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Review: The Undeclared War (Channel 4)

With apologies to the late T. S. Eliot, this is the way the series ends: not with a bang but a whimper.

I held out a lot of hope for The Undeclared War because it was set primarily in GCHQ - always interesting - and it centred on computing and cyber attacks. As someone with a programming background I was sure this would appeal to me - and those core aspects really did, which is why I stuck with it through six episodes. But on the whole it was shambolic, poorly plotted and ended with an unforgivable double deus ex machina.


Admittedly, from the start I had some doubts. Recognising that just watching people doing stuff on screens wasn't the most thrilling TV, it was decided instead to use a very heavy-handed visual simile. So when our heroine, Saara (who is basically Famous Five material, as she is student who defeats the baddies when the experienced adults can't), was searching through lots of code, we saw a version of her, equipped with an IT utility belt, wandering past vast stacks of boxes. When she had to break into some hidden code... she had to break into a locked location. And, for no obvious reason, when things were difficult to understand, she stared into a big glass structure, apparently left over from the set of The Cube - I was expecting Philip Schofield to turn up any moment.

Then there were the characters - often so two-dimensional and stereotyped that it was wince-making. The two best characters - Mark Rylance's ageing code breaker and Kerry Godliman's cynical British journalist working for a Russian propaganda TV channel to produce fake news - were only effectively bit players, but they were far more interesting than the leads. And so much just seemed to happen randomly, such as a Russian hacker's journalist girlfriend being propelled from being not much more than an anti-Putin blogger in Russia to the main frontline presenter in the UK on said TV channel.

Still, things staggered along with just enough to keep me interested until we got to that final episode.

Up to this point, the Russian state cyber-baddies had been running rings round plucky GCHQ and poor old head of operations Simon Pegg kept being hauled in front of COBRA (are the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms really located in such a concrete bunker of a place?) to explain why once again GCHQ had messed up. On the whole this seemed to be because the Russians could do magic, because what they were achieving certainly isn't physically possible.

In the final episode, GCHQ discovers what we've known for several episodes - that the Russians have hacked GCHQ's internal CCTV. Simon Pegg's character is confused, because the CCTV is air gapped. Which means it can't be hacked without physical intervention. Just to be clear, an air gap means that the system isn't connected to the internet, nor is any system it is connected to. You can only hack it by physically connecting to it - and there was no suggestion that this had been done.

But that's a minor detail. In deus ex machina event 1, Saara hauls in her secret weapon, a savant mathematician (another student Famous Five wannabe) who can crack anything. The whole plot centres on some code used to attack the BT network. This code had a secret second payload, which was much nastier that Saara discovered. (No one explains why the code was still running at this point.) But Saara realises there is a third payload which had enabled the software to pass on secrets from first the NSA and now GCHQ. (This means the Americans don't trust us anymore.) She can't find that payload, so brings in her tame mathematician. He tells her that some apparently junk data is really encrypted code, but he has an algorithm that will decode it so they can see it. And it turns out that when a few episodes ago Saara ran the malicious code in a sandbox, the third level payload started emailing out all the secrets. It was all her fault (sort of).

It's hard to know where to start with what's wrong with this. Encrypted code can't run because the software that runs the code can't read it. So how was it supposed to be running? If there had been a decryption algorithm also in the code, then that would have been found. For that matter, a sandbox is a secure place to run code that might cause damage. So sandboxes, particularly somewhere like GCHQ, are air gapped (see above). Anyone who's ever worked with computer viruses and worms knows you work on them using an unnetworked computer. So even if the encrypted code had somehow managed to magically run, it could neither access NSA and GCHQ data (which wouldn't have been in the sandbox) nor could it email the secrets out.

Having found the code, computer whizz Saara can't kill it, but the maths whizz does with a quick flurry on the keyboard. Phew. But the Russians are now escalating the cyber attacks to full scale war. Enter deus ex machina 2, the Russian hacker we met earlier, who coincidentally was in the same class as Saara at a UK college the previous year. At the last moment, he sends all the Russian code to the UK so they can win back the trust of the Americans and triumph. He also sends them a video of his FSB training, where the lecturer triumphantly describes exactly how they have pulled the wool over the eyes of thick old GCHQ. Bravely, our hacker sits at a desk in the FSB offices, translating this lecture as a baddy homes in on him. Yet he was still able to send all that code. Did it not occur to him that GCHQ might have one or two people who spoke Russian and he didn't need to provide a live translation, he could have just forwarded the video as well?

And then the programme just stops, as if the writer got bored. Wow. I kept thinking 'It's going to get better. They'll have a clever ending planned.' They didn't.

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