Mr. Robot/USA Networks
There's finally a television show that depicts what hackers are really like.
It's USA Network's "Mr. Robot" and, if you haven't started watching yet, you should get caught up before its second season kicks off sometime later this year. That's because in addition to being an interesting thriller packed with plenty of drama, "Mr. Robot" is a show that actually gets it.
“I understand what it’s like to be different,” the main character, Elliot Alderson, says in the first episode to a coffee shop owner who he just hacked. "I’m very different too."
This quote from a conversation in the beginning of the show can almost be taken as a metaphor for hacking shows in general. This isn't "CSI," "Blackhat," or the 1995 film, "Hackers."
In this, "Mr. Robot" is telling us this show is very different. That's an opinion shared not only by me — someone who has covered hacking a lot — but other cybersecurity and technical experts who have commented on the show.
For one, it actually gets many of the technical details right. Elliot, like many real-world hackers, is an avid user of the Linux operating system. And he's very interested in privacy and freedom, and wary of corporations — much the same as the hacker collective Anonymous.
It's also sprinkled with real terminology hackers and cybersecurity pros use regularly: rootkits, terminals, Gnome vs. KDE on Linux, DDoS attacks, and many more. Elliot uses dictionary attacks to guess passwords, a common method hackers use to break into people's accounts.
But instead of cheesy graphical representations that show a hacker flying through a server, a real command line is used. Because in the real world, hackers type code into a very basic terminal window. And it's finally on screen, represented accurately.
The show is smart on the details, but it never dumbs things down to the level of laymen explanation, a fact that technically-minded and even amateurs will appreciate.
"Most of the tech-speak goes way over my head," the Tampa Bay Times' Brittany Volk wrote. "But really, most of the show is way over my head. And I don't mind that one bit."
Mr. Robot/USA Networks
Here's the basic premise of the show: Elliott (played by Rami Malek) is a respectable employee of a cybersecurity firm by day, but by night, he's a hacker taking on the world around him with his technical skills, going after everyone from child porn peddlers to adulterers.
Eventually he gets recruited into a hacker group, led by the pseudonymously-named "Mr. Robot," to infiltrate and take down a global conglomerate known as E Corp (which is referred throughout as Evil Corp).
Malek captures the hacker mentality pretty well. Besides his and others use of hacker jargon, the audience sees that hackers are not just nerds sitting around a computer screen trying to ruin everyone's life. Instead, they are often represented as simply curious people, interested in seeking out knowledge.
"The lock pick. Every hacker’s favorite sport," Elliot says in one scene. "The perfect system to crack, mostly because unlike virtual systems when you break it you can feel it, you can hear it, you can see it." (It's worth pointing out here that Defcon, the world's largest hacker conference, holds an annual lock-picking contest at its event).
One of the more interesting and realistic parts of the show is Elliot's use of social engineering — lying — to gain information on a potential target for hacks. While password cracking is certainly something hackers work at, making phone calls to a target just to learn bits of information is invaluable — and a surprisingly simple way to get trusting people to just hand over secrets.
It's so easy in fact that hacker Kevin Mitnick wrote a book all about this "art of deception" back in 2003.
In one eye-opening sequence, Elliot calls his target pretending to be a company representative, telling him he first needs to verify some security questions. Though the man eventually gets suspicious, it's too late, and he's already given him details that Elliot can later use in finding out his password.
Mr. Robot/USA Networks
It's one of those smart parts of the show that cybersecurity professionals will watch and say "exactly!" while the average viewer will, hopefully, learn from it.
"If it ups your level of paranoia, it's a good thing," said Mr. Robot writer Kor Adana, on stage at CES 2016's CyberSecurity Forum on Wednesday.
Like any television show or movie, it does take some liberty with its content. It can't get everything right, as Wired points out. The supporting cast of the hacker group fsociety don't necessarily scream "hacker elite" just yet and some plot-lines, like them meeting in-person for hacking operations so they don't get caught, doesn't really make sense when considering government agents could just follow one of them.
Still, the show is smart and compelling. And it's the best representation of what hackers are really like. But you don't need to take my word for it.
“'Mr. Robot' is the most accurate portrayal of security and hacking culture ever to grace the screen,” a member of Anonymous told International Business Times.