TV tackles IT security with product placement

Von Bob Francis

I usually try to suspend disbelief when watching a TV series such as 24 . My nephew is a big fan, so if I miss it -- which I often do -- I call him up, tell him I didn"t see it, and then attempt to guess what happened.

"Let me guess," I"ll start, and then say things such as, "I know, Jack Bauer is in danger!" or "The terrorists plan to do something horrible." My nephew then proceeds to hang up on me.

But I did watch the show on May 16, which I believe portrayed hour 22. (The show follows 24 hours in the life of Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, some sort of espionage agent who has redefined the phrase "bad day" for the past four television seasons.) And there, in the midst of all sorts of derring-do, tense moments, cold stares, hackneyed musical cues, and "let me rearrange my personal life while the world goes straight in the toilet" scenes that make up the show, Cisco saved the world.

That"s right. Cisco, the familiar network vendor, stopped terrorists in their DoS tracks because the government agency Bauer works for had just installed a Cisco security system. Apparently, before using Cisco, the supersecret, spare-no-expense agency had picked up a couple of routers at the local Wal-Mart during double-coupon day.

In the middle of some dialogue, Chloe, the program"s grouchy computer expert (what a surprising character choice!), even tells someone that the reason the DoS attack failed was because the Cisco network security device is "self-defending."

The line was pretty much straight from Cisco marketing materials. Cisco"s logo even appeared on the computer screen behind Chloe. Apparently when Cisco saves the world, it acts like a cat that just killed a bird and tries to shove the carcass in your face as a way of saying, "See, look what I did! See?!" Part of the Cisco OS, no doubt.

The fanboy and fangirl base of "24" has been blogging this product placement scene to near nerd death, but just in case you missed it or want to annoy a friend at Juniper and ask why they haven"t saved the world lately, there is a link to the scene on Cisco"s Web site. Check it out at

If you want to learn about some real-life computer security heroes, you could do worse than Doug Jacobson, who wears more hats than Indiana Jones ever thought about grimacing under.

Jacobson is -- in no particular order -- a professor of computer engineering at Iowa State University, CTO of Palisade Systems, a provider of content security appliances, and head of the Internet-Simulation Event and Attack Generation Environment lab, dubbed ISEAGE (pronounced "Ice Age"). As far as I could tell, Jacobson is not at all grouchy -- but then, he doesn"t have time to be.

Jacobson"s brainchild, ISEAGE is not just a great "drunken-bar-talk napkin drawing" but a real live test environment for computer security. The lab is designed to simulate, investigate, and re-create cyberattacks across the Internet. The lab just received a US$500,000 grant from the Department of Justice, which is small change for the government but a pretty thick wallet for Iowa.

The government wasn"t the only donor: Jacobson"s own company, Palisade, chipped in with several PacketSure appliances, which are used to monitor and understand the protocols and applications employed during an Internet attack.

Jacobson said he was a bit frustrated, as CTO of Palisade, to find testing facilities that oversimplified computer security threats because they were unable to re-create the true breadth of the Internet and all the network activities that occurred during an attack.

ISEAGE changes that by offering a place to study critical infrastructure protection, perform end-user security field-testing, provide resources for security product developers, perform academic research, and conduct forensic and criminal investigations. For more information on how the lab is set up, check out

ISEAGE held a kickoff event recently, pitting five groups of computer students against a group of hackers. The students were smart, Jacobson says, but the hackers were a bit smarter -- or maybe just more devious.

"Just when the students got satisfied they had put off an attack, the hackers found another way in. It was a good experience for them. It was more complicated than they expected," Jacobson explained.

Students learning that life is more complicated than they thought while in school? That"s invaluable knowledge in itself.

And promise you won"t tell anyone, but Jacobson confided that a new student recently signed up for some courses involving ISEAGE. His name is Jack Bauer. Hmm....