Hollywood’s take on hacking has generally been that it needs to be jazzed up. Audiences won’t understand what’s happening anyway, so let’s get a comedian, make him wear glasses, and spout technobabble as a CGI cartoon unfolds trying to explain how computers work.
Mr. Robot is different. It understands most hackers aren’t nerds who never leave the basement, but rather, they are people that are unusually good at getting into the heads of others and exploiting them. And in the process, the show has created a guide to hacking on the screen that every Hollywood movie and TV show should take squarely to heart. For example:
It’s About People And Their Flaws
Kevin Mitnick was the first hacker to capture popular imagination, but people focused on his impressive technical skills. Where Mitnick stood out, though, was not his ability to do math, but his ability to ingratiate himself with people and get the information he needed. In fact, that was how Mitnick often got into systems, not by breaching their computer security, but by rooting through dumpsters for information and subtly interrogating people for their password.
This is why Rami Malek’s Elliot is a convincing hacker, because while he’s hardly the most charming man on television, he is among the most convincing. He often gets his information not by triggering a lengthy CGI sequence, but by talking to people, charming them, analyzing their flaws and looking at the information they give him and drawing inferences about, say, their passwords from it. And, in one of the funniest moments early on in the show, it still doesn’t work and he has to do it the hard way. It even extends to his character flaws. If you watch closely, you’ll notice Elliot has an unfortunate habit of telling people what they want to hear instead of the truth.
Timing Is Everything
One of the most common ways Hollywood gets hacking wrong is that it’s always instantaneous. Tap a few buttons and you’re in. In reality, circumventing computer systems is not a matter of “hacking the mainframe.” Getting around protections like encryption is like drilling through the Earth to rob a bank. It’s certainly possible, but it’s going to take a long, long time.
That’s why Mr. Robot’s entire season revolved around the climactic hack: Everything they had to do would take roughly as long as the series demands, and yes, it would be every bit as soul-grindingly dull as the show makes it look. In fact, that demand for accurate timing extends to every hack in the show: When Tyrell installs some malware on an Android phone in the third episode, the show’s consultant timed how long it would take and the entire scene was written around it.
The Tech Is Real
Another nice touch is that the technology the show uses is generally not only real, but something your average man on the street would have full access to. For example, when Darlene scatters those USB drives around the prison parking lot, that’s a real hacking technique: It’s relatively easy to hide malicious code in the firmware of a USB drive, and all you have to do is gamble somebody will eventually plug it in. Similarly, the small computer Elliot uses in Steel Mountain is a real, cheap computer sold to kids to get them working with circuits and computers. Even when the show detours to 1994, they show their work: It mentions the Pentium 90, a processor which had just come out.
The Concessions To Drama Are Reasonable
Part of the problem with any show about hacking is that most writers don’t understand how it works. Computers are black boxes where you press buttons and YouTube videos come out. This means you’ve got movies like The Net, where a secret conspiracy hides itself by placing icons on every Mac on the planet, or Untraceable, where somebody is able to hack a car that doesn’t have a connection to the internet. Does it make for fun drama? Sure, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Mr. Robot‘s concessions to reality are more about the tiny details that people wouldn’t notice unless they know a lot about computers in the first place. They get IP addresses deliberately wrong, much in the same way every phone number in Hollywood begins with 555. Another example is that Elliot’s vigilantism tends to end with an instant arrest. In reality, though, if someone tips off the authorities about a child porn buyer or other online scumbag, they can only get a computer and an IP address. The tip is the start of a longer investigation that ends in an arrest. But that’s way less satisfying that humiliating a monster in a coffee shop and watching him get perp-walked.
Mr. Robot gets hacking right, in the end, because it focuses on people. Computers are just tools that do what we tell them. Complicated, obscure tools to many of us, but tools nonetheless. It’s the people at the keyboard that are truly vulnerable.