Why Aren’t We Arguing More about Mr Robot?

Editor’s note: Thar be spoilers below.

Showing any sort of ‘hacking’ on either the big screen or the small often ends in complete, abject failure. You only need to look at Hackers with its rollerblading PowerBooks, Independance Day where the aliens are also inexplicably using PowerBooks, or even the likes of Lawnmower Man with a VR sex scene we keep waiting for Oculus to introduce. By design, Mr Robot, a series that ended its first season on USA a month ago, bucks this trend. It does depressed, hoodie-wearing, opioid-dependant hackers right, while still managing to incorporate some interesting tidbits from the world of people who call themselves hackers.

Desktop Environments

In episode 0 of Mr Robot, we’re introduced to our hiro protagonist [Elliot], played by [Rami Malek], a tech at the security firm AllSafe. We are also introduced to the show’s Macbeth, [Tyrell Wellick], played by Martin Wallström]. When these characters are introduced to each other, [Tyrell] notices [Elliot] is using the Gnome desktop on his work computer while [Tyrell] says he’s, “actually on KDE myself. I know [Gnome] is supposed to be better, but you know what they say, old habits, they die hard.”

[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
While this short exchange would appear to most as two techies talking shop, this is a scene with a surprisingly deep interpretation. Back in the 90s, when I didn’t care if kids stayed off my lawn or not, there was a great desktop environment war in the land of Linux. KDE was not free, it was claimed by the knights of GNU, and this resulted in the creation of the Gnome.

Subtle, yes, but in one short interaction between [Elliot] and [Tyrell], we see exactly where each is coming from. [Elliot] stands for freedom of software and of mind, [Tyrell] is simply toeing the company line. It’s been fifteen years since message boards have blown up over the Free Software Foundation’s concerns over KDE, but the sentiment is there.

Biohacking

There’s far more to a hacker ethos than having preferred Linux desktop environments. Hacking is everywhere, and this also includes biohacking, In the case of one Mr Robot character, this means genetic engineering.

In one episode of Mr Robot, the character Romero temporarily gives up his power in front of a keyboard and turns his mind to genetics. He “…figured out how to insert THC’s genetic information code into yeast cells.” Purely from a legal standpoint, this is an interesting situation; weed is illegal, yeast is not, and the possibilities for production are enormous. Yeast only requires simple sugars to divide and grow in a test tube, marijuana actually requires a lot of resources and an experienced staff to produce a good crop.

Life imitates art, but sometimes the reverse is true. Just a few weeks after this episode aired, researchers at  Hyasynth Bio announced they had genetically modified yeast cells to produce THC and cannabidiol.

The promise of simply genetically modifying yeast to produce THC is intriguing; a successful yeast-based grow room could outproduce any plant-based operation, with the only input being sugar. Alas, the reality of the situation isn’t quite that simple. Researchers at Hyasynth Bio have only engineered yeast to turn certain chemical precursors into THC. Making THC from yeast isn’t yet as simple as home brewing an IPA, but it’s getting close, and a great example of how Mr Robot is tapping into hacking, both new and old.

Why Aren’t We Arguing More About This?

The more we ruminate on this show, the more there is to enjoy about it. It’s the subtle background that’s the most fun; the ceiling of the chapel as it were. We’re thinking of turning out a series of posts that works through all the little delights that you might have missed. For those who watched and love the series, what do you think? Perhaps there are other shows worthy of this hacker drill-down, but we haven’t found them yet.

117 thoughts on “Why Aren’t We Arguing More about Mr Robot?

      1. hahaha, my though exactly. I would like to note thought that my older sister is obsessed with this show, interesting aspect of this being it took her till she was about 18 to figure out how to work a dvd player.

  1. I tried to watch Mr. Robot, after I read about it on hackaday.
    The first time I slept on it, also the second time too, even on third time, and on fourth.
    I just could not watch a single episode (2.) ’til the end.

    All I have seen was a drog addict being stoned all day long.

    Maybe I’m not ideologically trained enough for the highness of the show.

    1. Elliot’s drug use isn’t the focus of the show. It’s a character flaw that’s used to move the plot along. I would wonder if the political nature of the show might have put you off, but I’m not certain you got far enough in for that to matter based on your post.

