Movie thrillers such as Mission Impossible or the James Bond series include complex hi-tech security systems that the hero has to get past. But how do these fantastical devices compare with real world technology? Are security devices as high tech as those seen on the screen?
Despite advances in technology both in the real world and on screen, a good lock picking scene is still used in many movies today. It’s a great opportunity to build tension in a scene; will our hero unpick the lock before the security guard comes down the hall? Although traditional locks are pretty easy to pick, given time and the right tools, often the method used on screen would not work in real life. The main problem is that the right tools are not used; specifically, a torsion wrench is usually missing!
Today, real world technology has moved beyond the pickable lock. An example of this is the iFob system. Rather than a simple lock mechanism, the iFob is placed into a receptor socket. An immobiliser behind the socket registers the iFob and only grants access if the user has authorisation to access the secure area. This unlocks the door mechanism, so with no hole in the door to access the lock from, you can’t pick it. This kind of technology is used in all sorts of devices – from electronic lockers to security doors.
Biometrics is the general term given to the identification of people by their unique physical or behavioural attributes. This can include fingerprinting, DNA and retinal scanning. The concept for scanning the retina as a biometric marker was first published in 1935, although the first commercial model was not available until 1981. Mission Impossible, Goldeneye and even Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, are a few of the many films that use retinal scanning for access control. Retinal scanning technology actually appeared on the screen before it was prototyped; in the 1966 film, Batman, a retinal scan is used to identify the Penguin.
Unfortunately, real world retinal scanners are expensive, intrusive and can transmit infections from person to person. So what is actually used in many systems is the iris scanner, as in the film the Minority Report. This is a quicker and less intrusive technique, but unfortunately not quite as accurate.
Not only a fantastic opportunity to build tension within a scene, you can also have your hero performing all kinds of daredevil stunts and acrobatics to avoid detection. In the film Entrapment, Catherine Zeta Jones dances her way around the complex web of laser beams surrounding the loot. Mission Impossible uses the drop down from the ceiling approach, as does the Pink Panther, thereby avoiding lasers and pressure sensors in the floor. Although in reality, laser perimeter security is available, it’s usually for outside security. Inside you’re more likely to install a passive infra-red detection system than use lasers.
When all else fails and the subtle approach is not working, then the on-screen hero can resort to drastic measures. A prime example of this is in the film Ocean’s Eleven. Unable to actually turn off all the security devices one by one, the team cause a power outage in the whole of Las Vegas by using a ‘pinch’. This device delivers a huge electromagnetic pulse that takes out all the power in the city. Remarkably, the pinch is based on a real-world device. The only problem is that in reality the electromagnetic pulse is only enough to take out devices in the same room. That, and it’s actually 100 feet long.
The trend in on-screen high-tech security is almost the same as every other aspect of film-making. You take a concept that exists in real life and make it bigger and better. Many of these examples take ideas that exist as prototypes or concepts, but are not yet commercially available, or are not used due to impracticality.
License: Creative Commons image source
License: Creative Commons image source
Written by Matt Higgins, a security consultant with 15 years experience.