A Rogue One Rebuttal: the Imperial Archives on Scarif

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: Rogue One. You have been warned.

Scarif - Photo credit: Lucasfilm/ILM    ©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Scarif - Photo credit: Lucasfilm/ILM

©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Whether you loved it, found it full of problems, or a bit of both (raises hand) Star Wars: Rogue One has made a big splash and inspired lots of punditry. One of the things that has spurred plenty of discussion is the depiction of the Imperial military archives on Scarif. The moment that scene played out on screen, I smiled inwardly: "Everyone on the internet is going to HATE this."

It's no secret that, with few exceptions, film, television, and fiction at large does an utterly loathsome job at depicting computer science and IT accurately. Beloved cyberpunk classics like The MatrixHackers, or Swordfish, are confusing and anachronistic at best. 

Star Wars as a franchise deserves plenty of ire for its depictions of technology, which can be especially odd (possibly because Star Wars is more "fantasy in space" than traditional sci-fi).

Indeed, in addition to the many other takes on the problems of Rogue One, writers from Vice: Motherboard and archival consulting firm Preservica, in particular have weighed in on the archives scenes. The criticisms are, admittedly, mostly for fun. However, I sensed that a lot of the problems people had with the Scarif scenes could be easily hand-waved away with plausible explanations. And while defending problems with Star Wars movies is pretty much the opposite of my usual MO, I must admit that, in this case, I'm too tempted to weigh in with my own IT perspectives.

Without further ado, let's dive in:

The (somewhat) Unfair Criticisms

Why are the physical data formats such a mess? Look at all these different devices used over all the films!

Their formats are a mess? What about ours? Admittedly, most people these days will use a USB "thumb drive" for quick portable storage. In creative professions however, you can expect to find portable hard drives using USB, FireWire or ThunderBolt connectors. There are Memory Sticks,  SD cardsmini SD cards, micro SD cards, and in a pinch people might use their phone or iPod as a USB flash storage device. This doesn't take into account more exotic, archaic, or specialized formats (which one might find in – for example – an archives). Someone looking into our universe as a spectator might easily say that our range of ports and physical storage media is confusing and unrealistic, and we're just one planet, not a whole galaxy.

Besides all that: I, for one, don't think five minutes in a sci-fi movie explaining the difference between the alien equivalents of Memory Stick and SD card would make for very interesting watching.

Why isn't all of this data just sitting on a server somewhere? Why is it on individual drives that need to be physically pulled from storage?

No article has specifically levelled this criticism, but I imagine that some fans have. The simple answer is that an archives is not necessarily a website. Materials from public archives like old-timey photos of your city might be good to put up on an affiliated website. However, this is a military archives of classified plans and other materials. Presuming that these materials don't need to be accessed regularly, it's better from a security and access-control standpoint to not to have them connected to a network or server.

Why is the file size of the Death Star plans so large?

... umm ... well...

These are detailed architectural plans for a space station the size of a small moon. It has a hyperdrive and a giant reactor which powers a laser capable of destroying a planet. From an engineering standpoint, it seems pretty complex. As someone who has dealt with technical data in a real-world setting, let me tell you: files can get VERY BIG. This is ignoring the fact that, if Scarif is an actual digital archives then there must be proper metadata, such as plan revisions and data about who wrote/revised certain content and when. To me, the plans for the Death Star seem like more data than anyone in our small corner of the galaxy can currently conceive of.

How could all the data from that big drive fit onto that tiny disk that was handed to Leia? 

Again, it seems an odd conceit to me that two different storage formats of the same data capacity must inherently be the same physical size. The simplest real-world analog is that we use different physical formats in archives than in day-to-day use. That little USB thumb drive of yours will probably (assuming it isn't faulty) work great for the next five years. What about the next ten? Twenty? Thirty? Digital archivists have to think about those kind of timescales. Leia's little diskette might be more portable, but is it more rugged? What are the average deterioration/failure rates of that media? The physical format in the archives should look very different than what people outside are using casually. Rogue One gets this quite right. 

Why do the Rebels and Imperials use the same data formats?

Why wouldn't they? At this point the Rebellion seems relatively new and is made up mostly of Imperial (formerly Republic) Senators, conspiring in secret. The simplest explanation is that the Rebellion is using technology that's available: an eclectic combination of different stuff which includes Imperial computers and software. After all, one of the main characters is a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K‑2SO. 

Why didn't the Rebels make a copy of the plans?

Perhaps they did? Of course, when Leia's vessel – the Tantive IV – was chased down by Vader's star destroyer (in the opening of A New Hope), the crew probably immediately deleted any copies of the plans in order to feign ignorance. A stormtrooper even announces to Vader, "The Death Star plans are not in the main computer," right before the Rebel officer being choked to death by Vader denies that they intercepted any stolen transmissions. Leia's statement to Vader's face that she's merely "an Imperial Senator on a diplomatic mission", when Vader himself watched her ship jump away from Scarif, now seems incredibly audacious. The only sliver of hope she has of getting away with this bald-faced lie is if, when Vader's crew tears the ship apart, they find no trace of any Death Star plans. So copies are a dangerous prospect.

The Inexcusable... but Explainable

"Tapes"? Really?

This is a term that Rogue One chose to create continuity with early dialog in A New Hope, where Admiral Motti chides Darth Vader (most unwisely) that his devotion to the force has not helped find the "stolen data tapes". As such, the data storage media in the archives on Scarif are also called "tapes".

Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, 40 years ago this year (feel old yet?). All things considered, it has held up relatively well. That said, the idea that the Empire might be using magnetic tape in their futuristic society beggars disbelief. 

I prefer to assume one of two things. Either "tape" is an anachronism of language/jargon: the way we use "album" to refer to music or photo collections, when what we're really talking about is a collection of data files; or the way that the "Save" icon in Office is a 3.5" floppy disk, even though we haven't regularly used those in more than a decade. But perhaps – even more plausibly – the Rebel agents and bickering Imperial admirals don't know a thing about archival storage technologies, and are just using flatly-wrong terminology. 

No Encryption in Situ

Breaking into the Scarif installation wasn't easy. The Rogue One crew had to steal an Imperial Shuttle, rely on a weeks-old auth code still being valid to get through a shield, incapacitate an Imperial inspection officer and his troops, then sneak into the archives control room and incapacitate the archivist. Clearly, the Empire felt that physical security was good enough. But our real-world archivists and IT pros are tut-tutting the Empire for not encrypting the content of the storage drives. This means that if you do manage to break in and steal a drive, you've got the data. Not good for the Imperials.

This one is hard to explain away, but I will posit that authoritarian regimes sometimes make very bad technical decisions. They've also shown themselves to be an enemy of strong encryption, mostly as a means of surveillance. In this case, maybe higher-ups trust their brainwashed, blaster-toting troopers more than they trust some boffins with a public-private key pair.

So there you have it! I feel I've done a fairly apt job defending the problems of a Star Wars movie. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I need a shower...

EDIT: Maybe I should also point out at this juncture that I quite enjoyed Sarah Jeong's Motherboard article. Obviously, her Star Wars knowledge is encyclopaedic, I just don't quite agree with everything from an IT/archives perspective. Again, this is all supposed to be for fun.

I considered tweeting her this article to engage in a little friendly debate, but since she's currently under siege by dumb, angry nerd-bros, I doubt it would be well received. Geez, internets, this is why we can't have nice things. :/