In the first episode of House of Cards Season 5, there’s a strange scene in which Aidan Macallan very dramatically looks at a bunch of pictures of waterfalls. So what exactly was going on here? What was the significance of the waterfalls scene?
As a quick recap, last season on House of Cards, Aidan Macallan was using data obtained by domestic surveillance in order to give the Underwoods an upper hand in the election. This, of course, was highly illegal, but Macallan promised he would cover his tracks. The surveillance in theory was being used to help in the war against ICO.
During last season’s finale, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security took over the algorithm Macallan was using, which made him very nervous that they were going to discover what Underwood had been doing. LeAnn Harvey tells Macallan in the Season 5 premiere that if he can get into the NSA’s system, he can fix this. So later in the episode, Macallan goes to the National Security Agency offices.
Macallan is then seen on one of the NSA’s computers looking through their system. Suddenly, a bunch of images of waterfalls start popping up with little explanation. So what was going on here, exactly?
Well, as Macallan later tries to explain, he just discovered what’s known as a zero-day exploit. This is a vulnerability in computer software which can be exploited by hackers; it’s called that because the authors of the software have zero days to create a fix before hackers make use of the bug.
“The NSA marked their zero-day exploits as waterfalls,” Macallan says in the episode.
Macallan explains that he can use this in order to backdoor into social media websites, something that could become very valuable in helping the Underwoods in the campaign.
Weirdly, it was just last month that hackers released information from the NSA including apparent zero-day exploits targeting Microsoft Windows, although Microsoft later said that these exploits had already been patched by the time they were reported on, according to Engadget.
In Chapter 54, Macallan allows hackers to invade a Capital East Telecom switching center. Then, after he’s done deleting what he needs to, he anonymously sends out a fix to the problem.