Saturday, September 20, 2008

Law & Order: Criminal Intent "Legacy"

Criminal Intent is one of the half-dozen or so spin-offs of the ever popular procedural drama Law & Order. The series follows a group of detectives--members of the NYPD's Major Case Squad--who are dedicated to bringing New York City's worst criminals to justice.

In this episode, the elite crime fighting squad get called to a prestigious private school to investigate a murder that was made to look like a suicide. During the course of their investigation, they find a laptop belonging to one of the suspects, and like all good television detectives, they turn it over to a nerdy guy named Ira for analysis.

As this plot line develops, the writers introduce two of my favorite gimmicks: the nonsensical technical monologue and the explain it in English one-liner:

Kiana used data utility wiping freeware but it performs like malware."
"In English, Ira."
"She download a free program to permanently delete a video file but it just moved it to another part of her hard drive."

I'm not really sure what "data utility wiping freeware" is exactly, but from the English explanation, I can only assume that it is a program that permanently deletes files off of a computer's hard drive, otherwise know as a disk or file wiping utility.

Techno-gibberish aside, I understand why the plot needs the girl to use
a this type of program--it shows that she understands what she did was wrong--but there is no reason for the program to be malware, or for her to even use it, to have the same plot outcome

Let me explain.

When someone edits a documents, especially with video editing software, temporary files are created to help keep track of changes for rollbacks (undo) or to preserve changes in the event of a system crash.

An every day example of this is when you have auto-save enabled in
Microsoft Word. If you look in the directory of the document you are editing, you can see a series of temp files that look like ~wrdxxxx.tmp. Another exampleare the temporary files that the operating system creates when you print a document--this is known as print spooling. These files usually get deleted by the application or operating system when they are no longer needed, but sometimes they don't.

This can create a serious problem if you want to encrypt or permanently delete a file. Most people assume that the file they just encrypted or deleted is the only copy on the disk drive, but in some cases it is not.

Additionally, most people assume that when you empty the trash everything in it is permanently deleted, when in reality, these files are very easy to recover if the computer is not used heavily after the deletion.

So, a more likely scenario for recovering the file would be Ira using a data recovery application or finding a temporary file that the suspect didn't know was there. The data wiping utility
malware angle, while possible, just does not seem likely.