      While not everyone is going to enjoy everything, I feel you must be missing something. Mr. Robot is receiving critical acclaim for a reason. The writing is solid, the characters are interesting and complex. Despite the obvious foreshadowing, it still has the ability to surprise the viewer with turns in the plot. The actors are great and remain convincing even when the dialog turns to the technical.

      Mr. Robot gets lots of points for being more accurate on the technology jargon than we’re used to seeing, but it is great film/tv-making aside from that.

      1. I get a little giddy at the tech parts, but besides that, the show is weak. It is pretentious beyond pretension. The characters are 1 dimensional stereotypes. The writing is weak. It definitely has the ability to surprise the viewer, that’s what happens when you do random things that make no sense. Surprise, but not in a good way.

        [SPOLIERS!]
        The drug dealer murdering the girlfriend, but not murdering Elliot. Tyrell murdering the other guy’s wife. Letting Elliot do the walkabout while withdrawing. None of the show makes any sense.

        Sure it is still better than most things hollywood put out, but that isn’t saying much.
        IM(not so)HO

    2. I agree. I think I gave it until episode 3 and was put off by all the drug stuff. Don’t get me wrong – Breaking Bad is one of my all time favorites – it’s just not what I expected from Mr Robot after reading about it on HAD and a great ep1. Maybe I should have pushed through to ep4??

  2. I loved the bit where he realizes he can’t easily get into the prisons wifi network because they have proper encryption, but then notices that the guards in patrol cars all have computers connected to the network (maybe over GSM, but connected some sort of way), and that the laptops have bluetooth, and that connecting to the laptop as a keyboard is all he needs. This sort of thing is, to my mind, a “real” opsec scenario. Rather than working rainman type magic at a green on black terminal in a basement, when he finds the doors locked he checks the windows, so to speak, and this is a lot of what “hacking”s about.

    1. except for that little fact you need to actually PAIR BT keyboard before you can use it

      would be more realistic if he dropped rubber ducky usb sticks for a cop to pick up and stick into his laptop, and THAT made the laptop pair with his remote BT keyboard.

      1. “would be more realistic if he dropped rubber ducky usb sticks…”

        They tried that and it didn’t work, so they had to go to plan B. I find the pairing a BT keyboard part bothers me less than the idea that he typed in all the commands perfectly on the first try while never seeing the screen. That’s almost impossible without a script.

      1. dont forget alaska. though were waiting for that marijuana control board to finish its regulations, should have those hammered out by the end of november, then we just have to wait for the crop (since alaska weed is all hydro, it shouldn’t take long).

  3. The reason I’m not arguing about Mr. Robot is that is an imaginary TV show. The only thing worth arguing about in this post is how the web feels like it has devolved into clickbait like this post.

      1. Normally, I try not to be this crusty, but to answer the headline, why aren’t we arguing about it? Ya, that’s why I’m not arguing about it. I watch it. I like it. I don’t think there is a call to arms to argue about it. In fact, the default of argument here bums me out. The one pointless argument post turns me off to ten decent ones. I wish I were more hardened than that, but I’m not.

  4. It’s not very realistic because if he really knew what he was doing he’d be using Windows 10.

    There you go. The argument your after should be right below this comment…
    (Grammatical error thrown in just in case.)

    1. inb4 permutations of ‘M$’ ‘Micro[s$](oft|haft)’ ‘Windo(w$|ze)’ and personal attacks directed at a founder that hasn’t been significantly involved in the company in almost a decade.

      1. those guys are not hackers!!

        I love TBBT but the closest they get to hacking is Sheldon “borrowing” the NSA’s supercomputer and Howard retasking a spy satellite.

        They all game on laptops and don’t really do anything

        1. and the supposed nerd girls are waaay too hot to be nerd girls. There’s too much maintenance on most of those women for them to be spending time doing much of anything but image maintenance. Glasses don’t fool anyone, we’re not working the Daily Planet Metropolis office.

  5. There are more interesting things to argue about. Such as what resolution DAC to use for a midi-to-cv converter, or what peripheral libraries to use for my next microcontroller based project.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Mr. Robot. Best show I’ve seen in a long time. But at the end of the day it is still just a TV show. When we argue about it we don’t at the end of the argument have a conclusion we stand to gain much from.

