Author’s note: I’m keeping spoilers out of this article, but they will surely show up in the comments.
A few weeks ago I started hearing about a new show on the USA network, Mr. Robot. The synopsis for the show was “Mr. Robot is a psychological thriller that follows a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night.” Yeah, that sounds like another Hollywood crapfest. Cue crazy GUIs and virtual reality flybys representing hacking scenes. After watching the pilot though, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was hooked for the entire 10 week first season.
Let’s start with the hacking, which is the whole reason this article is here on Hackaday. Show creator [Sam Esmail] isn’t a hacker himself, but he is tech savvy enough to see how poorly hacking has been portrayed on TV and in the movies. He knew he could do it better. The solution was good consultants, in the form of [Michael Bazzell] and others. The team helped shape the show into a rather realistic portrayal of hacking techniques. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the main character, is the “vigilante” hacker described in the synopsis. Within the first 10 minutes of the pilot, he is turning a child pornographer in to the police. How does he catch the creeper? Tor exit node exploits, of course.
The onion routing protocol is not as anonymous as you think it is. Whoever’s in control of the exit nodes is also in control of the traffic, which makes me the one in control.
This is an accurate description of some of the exploits which have been demonstrated on the tor network. There aren’t any VR hacking scenes to be found either. In fact, several characters watch and make fun of the “flu shot” scene in Hackers. In this show, the command line isn’t hidden, it’s celebrated. We see every command the characters type, from netstat to CAN bus dumps. In one scene, Elliot even fires up a windows virtual machine so he can run DeepSound on his Kali Linux box.
The hacking isn’t all software either. Everyone’s favorite Linux single board computer is featured prominently in the first season. We can’t knock a show where a character looks at another and says “Ok, we all know what a Raspberry Pi is, what’s your point?”
Social engineering is also a recurring theme. We see everything from the old “dropped USB stick in the parking lot” attack, to a character thoroughly destroying the self confidence of a corporate drone as a method to get to his superiors. (Poor Bill)
Beyond all this, it’s a damn good show. We learn early on that Elliot’s father died of leukemia due to an unchecked chemical leak at E Corp. E Corp is the mega-corporation Elliot’s day job is charged with protecting. Elliot sees E Corp as the ultimate evil. Intensive self-reprogramming allows Elliot to perceive E corp as “Evil Corp” every time it’s brought up – in print ads, in video, even in the dialogue of the other characters. Since we watch the show largely through Elliot’s eyes, we see it too. This leaves you guessing what is real, and what is part of Elliot’s imagination. Elliot is the classic unreliable narrator.
Elliot isn’t the only major character though. Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) is a young ambitious senior VP at Evil Corp who wants power, and is willing to do anything to get it. Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) is a childhood friend of Elliot whose mother died due to the same chemical leak that killed Elliot’s father. She also has a bone to pick with Evil Corp. Mr. Robot himself (Christian Slater) is a shadowy figure who leads Elliot down the rabbit hole to join F Society, a hacking group which is trying to destroy Evil Corp.
Without giving away too many spoilers, the show likes to mess with your head. If you liked Fight Club, or Donnie Darko, give Mr. Robot a try. The season finale is this Wednesday at 10pm Eastern on the USA network.