Let’s get this out of the way upfront: the most recent installation of the Star Trek reboot, “Beyond”, was exactly what I’d hoped it would be. It was an action packed, summer fun movie. It did not exceed, but definitely met my expectations.
The end however, was totally silly. It was the peak of the action and the sound effects and music (more on this in a second) were so loud I don’t think any one could hear my wife and I laughing. Like, laughing to the point of crying because what we were watching was so funny. But, for me at least, I kept on thinking, “wait – what?” There’s no way modern crypto would allow this scene! Let alone hyper futuristic crypto of 2263! Let me explain.
In the end of the move (yes, like I said, spoilers) the Enterprise crew is rocking the 99 year old USS Franklin. They are fighting the boss of the movie, Krall (not to be confused with Khan), who has control of a massive swarm of space ships based on alien technology. The swam is all perfectly in sync, just as you’d expect your alien swarm army to be. This, by definition, means that they are communicating with each other in real time to coordinate complex movements in 3d space. And how did they figure out how to beat the boss? Well, simply by “corrupting their communication with radio waves”. Radio waves like Sabotage, by the Beastie Boys. That’s right, the Beasties are literally weaponized to literally blow up the enemy hordes. Here’s the Franklin “surfing” the enemy swarm with them blowing up in their wake (click through to see the the preview where the gif came from):
So, aside from the fact that radio waves travel at the speed of of light and should be radiating out in all directions, not trailing behind them, how exactly was this supposed to be working? According to wikipedia, “they [Spock and Bones] learn that VHF transmissions can disrupt Krall’s communications and destroy his fleet.” But, like I said, this is the year 2263! Surely the alien technology powering this swarm has sufficient encryption to ensure that simple VHF radio waves won’t interfere with communication, right? Beyond things like TLS Handshakes, PKI (or even hash-chains if you wanna get tricky), basic header checksums, like in IPv4 would prevent this type of interference.
But, maybe not? Maybe the aliens implementing the swarm networking were just lazy? For example, the MD5 hashing algorithm was released in 1991. By the late 90’s and early 2000’s it was the de facto way to store passwords in databases. However, as early as 2005 collisions had been proven to be a reality. In 2008 at the 25th Chaos Communication Congress, researchers categorically proved that no one should trust MD5. Later that same year CERT issued a CVE agreeing. Fast forward 4 years to 2012, and what do we find? 43 million hacked passwords in unsalted MD5 is what we find. Well, we found out today (Sep 1, 2016), but the coders responsible for securing tens of millions of accounts back in ’12 should have known better. So yeah, maybe the aliens were more focused on meeting deadlines than they were in defending against VHF interference?