Being stuck at home and not going out as much as we are in the middle of a new COVID variant and resulting new wave, I got to rewatch one of my favorite shows: Mr. Robot!
There are some things that bother me about our society… primary disappointment regarding my expectations pertaining to how we should behave like a total or sum of our species. For example, Steve Jobs is admired when he made billions off the back of children, and our cultural icons such as Bill Cosby, Lance Armstrong, and Tom Brady are basically counterfeits with little to no real depth of character and admirable substance. We seem to live in a world of pretend at times, focused on highly paid people who are simply not worthy of the devotion lavished on them. As a society I know we need to believe…but what we don’t need is to be sedated by non-news or shallow heroes that push us toward feeling that we somehow fit as long as we conform.
Enter Mr. Robot…
USA Network’s Mr. Robot reminds me of Neo waking up and realizing the Matrix is not real. Instead of Neo, we have Rami Malek playing the character of Elliott, who believes the world is imprisoned in its own greed. Malek performs brilliantly by subtly giving Elliott a sense of isolation, depression, and societal anxiety. This is something I think most technologists can relate to (at least to some degree). He seems to also have a hint of Patrick Bateman inside him, justifying what are ultimately cruel actions not for the good of society, but for his own ego and his desire to exist within the ’normal bubble’.
As far as Elliot can tell, the world is out to get him. In all fairness, he, in turn, seems to be out to get the world. In one opening scene, Elliot confronts a coffee shop owner and explains that he was able to hack into and expose, the owner’s online child pornography operation. He only started down this path because he was bored and loved the shop’s free, gigabit-speed Wi-Fi (so much for the continued availability of the high-speed connection, Elliot). He also notes that the owner tried to mask the porn ring’s IP origins by using TOR networking. The coup de gras follows when he says, “The Onion Routing Protocol is not as anonymous as you think it is.”
The show describes how it is possible (but very unlikely) to track anonymous TOR or Deep Web users. Granted, it skips over a few details needed to make this happen, but it has all the major pieces in play, such as controlling entry and exit nodes, running statistical analysis of the traffic, and includes the typical, big mistakes people make when they believe they are anonymous.
Rami Malek captures the emotion and mindset of a technical genius in his acting abilities. Malek’s Elliot, like real-world hackers, is driven by a moral code that is partly comprised of strong ethics and pride in his technical abilities (and resulting powerful ego). Elliot believes his hacking produces true justice because he does it for (what he considers to be) the greater good. This comes closer to reality than most people realize.
In 2008 a group of vigilante hackers attacked the Church of Scientology to disrupt (what they believed to be) an evil organization. In 2011 cyberactivists attacked infrastructure in multiple Middle Eastern countries to push for freedom of speech and freedom from oppression. Many examples of attacks in the name of a person or group’s belief system exist, and they occur on a daily basis. Mr. Robot takes that angle with a good storyline and some fairly decent technical details.
Mr. Robot makes an honest attempt of getting most of the technical details of hacking correct, or at least passable. The social engineering techniques, such as Elliott calling someone while pretending to be a bank employee to get the answers to a security question, are real-world techniques used by attackers and penetration testers. I really enjoyed a moment in the show when Elliott mocked a Chief Technology Officer of a large technical corporation for owning a Blackberry. I get it…Blackberry has some great value and unmatched security. But there are many of us technologists that would have a pretty harsh internal dialogue if we were that Blackberry-touting CTO. The trash can would be the Blackberry’s equivalent of the rocks and siren song from ancient mythology.
As expected, if looked at from a deeply technical perspective the show has some obvious misses. Real hackers like Elliot would be using DuckDuckGo for non-trackable searches, and certainly not Google as is the case in the series. An IP address in a DAT file seems more than a little suspicious, and some on-screen commands were a little out of place or had incorrect syntax. A couple of other instances included a cringe-worthy use of the non-incognito mode on Chrome, or when I listened to the somewhat awkward conversation on KDE vs GNOME. That last one was probably a leverage point in the show to set up a future character and his technical capabilities. These mistakes are forgivable, but somewhat noticeable because the show goes to great a length to get most of the details correct. When it misses on these seemingly minor points, they feel like obvious errors. It is the techie in me.
I think I find Elliott’s attributes exist in many people. I know folks like Elliott who share in his stress, isolation, power, and ego. The show’s pilot episode seems to really capture the heart of the hacker. I saw the show with a few friends who are not into cyber security and they seemed to really enjoy the pilot, which makes me hopeful it can have a broader appeal.
I am, however, curious as to how long USA Network can maintain interest in the storyline. We have seen similar plot elements in hacker movies in the past, such as Hackers, Pump up the Volume, Eagle Eye, Enemy of the State, The Net, and many others. They provided some mixed results as far as reality versus entertainment value. Those movies also tell a story and neatly wrap it up within 2 hours or less with lots of action hero events.
We now see Mr. Robot heading for season 5, having obtained network approval to do so. If the past is any indication, I have high hopes for USA Network’s ability to continue to deliver that broader appeal. Shows like Burn Notice, White Collar, and Suits showcase an original premise that was updated and kept fresh with each season.
I know I’m going to continue watching it.