Would Rockford Files Be Foiled Today?

It is clear to me that technology advances--and a rather grim dehumanization of our technology processes--have advanced the cause of security in the 35 years since the "The Rockford Files" show first aired.

I'm going to detour from virtualization to circle back to computer security. I've been watching a lot of "The Rockford Files" and one 1974 episode, "Profit and Loss," perfectly illustrated a social hack on a computer data center.

I don't know what was more interesting to me, the mainframe computers used in the set, the classic James Garner chumminess by which the social hack was affected, or the fact that the company under investigation was involved in securities fraud. The hack and the fraud both seemed as relevant today as they were then. It was almost quaint to hear how reverently the SEC was referred to, given that agency's startling missteps in the lead-up to the current economic crisis.

But it was clear to me that technology advances--and a rather grim dehumanization of our technology processes--have advanced the cause of security in the 35 years since this show first aired.

Most of Jim Rockford's social hacking relied on slow or almost nonexistent access to directory information. So, for example, he is able to place a call to the Los Angeles police to falsely report a stolen car by giving a description of the vehicle along with the license plate number and a fake name. Rockford does this to get the cops to stop the tail. I haven't ever reported a car as stolen, but I'm assuming from talking with friends who have that the process is a little more involved than just calling in to the switchboard, providing some scant information and then having the police go into action within the minute.

Now aficionados of the "The Rockford Files" will know that Jim uses social hacking in nearly every episode. He's a private eye. That's what he does; fake people out so they'll spill the beans. Unlike today's procedural police shows, everyone is Mirandized and when a suspect (usually Jim) asks for a lawyer, he gets one instead of being bullied into confessing his crime. And his lawyer, a woman, is able to get him out of every single jam. Jim Rockford uses social hacking, aplomb, a keen sense of self-preservation and his mad driving skilz to get the job done.

It's hard to see how "The Rockford Files" could be a successful show today. Aside from how cell phones and the Internet have completely altered the communication and information access landscape, the pervasive use of directory information would foil nearly every one of Jim Rockford's social hacks. Almost every front desk receptionist has access to more information about employee whereabouts and authority than Rockford would have ever been able to talk his way around. Changes to hotel and motel booking requirements in the wake of 9/11 would make the undercover hopscotching often used in the show completely impossible today. I'm sure it's possible to stay at a motel under an assumed name, but the ease with which it can be done has certainly disappeared since 1974. And it must be a federal crime to attempt any such fraud.

It seems to me that all of our built-up security infrastructure, which makes it significantly more difficult to successfully breach today's data bastions, might also have reduced our ability to respond in a timely manner to breaches. In "The Rockford Files," any alarm that sounds elicits an immediate response from a henchman or the police. Even in "Profit and Loss," Jim is quickly discovered to be an imposter. The goon squad is immediately dispatched (and almost as immediately outwitted by Rockford). It's hard to imagine a coherent response to a daytime break-in at most office buildings in downtown San Francisco. Fast directory access and the massive increase in badge access door locks seem to have taken the place of big muscle and fast talking.