Star Trek: Picard’s thrilling final season contains valuable lessons about cybersecurity, according to no less than a professor on the subject
Richard Forno is the principal computer science and electrical engineering lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He’s written an article at The Conversation using the final season of Star Trek: Picard to explain his thoughts on cyber security.
Just to recap, The Borg, with the help of the changelings, infiltrated Starfleet by hacking the transporters to infect everyone who went through them with Borg biotechnology retrieved from Picard’s corpse. When the tech was activated, the infected were instantly assimilated (but only if they were under the age of 25. I don’t fully understand why that is, but it left our heroes free to save the day).
According to Forno, this demonstrates the principle that threats from within are far more insidious and devastating than threats from outside. Threats from the outside must, by definition, breach a perimeter, making them easy to detect, whereas an inside job may not be detected until it’s too late.
He compares this to the case of Massachusetts Air National Guard airman Jack Teixeira, who was recently arrested for perpetrating one of the biggest leaks of classified documents in modern history.
Then there’s the issue of the vulnerability of connected networks, like Starfleet’s newest toy, Fleet Formation.
Of course, the Borg also took advantage of a new system that synchronizes all of Starfleet’s ships under one command. In a deliciously obvious piece of foreshadowing, Picard even remarked on the irony of such a Borg-like system. But this led to the show’s unforgettable denouement, as our heroes were forced to take a detour to the fleet museum, to dig out the Enterprise-D, under the rationale that they needed an older ship that wasn’t on the network.
"“From a cybersecurity perspective, ensuring the availability of information resources is one of the industry’s guiding principles. Here, the Enterprise-D represents defenders in response to a cyber incident using assets that are outside of an adversary’s reach.”"
Contrary to popular belief, portraying technology accurately is not the top priority of science fiction. Science fiction uses technology to tell stories and has as much poetic license when it comes to portraying technology as it does when building alien worlds. If completely unrealistic or misrepresented technology is what the story needs, then the story’s needs come first. My point here is that there’s nothing inevitable about Picard accurately demonstrating these principles.
Just because Picard was a top-notch show, that does not mean that what it has to say about information security is salient or insightful. Yet, apparently, it is. This may be a case of the producers going above and beyond to ensure that the show was not just a thrill-ride, but accurate too, or it could be simply a testament to how well the story was thought out.
There’s a perception that Star Trek is a nerd show, with its focus on science and technology. But really, Star Trek is no different from a lot of other sci-fi, in the sense that science and technology are just malleable story-telling tools. Where Star Trek is linked to real-world theories and innovations, it’s more likely that the show inspired smart people to theorize and innovate, rather than real-life informing the show.
Which makes it all the more amazing that Picard’s plot hemmed so close to the reality of the issue. Forno is clearly the sort of smart person who’d be inspired by Star Trek, but who knows how many others will be inspired by Star Trek as a result of Forno using it as a teaching resource?
And remember to back up your data offline.