Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reality and The X-Files

WARNING: The following post will probably be irrelevant, boring, or both to those who have no interest in The X-Files, or those who have never had to deal with workplace information security.

I love the TV show The X-Files. Seeing as we don't watch TV very much anymore, I doubt that many shows will come close to dethroning XF as my all-time favorite show. I have every show on DVD. Before season DVDs came along, I had a majority of the shows taped off TV on VHS tapes. During the peak of my watcher-ship (if that's even a word), I could watch a few seconds of any part of an episode and tell you the title, plot, and perhaps even the season in which it aired. My interest waned in the later seasons, due to various reasons.

However, as much as I loved the show, as I watch it these days, I realize how maddeningly unrealistic it is. Or rather, how utterly boring the show would be if the producers showed all of the little details that never get shown. Let me explain.

The premise of the show is two FBI agents (Mulder and Scully) investigating paranormal phenomena, with a heavy focus on aliens and the government conspiracy to either cover-up or concoct their existence. Because of the bureaucratic nature of the FBI, the real time for an episode to run its full course would likely be on the order of months. Here are a few bullet points on the mundane details that would bore viewers to death:

  • The two agents frequently galavant about the country, presumably on the FBI's dime. While not investigating paranormal phenomena, they probably spend the rest of their time filling out expense reimbursement requests.

  • When they're done with those, they have to go back and fill out their timesheets appropriately. What charge numbers do they use for X-Files anyways?

  • In addition to flying, the two agents frequently drive long distances, spanning several states. Sometimes even across the nation. Their travel expenses alone probably contribute to a significant chunk of federal spending.

  • Writing case reports would probably take a long time, especially if altercations were involved (which there always were). Perhaps even longer if an FBI-issued firearm were discharged.

I'd like to say a thing or two about their attention to workplace security, or lack thereof. On one page of the FBI's website, it says that all FBI employees must have a TOP SECRET security clearance. The definition of the TOP SECRET classification is information that would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security, if leaked. I have had a bit of experience with somewhat less stringent classified environments, and I can tell you that even those were relatively stringent. Mulder and Scully routinely stay at work until nether hours, but you never see them properly inspecting and locking up their work area. This would include things like making sure all classified information is properly stored in a combination lock container, making sure that everyone's computer is logged off, and making sure that the area alarm and motion detectors are properly armed. Then you must make sure to arm the big lock on the door to the office area.

The two agents are routinely handed case files to TOP SECRET information for which they have no "need to know." The "need to know" phrase has entered pop culture by way of some Tom Cruise movie, I think (Whatever it is, I haven't seen it). This phrase is actually used, and is a measure used to prevent the wide spreading of information to people who have the clearance, but have no need for the info itself. If I have a TOP SECRET security clearance, it doesn't mean that I can automatically have access to all of the government's deepest secrets.

In the XF office, there is a big cabinet of case files. These files likely contained classified information, and as such, they should be stored in a filing cabinet with a proper combination lock. Yet we've never seen Mulder or Scully fumbling to get the right combination on any such lock. I've seen Mulder walk out of his office, leaving a clearly marked stack of TOP SECRET papers on his desk. This is a gigantic no-no, as far as workplace security goes. Mulder and Scully have also brought their work home with them, which they would NOT be allowed to do, even with information that is at the lowest security classification. This would likely get a normal person thrown in jail. If the agents' antagonists really wanted to get them kicked out of the FBI, all they would have to do is alert M/S's boss of their blatant security breaches.

Mulder and Scully have discussed their work in crowded bars. If they paid attention during their security orientation on their first day of work, they would know that this is NOT allowed.

The main characters sometimes obtain keycards that give them access to highly secure areas. In secure environments, you almost always have to both swipe the card and put in a PIN that is associated with your card only. However, Mulder and Scully hardly ever have to enter a PIN to go along with a fake keycard.

But...it is a TV show, and I suppose part of the appeal comes from watching these two maverick agents flaunt normal information security measures and operate outside the FBI mainstream.

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  • Alan

    I think you pretty much have to have TOP SECRET clearance to be employed by any of the the major three-letter-acronym agencies. It turns out to be incredibly complicated to manage information at several different classification levels within the same organization, so most everything is top secret. In practical terms, the thing that really determines what a certain employee can see is the need-to-know.