  6. Brian,
    The view you have about the gnome versus KDE is your own. I guess you looked deeper in it than the scripters themselves.
    One never look at reality, one always looks at is own interpretation of it.

    1. +1 for nailing it :D It’s a show about hacking, why shouldn’t it feature on hackaday? that lot are gonna be super pi$$ed if they use an arduino or a pi for anything on Mr.Robot :D

  7. Why would you want to argue about some trivial show. Previous review was intriguing but did anyone fall for it?
    Also
    weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed (insert emoticon here)
    Maybe next HAD article should be how to grow weed at home, how to cheat urine tests and do other fun 420 smoke weed erryday things.
    Scratch the growing, it’s already legal and soon will come to walmart.

  8. I watched most episodes and thought it was a massive let down.

    It’s a morose TV show with a drugged out headcase as a protagonist talking to his dead father. The bad guys are really bad except for the Swede who is just a sicko on a power trip.

    Critical acclaim? Yeah so what. Most of the episodes you have the hacker dude walking around like a zombie. There is no one to root for, just a bunch of unlikable, miserable people.

      1. Oh I tried all of them, and yes they blank out words, at critical scenes. And after doing some research online it seems there is no hope unless there is a bluray release that is without it, in the future at some point, maybe.

        Same with rick & morty btw. damn censorship ruining decent shows left and right.

  9. I interpreted the whole “Gnome vs KDE” line as being someone who’s technically fairly clueless making an inept attempt to appear knowledgeable to someone who actually did know what they were talking about.

  10. Interesting thoughts. Forgive some tips re. your writing skills: One “toes” the line, he does not “tow” it. Finally, it might be a simple typo but “hiro” is unusual. The fact that these things grate on me identifies me as what Elliot would call an “old guy”, doesn’t it :-) ?

    1. Toe the line is from military, police, firefighters etc. New recruits early indoctrination to following orders is to line up with their toes *on* a line. Not over or behind it, on it.

  11. In Mr. Robot, everyone falls in a moral gray area (maybe with the exception of Goddard). Everyone here IRL is likely not a sociopath and would put the privacy and safety of others in much higher regard than the characters in this show. But that’s the purpose of fiction: to explore situations that we’re unlikely to experience.

    Nobody here is going to infect a building environmental controls system to destroy magtapes in a vault. But what if you had to? Would you try to weasel your way onsite to hook a RPi into the SCADA network? Or would you try to find a buffer overflow in the sprinkler control’s wireless rain gauge sensor receiver? How would you insure that your exploit isn’t detected until you’re ready to use it?

    Some of us do things daily that others find near-magical, and often we don’t realize how dangerous we could be.

    1. exactly!

      the root kit in the server farm is an example that non linux users asked me about, I’m still not sure how I would go about doing it, I’ve never wanted to, yet…

      As for the raspberry pi hack,
      I’ve never tried connecting anything on a CAT5 cable like that, don’t tell Apple, but my customers had other needs that AppleTalk didn’t quite meet, so I used to build star networks (90’s), same goes with 10base-T, use 2 t-pieces, as long as the end points were terminated, who cares?

      How long do you reckon a raspberry pi could go before it was detected?
      And how would you physically find it? Reflectometry?

      I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who does “stuff” that “the man” would be “a tad upset about”

      1. The way he spliced it is possibly bogus since you can’t tap twisted pair Ethernet and have the tapping device transmit. You can splice the RX pair of the tap device to either end of the segment and intercept one side of the communications, but you’d never be able to spoof traffic.

        You could certainly use a TDR to find it since it would be an impedance mismatch and should get some nice reflections. But if the switch connecting the thermostat has link quality monitoring you should see the BER go above normal from the tap and all the messing around inserting the tap.

  12. I like 95% of the posts that show up on HaD, but whiney posts which have a title like “Why doesn’t everyone else think that MY favorite show is the greatest?”, fall into the remaining 5%.

  13. I don’t know about you all, but I had a ball digging into the nuances of the show – especially the retro 90’s scenes in the last few episodes. Many of the cables hanging on the store of the mr. robot store still bore their Micro Center price tags. They were most likely purchased from MC in queens, which is only a few miles away from silver cup studio.

      1. Also the most likely inspiration for Google Earth and Second Life – except Google Earth is free instead of insanely expensive.

