The '24' effect

Fans say the show is most realistic when it portrays technology’s inconsistent performance

Time is running out for fans of Fox Television’s hit show “24,” which airs its fifth season finale on May 22. Hero Jack Bauer and the Los Angeles office of the Counter Terrorism Unit, a fictional division of the CIA, have two hours left to save the world on his latest day from hell.

However Jack does it, technology will likely play a starring role. Perhaps he’ll download infrared images or building schematics to his personal digital assistant via satellite feed. Maybe Chloe O’Brian, the super-geek angel on his shoulder, will hack a classified network or crack an encrypted database to find the information to put away the corrupt President Logan. The show’s writers are likely saving their best tricks for last.

In its five seasons, “24” has attracted millions of fans whose hearts pound with every beep of its relentless time clock. That digital countdown embodies how technology drives nearly every aspect of the show — the tension, plot twists and teamwork of good guys and bad guys alike. The show’s technology and subject matter draw some of the most ardent viewers: federal and private-sector employees, many of whom work in information technology, homeland security and law enforcement.

“It’s probably the sexiest way they have shown technology on TV to date,” said Timothy Heffernan, a self-professed “24” fanatic and director of government relations and public affairs for Symbol Technologies, which makes wireless and radio frequency identification products.

TV shows like “24” and “Alias” and movies like the “Mission: Impossible” series have inundated people with “images of technology and derring-do,” said Chase Brandon, whose name sounds as though he could be a character on “24,” but instead he is the CIA’s liaison to the entertainment industry.

A 25-year veteran of undercover operations, Brandon helped the show’s producers establish a realistic environment that doesn’t give away real secrets.

Most viewers love the show because it pushes the technological envelope and challenges their ability to find inconsistencies, goofs and the occasional shameless distortion of reality. The technology on “24” exists but isn’t always as fast or powerful as it is on the show, said John Dowd, a sales engineer at Isonics, which makes automated poison-quarantine systems for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. But that only makes him wish reality mimicked TV.

“Device envy?” Dowd asked. “Yeah, I got it.”

Homage to Murphy’s Law
The show’s portrayal of technology is believable enough that people don’t know if it’s real, said Tom Tutko, a software engineer for Northrop Grumman’s Virtual Integrated Systems of Systems–Tool for Awareness Analysis and Assessment (VIS2TA) program.

VIS2TA helps homeland security employees improve real-time decision-making by presenting geospatial visual simulations of information gathered from different databases and sensors. “24” showcases what the government could do if it had the technology, said Dan Smith, a senior enterprise consultant at GTSI, a large federal systems integrator. The show has an on-demand perspective in which technology scales dynamically to adapt to situations, he said.

The show also highlights the multiple levels of command and bureaucracy that can get in the way. “It’s probably the most realistic aspect,” Smith said.

Brandon said the most believable aspect of “24” is how Jack and his team improvise, adapt and overcome when their best-laid plans and technology go awry. Inconsistent technology performance is realistic and pays homage to Murphy’s Law, which real agents live by, he said.

The technology in “24,” while amazing, exists to augment the characters’ ability to make the right decision as quickly as possible, Dowd said. “You can’t rely solely on technology,” Heffernan agreed. “You need live agents in the field.”

Too good to be true
“24” uses the latest technology — especially PDAs, satellite imagery and video surveillance — but its logic in using it is inconsistent, said Marcus Fedeli, manager of federal opportunity products at Input, a market research firm.

One minute, Chloe can retrieve satellite footage of a suspect’s path on a city block from 10 minutes earlier or see the infrared signatures of all the guards in a building in real time then send it all to Jack’s PDA or cell phone, Fedeli said. The next minute the satellite connection goes down for seemingly no reason.

Information sharing is improving, but data quality and communications speed are nowhere near as fast and versatile as on “24,” Smith said, adding that he can download satellite imagery from Google Maps to his PDA, but it’s a slower process than on the show.

“Lots of things have to come together magically to make this environment work” because orchestrating complex technology in a highly precise and responsive way is almost impossible, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources. Bjorklund said he doesn’t watch “24,” but he has followed tech trends in entertainment and government since the original “Mission: Impossible” TV show ran in the 1960s. “24” is “‘Mission: Impossible’ at Internet speed,” he said.

In the real world, almost everything happens through a team of specialists cooperating together, Brandon said. “You just don’t bring out the action hero and have things go smoothly,” he said. A technical expert would accompany the operations officer, he said. If “24” mirrored that, Jack would always have Chloe by his side, lugging her laptop computer.

Wag-the-dog effect
TV writers get their ideas about technology the same way many of their viewers do: by soaking up tales of real-world counterterrorism from reading and the Internet, said Manny Coto, a writer for the fourth and fifth seasons of “24.”

