Why Hacks on the TV show Mr. Robots are Authentic

Jay Leiderman
By: Jay Leiderman
October 12 2016

There are numerous TV series about computer hackers who have failed to draw a large audience, let alone portray computer hacking with any degree of authenticity. CSI: Cyber (2015 – 2016) used to hack the code gibberish and animations to explain. Scorpion (2014 -) had a notorious scene that included gratuitous action to make the hack seem more interesting to see. In contrast to these other shows, Mr. Robot (2015 – ) finally made hacking approachable for the average viewer while still remaining smart and realistic. This is because Mr. Robot uses actual hackers to review the authenticity of the actions taken to advance the hacks in the show.

Mr. Robot follows the hacker ethic or the common philosophy of hackers. Steven Levy first defined the hacker ethic in 1984, and that ethic is still widely followed today. In his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Levy describes the philosophy through six key principles:

  • Access to computers and anything you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and might teach in total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority-promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.

While Mr. Robot expresses all of these principles to a certain extent, the showcases show some more than others. Perhaps the most obvious principle, the show highlights are “Mistrust authority-promote decentralization.” The show focuses on the hacker group fsociety led by the mysterious anarchist Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) whose purpose is to liberate the masses from their “corporate overlords” and remove all debt.

Hacks
Fsociety bears a great resemblance to Anonymous

“When Mr. Robot first premiered, 2600: The Hacker Quarterly editor and hacker Eric Corley gave a glowing review of the show and the portrayal of hackers. He praised protagonist of the show, Elliot (Rami Malek). In the fall 2015 edition of 2600, Corley (under the sobriquet Emmanuel Goldstein) wrote: “”Elliot is the type of person you would pass on the street and never think twice about, apart from maybe wondering if he might be some sort of garden variety lunatic. No, Elliot is far from such mainstream hacker characters as David Lightman, Lucas Wolenczak, or Wesley Crusher—about as far as you could imagine. And it’s about time.”

“Elliot is not the typical “computer nerd,” nor are his hacks overly flashy. The creators of Mr. Robot consult with several tech advisors and hackers to makes sure all the hacks are extremely detailed and accurate. This means all of the code seen on the computer screens is real. In a Reddit AMA, staff writer and tech consultant Kor Adana said, “We shoot all of our screens practically, so I create detailed breakdowns with video samples and screenshots of how the screen would actually look if the hack were taking place for real. Then, we have a flash animator (the amazing Adam Brustein) create an animation for the actors to interact with. After we go through some revisions, I work with the actors to practice running through the animation. For example, I’ll work with Rami to make sure he’s typing the right keys at the right time (i.e. an alt/tab when we see him change windows).”” (id.)

Most shows that have to do with technology lose their grip when they try to go deep or detailed. Viewers who manage to keep up with the high level computer intrusion field Aaffirm the authenticity of the code and procedure used to complete the hacks portrayed in Mr, Robot; those who do not still feel that something is likely genuine.

The creators of Mr. Robot-showrunner Sam Esmail and his crew of consultants-get these things, large and small, just about perfect. When typing the characters commands and codes on their laptops, what we see on their monitors is the real thing: no post-production green-screen nonsense here. At the beginning of season one, we join Elliot (or we realize that he leads his schizoid self) into a digital revolution, he interacts with his few friends, his boss, and his psychiatrist, as well as a few miscreants (a child pornographer, a drug dealer, and his psychiatrist philandering boyfriend) whom he blackmails or turns into the authorities. The techniques he uses to crack passwords or otherwise gain access to their files are real, and are derived from proven tools. It is so easy for Elliot (and for many hackers in real life) and so shocking to his victims when they realize how wide open they have left themselves.

The hacks are done by Elliot and fsociety frighteningly realistic fashion. In an interview with Fusion, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden related that he was impressed by the technology in the show, which is “more accurate than what you usually see on TV.” It’s the little details that portrayal of hackers Mr. Robot to make it as authentic. Elliot and Tyrell use Linux operating systems. The hackers communicate via IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Elliot puts social engineering attacks using SET (social engineering toolkit).

In fact, Mr. Robot relies heavily on social engineering as a form of “human hacking.” Most media representations of hacking tend to neglect social engineering, but it is one of the simplest but most effective ways to hack. In an interview with Co.Create show creator Sam Esmail said: “Hacking requires a lot of social engineering It is not just about a boy on a keypad code or break into a system, it is a lot of figuring out human behavior and; try to find and take advantage of the susceptibility of human behavior system. For whatever reason, TV programs about hacking kind of always miss that large component, which is where the drama is. “Instead of relying on using the technology, characters such as Elliot and Tyrell use human interaction to trick people into giving personal information to crack passwords.

Mr. Robot relies heavily on social engineering as a form of “human hacking.”

However, not everything in the series is realistic. Hacking someone from prison in 24 hours is unbelievable (even Elliot said so). Prejudice webcams and attaching unauthorized USB drives systems do not make it seem as simple as the show. A nitpick tech consultant named Jeff Moss, aka Dark Tangent (the founder of DefCon), told us “the characters do not wear gloves, and everywhere leave their fingerprints. On USB sticks, RasPiis, etc.” However, this may be intentional fault since Season Two will focus on the FBI investigation into the 5/9 hack and trace the members of fsociety.

“Even with some of these inaccuracies, Mr. Robot maintains an authentic depiction of the hacking community, not only with its hacks but also with its hackers. Eric Corley of 2600 said, “For that, Mr. Robot succeeds in bringing forth the most truly human portrayal of a hacker I’ve seen outside of real life itself.” The show upholds the hacker ethic and the beliefs of the hacking community. Though Levy’s final principle of the hacker ethic is “Computers can change your life for the better,” we’ll see if this holds true for Elliot and the rest of fsociety in the coming season.” (Id.)

10 thoughts on “Why Hacks on the TV show Mr. Robots are Authentic

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