By Robert Grigoras
(Beware: Spoilers ahead)
The series is set in 2024, The Undeclared War tracks a leading team of analysts buried in the heart of GCHQ, secretly working to ward off a series of cyber-attacks on the UK in the run up to a general election. When a routine stress test of internet infrastructure goes awry 21-year-old GCHQ intern Saara Parvin suddenly finds herself operating on the invisible frontier of high-stakes cyber warfare. In a thrilling cat and mouse game, Saara and the team at GCHQ must try to stay one step ahead and anticipate their opponents every hidden move. The clock is ticking as a battle with high stakes and unpredictable enemies takes place entirely online, with very real consequences. But how do you win a war most of the public don’t know you’re fighting?
I will begin by stating that I enjoyed the show despite its little flaws. This article will be more of spotting mistakes, although I do realize that they did many things to keep it engaging despite being unrealistic in certain aspects.
The first flaw I noticed is when Saara looks at the source code of the virus and notices random looking characters. The method used by the hackers here is obfuscation. This is the process of making code unreadable, so that it is not detected by antivirus software. Hackers usually use encryption to obfuscate code. Saara stumbles across obfuscated code that she thinks could be useful, generally hackers will include “meaningful” code to send whoever is reading it on a goose chase. In this case she is right, the code she found is meaningful.
The second flaw spotted is when we see that the FSB has access to CCTV within the GCHQ. Now, this seems very unrealistic, it would be almost impossible for them to have access to such sensitive information. Unless the GCHQ has a mole working for the FSB, this would be very difficult to pull off. As far as I am concerned, I am sure a government body uses VLANs alongside other hardware to block access to certain parts of their network in the case of a breach. In relation to the data leak, I am certain that the GCHQ would not store all its data on one server, this means that damage would be limited in the case of a breach. Alongside the storage, I am certain that all sensitive documents stored by GCHQ would be encrypted and require the encryption keys which only certified personnel have access to in order to stop whistleblowers or leaks from happening. The last flaw, which is a major one, is at the end when Saara and Gabriel decode the last payload which is leaking GCHQs documents. Gabriel finds out that the obfuscated code is encoded in base64. This is very unrealistic as state actors will generally never use something that can be so easily decoded. FSB are more likely to use algorithms that they developed for encoding/decoding the code, in order to make replicating the algorithm as hard as possible, adding an extra layer of security.
The show is great and offers an insight into cyber war from the perspective of a student. This is a great way to get students interested in cybersecurity and interested in the GCHQ. As stated above we can see that the show has flaws, these may be minor or major. Despite this the show had certain aspects which were realistic, like the tools used for malware analysis or how the interview process is likely to be. In general, I liked the show and saw it as thought provoking.