        So far, nobody has yet invented a portable weapon like Reason – that we know of. If the book ever gets made into a movie, they’ll have to use a different aircraft carrier since Enterprise is being scrapped.

  14. What bothers me is that the whole thing is in his head. At this point we really don’t know what happened at all. Psychological drama does not interest me. The writers could well open season two with the guy running a quickie mart and all last season was a dream. It’s an unnecessary crutch to string along viewers with random writing, I still like it though

  15. Tried to watch. Really wanted to like it. Lasted maybe 20 minutes. Just couldn’t get into it. My theory: they tried so hard to get it right that they almost got it too right… an alternate version of the “uncanny” valley idea. Maybe it was just too close to real life for it to be enjoyable on a very basic level. Or maybe it was too contrived and too earnest. Or maybe it was both. I dunno.

    1. Dramas are inherently contrived because regular life isn’t that interesting. A season’s worth of some guy digging into router firmware with IDA with occasional breaks for trolling HaD and bio functions wouldn’t get many viewers.

  16. I used to like the comments section before it was invaded by the better-than-thou crowd. Since when did the hacker crowd become the wanna-be-geeky rendition of tumblr? See people getting “triggered” all the time on here nowadays. It’s a tv show. It’s make-believe. Jebus Cristos, lighten up. Armchair tv critics are more annoying than armchair physicists.

  17. It’s interesting I guess, I went ahead and binge watched it to see what all it had.
    Honestly it looks like a big advertisement for the likes of HAK5 and other so-called companies selling ‘hacking’ gear.

    Not a big fan, give me breaking bad instead.

  18. I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY want to go on a 10k character rant about how effing conservative, straight laced and “good citizen” a lot of the commenters are.

    but I won’t…

  19. Around second episode you start realizing that you are watching a poor remake of Fight Club, except instead of Norton, Pitt and Bonham Carter you get no idea who, Slater and Swedish/Danish Angelina Jolie plus hard drugs :(

  20. I first heard about that show here on HaD, and started to watch. I was a bit disappointed when in first episode I saw some IP addreses that include numbers over 255, only CSI can have those. But I kept watching and I think they really did the job and hired someone who knows about current technology trends. The show looks like some interesting combination of game Watch Dogs and movie Fight Club.

  21. best hacking depiction ever: Sneakers.

    Minus the magic decryption box (unless it’s a quantum computer or something) anyway.

    social engineering, intel gathering, observation of the target, physical access thru blunt force, and a honeypot.

  22. Most of the tech is spot on. It’s entirely possible to break WiFi networks (including WPA2 using a reaver WPS attack) and to exploit Bluetooth pairing and to splice into an ethernet connection to connect another end point server, and to break SCADA control systems, and to find vulnerable software and create remote control shells back to external networks. Keeping copies of your virtual machines on DVD hidden as music files also trivial.
    Whilst hackaday is clearly a great site for the hardware hacker community many of its commentards seem to lack a basic understanding of computer security exploitation.

  23. I really enjoyed the show, most of the negative comments here aren’t what I expected to see. I think the point was to have a technical discussion about the legitimacy of hacks!

    My issue is how he hacked peoples passwords. I get Eliot got Shayla with a physhing attack and she probably used the same password for everything.
    But what about the others? He seemed to collect personal info and run some custom scripts. Especially those that worked at AllSafe or E-Corp, they’d probably use at least small variations between accounts and require to change passwords fairly often.
    Even if he made dictionaries with info about the people and ended up with a matrix of possible passwords sorted by probablility, what is he testing these against? Every online service has login retry limits and sends emails on failed logins. Does he have leaked DBs of which the victim had accounts (e.g. from PSN) and is cracking hashes?

  24. Is this show set in modern day? if so the kde/ gnome debate is way too late, since gnome 3 is total buggy, ios looking crap nowadays. Instead i use the mate fork that doesnt get updated as much, to the point of making me almost commit the unthinkable and switch to kde!
    Also, who cares? They all play nicely together, so i can have pluma(gedit) and amarok running along side eachother, with kile and caja (nautilus), and gnumeric…. If they were really nerdy hackers, they’d probably be debating the more philosophical merits of tiling wm vs floating wm. Or… programming languages!

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