibility of a "destroy the magic item, destroy the magic" plot, but it opens up a host of other ones that could have been just as interesting.  On the other hand, the movie in question doesn't seem to blink at the possibility of a full-on gun battle and massive explosions in the middle of a European capital in broad daylight.  Maybe realism was never the point to begin with, since that seems pretty unlikely.

Oh, wait ...

No comments: