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Sherlock, season 4, episode 1 (The Six Thatchers):

A. G. R. A. agents fail their mission in Tbilisi. Some of them are captured and tortured. One of them hides the flash disc in the statue in order to protect the data from enemies.

Why would anyone take something that important with him to the action in the first place? Why wasn't the data password protected or encrypted so it would be useless for enemies? Why did he hide it instead of destroying it (using his gun, for example)?

It doesn't make any sense to me. Were those people really such amateurs?

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    My issue with that entire plot device is that the agent simply sets the un-finished bust on top of the memory stick. There is absolutely no way it would have ended up embedded inside the bust. The moment the person finishing the busts picked it up, the drive would have been sitting there on the table. It simply could not have wound up embedded as depicted, IMO. – Jonathan van Clute Jan 5 '17 at 2:02
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    @JonathanvanClute while I found the plot to be pretty weak, I'm fairly sure I recall him stuffing some clay up inside the bust after the drive. – Bob Tway Jan 5 '17 at 11:35
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    Unfinished and seemingly unglazed too. Are you telling me the flash drive survived the baking for hours at 700F? – djsmiley2k - CoW Jan 5 '17 at 15:18
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    @MattThrower I don't recall him stuffing anything into it... I'd have to take another look but it really stood out to me at the time when I saw it as being seriously lame. – Jonathan van Clute Jan 5 '17 at 15:49
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Arrogant, not Amateur.

A.G.R.A were at the top of their game and had complete trust in each other; which held out, as they were betrayed by an external source that was itself a mole within an official entity.

Whilst the flash drives could have easily been duplicated or had dummy's, the team constantly having the evidence to incriminate each other and themselves was an overt symbol of trust, and meant they were literally carrying anything they'd need to take each other down at any given moment.

They would carry these on them because they didn't ever expect to fail, or be captured. It was pure arrogance on their behalf.

  • Can you point to some scenes that support the assumption that they were simply arrogant? - The fact that the memory sticks even existed was because they did NOT fully trust each other. They wanted to make sure that they were safe, which suggest the opposite of carelessness. – Oliver_C Jan 4 '17 at 17:07
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    "There was absolute trust between us, and the Memory sticks guaranteed it .. we could never be betrayed because we all all the information we needed to destroy each other" - Mary. – John Smith Optional Jan 4 '17 at 20:29
  • Yes, the "trust" was due to the memory sticks, that's my point. Why insist on memory tricks to guarantee safety and then be careless with them? – Oliver_C Jan 4 '17 at 20:43
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    No, No: the trust was native. The memory sticks were emblematic of the trust, not a guarantee of it. They trusted each other, and they knew with absolute certainty that trust was not misplaced because of the memory sticks. They trusted each other with their darkest secrets. – John Smith Optional Jan 5 '17 at 0:02
  • If they all shared an encryption key for the drives, though, wouldn't that allow them to still emblematically demonstrate their mutual trust without leaving themselves vulnerable? A lack of encryption could just be further evidence of A.G.R.A's arrogance, but being professionals who likely take several other precautions, A.G.R.A encrypting their drives doesn't seem like such a leap of faith. – Chandler Watson Jan 5 '17 at 6:15
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I'd argue that it's a mechanism so that they can leave no one on the team behind as each member has that incriminating info.

  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review – Paulie_D Jan 4 '17 at 16:13
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    This actually goes against what happened in the episode since Mary escaped after she assumed the rest of the team had been killed. If no one was to be left behind, she would have gone back for them or died trying. – Samsquanch Jan 4 '17 at 21:50
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    That said, it does seem strange that Mary didn't go back knowing that her every secret was left in enemy hands. – Chandler Watson Jan 5 '17 at 6:17
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    @Paulie_D Can you please clarify why this doesn't answer the question? Given that that question was "Why would they take the flash drive into combat situations?" I would say that "As incentive to not leave anyone, and therefore that sensitive information, behind" is an answer (even if it's not necessarily the correct one in this instance – Strongo Jan 5 '17 at 14:00
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The information on those drives was the group's insurance. Nobody could betray the others, because all of them were holding everything they needed to destroy the others. It's the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction in action.

Of course, if one person could be separated from their flash drive, they can be easily betrayed, because they don't have the means to retaliate. If everybody left their flash drives at home for a mission, then, for example, the team member who was arranging the helicopter to pick them up afterwards could betray the team, leave them behind, go home and collect all their flash drives, and get away clean.

For this reason, it makes sense for them all to keep their flash drives on their person at all times, so they can be sure that it hasn't been taken. It's implied that they don't really trust each other as people; instead, they trust in the countermeasure of all having this info, the MAD doctrine on a personal scale. That paranoia would drive them to always carry the flash drive, just as the US President always had the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes during the cold war - the protection it offers only works when you're always ready to use it. If you can be separated from it, then the other team members can prevent you from using it, and they can betray you without fear of retaliation.

This also goes some way to explaining why he hid the flash drive, rather than destroying it: destroying it would render it "safe", in that it can't be used against him, but it then also couldn't be used against the others, and that leaves him unprotected.

As for the matter of encryption - the information worked as an insurance policy because it was usable by enemies. Making it too safe would also render it useless for its intended purpose. One use is for a team member to release it, in which case they can provide the decryption software or password or whatever, but there are other reasons it works as protection. For example, if your flash drive is unreadable without a password, then I can just arrange for you to "accidentally" fall to your death next time we're rappelling down a building - the password dies with you, and I'm safe. However, if I know that when they recover your body, they'll find a flash drive with information that will expose me, I can't do that; I have to make sure you come home (or at least, it limits me to much more obvious forms of betrayal that someone will probably pick up on).

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    "If everybody left their flash drives at home..." or maybe put the memory stick in a safe and secret place that no one knows about? - If you carry it with you, what's to stop the traitor to just shoot the three other members in the back and take their sticks? - But then again, they also label the secret AGRA stick with big letters saying "AGRA". Could you make it any easier to find? – Oliver_C Jan 4 '17 at 20:53
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    This is a good account of what the writer was probably thinking, so +1 for that. It's still full of holes (e.g. why does no-one care about the other two guys' pen drives? If it's supposed to enforce "no one left behind", why did Mary leave all the others behind? And what stops a traitor simply killing or trapping the other three - which a traitor would probably do anyway, usb sticks or no, simply to avoid having a super-spy as an enemy?), but it's probably as good an answer as is possible – user56reinstatemonica8 Jan 4 '17 at 23:52
  • Yeah, as I was writing this answer I was thinking of all the ways I'd get around it, but I think it's probably more or less what the writers wanted. – anaximander Jan 5 '17 at 9:04
  • @Oliver_C Can you absolutely guarantee that nobody else knows about it? Can you absolutely guarantee that, if you are betrayed, you'll be able to get to that "safe and secret place" when necessary? Can you guarantee that the place is perfectly secure so that nobody will ever accidentally stumble across it? Hiding it in a theoretical totally secret and safe place means that it's not any better at preventing your team members from shooting you in the back than wearing it around your neck - they just shoot you and move on, knowing nobody will ever get their hands on the data you've hidden. – Anthony Grist Jan 5 '17 at 16:37
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    Since the memory sticks are an insurance policy against the other team members it makes more sense for them NOT to know where you are hiding yours. - You could also go for a "dead man's switch", i.e. your death will trigger the release of the information. - If you keep the stick on you, what leverage would you have if another members points a gun at you? – Oliver_C Jan 5 '17 at 19:59
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If it is your absolute most valued possession and you're keeping it from a group of professionals, you wouldn't trust it anywhere else except on your person. A lock box or safe wouldn't be enough to protect something you value so highly.

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