Something to declare

Published July 20, 2022

A close up on a screen of binary code, shaded in blue, showing prominent ones and zeros to the left fading into bokeh to the right hand side

I got a couple of episodes into The Undeclared War before I realised I needed to get Mr C on board with this show. It’s airing on Channel 4 at the moment, or available as a boxset via streaming, and we very quickly demolished the lot.

The programme tells the story of a young woman doing work experience at GCHQ (is that a thing?) at the exact moment a huge cyber scuffle between the UK and Russia kicks off.

This has to be a super niche programme. It’s so detailed about coding and hacking, layers of hierarchy and leadership within GCHQ, solving puzzles and encryption and a very slow burn war where the key players are mostly just staring at screens. I can’t imagine it has a huge appeal but for those who are nerdy enough to love it, I think it was so well done, it’s unmissable.

Everything within was accurate. You know those moments where you see someone in a movie doing some coding and they’re just writing gobbledegook, or using a piece of software that can’t possibly do what they are trying to achieve? There’s none of that in here. The scenarios, the coding, the software, all of it is accurate and believable and even Mr C couldn’t find a single thing to pick holes in.

This post on The Guardian from a cybersecurity expert agrees that the attention to detail is second to none.

Once it got down to the technological nitty-gritty, I was delighted to see characters using real tools. Analysts unpacked a piece of malware using an IDA (interactive disassembler). The code you saw on screen was actual machine language, rather than gobbledegook. Saara found a second virus nested inside another - a bit like Russian dolls - which is a well-known technique. My own original discipline was steganography, the art of hiding things in plain sight. It is used mostly for covert communications but increasingly in malware as well. Make people look in one direction, then suddenly the payload goes off somewhere unexpected.

That whole post is a great read, by the way, and the show is a fantastic watch. I can’t promise that all of the acting and dialogue was inspiring - although I thought Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance were both brilliant - but even that made it more realistic. People don’t always run around uttering witticisms and being fabulous, sometimes it’s people not knowing what to say or how to act and just going about their day.

It’s not just about the keyboard bashing, either, the show raises some interesting questions and highlights some worrying trends - how entrenched fake news is, whether people are ever ‘just doing their jobs’ and whether working for the government is right for those who feel subjected by their critical gaze. There’s scope here for a second series, at least, with so many layers to peel back and such high stakes from just the smallest actions.

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