Hollywood and Technology

Technology has always been near and dear to my heart.  I wrote my first program when I was in the 4th grade on an old Apple IIe.  It was just a simple Star Trek program written in BASIC.  By the time I was in 7th grade, I was rewriting Oregon Train and tinkering with BASIC’s “high resolution” graphics.  Over time I worked with Logo (still fun to move the turtle around), Pascal, and FORTRAN.

In college, I largely forgot about programming and only picked it back up again when I started teaching databases and network administration at my first job.  Since then, I programmed in Visual Basic, C#, Java, Javascript, SQL, and a smattering of C++.  I won’t say I’m the best programmer in the world, but I’ve done some pretty cool stuff.

All this is why scenes like this one drive me up a wall.

This is a scene from CSI NY that demonstrates quite possibly the worst techno babble I’ve come across.  Why would you write a GUI in VB to track an IP Address when you can just type tracert <ip address>, or use a visual trace route program?  If you want to find out who owns an IP Address, you can just do a whois search on in.  Once you find out what ISP owns the IP Address, call them and ask who it’s assigned to.  There’s no reason to write a custom program in an archaic language to track down who owns an IP address or the general geographic area that IP Address is coming from.

Aside from all that, the show did a magnificent job of not only coming up with an asinine explanation for how to do it, they didn’t even bother to explain to their audience just what the heck an IP Address even is.

If you’re already familiar with networking, skip this section and go straight to the big finale.  If you’re not, an IP Address is a string of numbers that’s attached to every computer and router (and some other stuff, too) on the Internet.  It lets computers know to find each other and send data back and forth.  Without getting into the nitty gritty of packet routing, switches, WAN, subnetting and supernetting and all the other technologies and techniques that make the Internet work, think of an IP Address as being very similar to your house address, only formatted backwards.  1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC. 20006 is a physical address.  It starts with the smallest point (1600, the location on the block) and moves to the largest (Washington, D.C.).  An IP Address, such as 192.168.32.1 goes the opposite direction: 192.168.32 is the largest point (the network id) and 32 is the smallest (the actual computer on that network).

Granted, there’s a little more to it, but that’s the general gist.  Every time you connect to a website (like this one), you’re sending your IP Address to a server and the server is sending data back to your IP address.  Even the URL (ericlahti.wordpress.com) is just an easy way for you to remember the IP Address of one of the WordPress servers (76.74.254.123 last time I checked).  A URL is nothing more than a stupid human trick designed to make the Internet easier to remember.

So, even with all that, can you actually physically track a person down by their IP address?  Not really, but I’m sure the police could make use of some of their power.  If you’re tracking down a killer by their IP address, I’d start with a whois search to see who the IP Address is registered to.  It’ll probably be an ISP that distributes their IP block through DHCP.  An ISP should be able to find out which cable or DSL modem out there has been assigned that IP address, that modem will be registered to an account, which will have a physical address.  Voila!  No need for a Visual Basic GUI, no need for a custom application when a phone call and a quick web search would be faster and easier.

Thus, the scene could have been written like this: “I’m going to do a whois search to find out who owns that IP address then call the ISP to get their mailing address.  We should have this guy in five minutes.”

All that said, here’s my open message to Hollywood.  Next time you guys need something technical, feel free to email me.  I’ve got a ton of experience taking complicated technological problems and boiling them down into something easy to digest.

My email address is on the contact page.  Or you can just leave a comment.

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