“A lot of it is plain old-fashioned making it up,” he said.

The writers have no FBI or CIA contacts, Coto said. They are laymen who are “technology fiends” and buy the latest cell phones and other gadgets. For example, he bought a Palm Treo 650 before writing for the fifth season, liked it and wrote it into the script. That’s why “24” is “the most phone-heavy show in the history of mankind,” he said.

Fans and experts differ on whether the show influences how the federal government uses technology. It’s not unheard of — CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” has spawned the “CSI Effect,” which leads real jurors to expect the same flashy, high-tech, conclusive forensic evidence that they see on TV.

“There is a definite wag-the-dog situation,” Dowd said. In the past 15 years, he said he has heard a lot of discussion at conferences and homeland security summits about adapting TV technology for real use.

Not only do popular shows and movies push people to develop better technology, he said, they drive companies to develop products to answer people who ask, “Can we do that?”

Most people in the government are smart enough to know fiction from reality, Brandon said. He said it’s rare for government decision-makers to want to get the technology they see on “24” and other shows because those people already know what resources they have and can implement.

It may be too soon to know what effect “24” will have because the CSI Effect and influences from “Star Trek” and other shows took a while to surface, Coto said.

Connecting with viewers
Federal IT workers love “24” because the show glamorizes their lives and the technology they use daily, Smith said. It distills their tasks down to the exciting, dramatic parts and omits the lengthy analysis and boring bureaucracy that defines the real thing, Brandon said.

“People want to know that James Bond really exists on some level,” Dowd said. The show connects them to larger counterterrorism efforts beyond their often-mundane jobs and gives them pride in being federal employees.

The show helps people understand in a realistic way what the government does to protect the country, why it does it and why it needs to be done right, said Pete Bulanow, Northrop Grumman’s program manager for VIS2TA.

William Hartwell, Symbol’s vice president for the federal government area, previously worked at Cisco Systems. While there, he said, he implemented many systems similar to what’s shown on “24.” The government can use much more technology than it currently does, he said. “It’s not even a question of whether the tech exists. It’s whether they want to deploy it.”

The Counter Terrorism Unit is an odd representation of something that does exist but that the writers recast for their own purposes, Brandon said, adding that the CIA has secret technology more amazing than any film writer ever imagined.

Coto wouldn’t say what technological tricks he’s saving for tonight’s finale. No matter what happens, “24” fans will likely enjoy it and spend the summer wondering what technology Jack and his teammates will use on the next worst day of his life.


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Tech reality check

The TV show “24” uses technology in compelling ways, but how accurate is it? Here is what some experts say.

ID cards and chemical sensors
Scene: Ostroff sneaks into the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) using a doctored ID card. He shuts off the HVAC system and releases nerve gas into the building, trapping agents in protected rooms.

Reality check: Ostroff would need to alter the information in the CTU’s central database to be able to enter the building with a phony ID, said William Hartwell, Symbol Technologies’ vice president of the federal government area. Otherwise, Ostroff’s face would not appear on the guard station’s monitor, which would alert the guards.

Furthermore, most federal buildings don’t have environmentally sealed rooms, Smith said. The CTU could use automated poison-quarantine systems such as Isonics’ EnviroSecure, which the company installed in Germany’s parliament building and at undisclosed U.S. locations, said Dennis Koehler, Isonics’ vice president of government sales and marketing. The system can identify toxins and control air handlers to give people time to evacuate.

Wireless devices/phones
Scene: Jack uses his Palm Treo 650 smart phone to send photos and download a schematic of the airport terminal in which suicide bombers are holding hostages — all in a few minutes. Later, he uses the device to get real-time infrared images from satellites so he can avoid guards while he sneaks into a building.

Reality check: “I use the same PDA that Jack uses; the data connection just isn’t that fast,” said Dan Smith, a senior enterprise sales consultant at GTSI. Jack downloads data as much as 20 times faster than the rest of us, Smith said, adding, “It’s unrealistic, but it’s pretty cool.”

Information sharing
Scene: Chloe’s hacking and information-gathering prowess often mean the difference between success and failure for her CTU teammates.

Reality check: Northrop Grumman’s Virtual Integrated Systems of Systems-Tool for Awareness Analysis and Assessment (VIS2TA) mirrors much of what Chloe and the CTU command center can do, said Pete Bulanow, VIS2TA program manager at the company. The program aids real-time decision-making by presenting geospatial simulations of information gathered from different databases and sensors.

Chloe’s ability to access any intelligence database in the world nearly instantly is a bit far-fetched, Smith said. Her skills could make her the biggest potential threat the CTU faces, said Marcus Fedeli, manager of federal opportunity products at Input.

“I’m glad she works for the federal government,” he said. “If she ever decides not to, they should take her out.”

— Michael Arnone

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