'CSI: Cyber': Mostly Show Biz With Some Lessons

The popular TV show's executive producer and actors realize it's edutainment, but they still try to get the facts straight and teach some security lessons.

cyber security

SAN FRANCISCO—Among the most highly anticipated sessions at the RSA Conference 2016 here was the keynote presentation with the producer and cast from the popular CBS TV drama "CSI: Cyber."

Among many in the IT security community, "CSI: Cyber" is widely derided as an inaccurate and an over-hyped representation of how IT security works. That's a claim that the executive producer and actors in the show don't explicitly deny, but that doesn't mean they aren't actually trying to get it right and improve IT security overall.

"CSI: Cyber," which focuses on cyber-crimes and IT security, is the latest iteration of the popular "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" series.

Anthony Zuiker, creator and executive producer of the CSI franchise, responded to the question about whether "CSI: Cyber" accurately represents the IT security industry. "It's show business."

Zuiker points to what is known as the "CSI-effect," regarding how crimes are solved that can set up false expectations. The effect can give people the false impression that law enforcement just needs to push a button to solve a crime, he added.

"The CSI effect is also positive because it does send the announcement that on the worst day of your life, there are CSI agents out there that will find evidence and solve the crime."

Zuiker said that with the show he is trying to send a positive message, and tell the best stories possible. It's also not his direct intention to glamorize black hat hackers, but he reiterated that "CSI: Cyber" is first and foremost a TV drama.

"We understand perfectly that the people that do the real heavy lifting, the experts in the space, are on that side of the stage with you guys," Zuiker said pointing to the RSA Conference audience. "We're just trying to tell the best stories possible and help inform the world that there is cyber-crime out there and people need to be aware of it."

In terms of how stories are developed, Zuiker explained that everything is focused on how relate-able the core of a given story is to the show's target audience. "We're trying to do story lines to cater to the most important part of our audience."

The most important part of the CSI audience is women, who make up 60 percent of the CSI TV viewing audience, he said.

"It's very important that the American public in general understands that cyber-crime affects them almost every day and the devices in their pockets can be used as weapons in the hands of the wrong people," Zuiker said. "That's why our edutainment is as important as our entertainment."
Zuiker, who visited various branches of law enforcement as part of his research for "CSI: Cyber," has received the same request to help get a few key messages out. One of them is to use complex passwords, and the other is to encourage people to do regular software updates.

The positive impact of the CSI franchise has already been felt in other areas. In Las Vegas, where the first CSI shows ran, local law enforcement had a Field Services division that performs crime scene investigations, that was getting 10 applications a year a decade ago. Thanks in part to the visibility and exposure that the CSI shows give to the profession, Zuiker said that Las Vegas law enforcement now gets 55,000 job applications per year to be crime scene investigators.

The "CSI: Cyber" show can help improve the chronic talent shortage in IT security by raising awareness, Zuiker said. "The challenge for our industry is to reach the young people that have great skills with computers that can be amazing white hats and do their civic duty to help protect this country."

Actor Charley Koontz, who plays white-hat FBI agent Daniel Krumitz on "CSI: Cyber" commented that he's been the target for criticism on Twitter about how real the show is and what his character does. Koontz echoed Zuiker, noting that the goal is to make an entertaining TV show while providing some food for thought about security.

Koontz isn't too worried about reality on TV. "We're on a network that shows Supergirl, so where the line lands in terms of how realistic we're supposed to be on TV isn't clear," he said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.