How Mr Robot Got Hacking Right
Mr Rami Malek in Mr Robot Season Two. Photograph by Mr Nadav Kander/USA Network
As television series Mr Robot returns for its second series, we explore how its creators have hijacked the genre of hacktivist drama.
From the moment a leather trenchcoat-clad Mr Keanu Reeves swished into The Matrix in 1999, to Mr Chris Hemsworth’s buff, alpha hero in Blackhat 16 years later, via television’s lamentable Scorpion and CSI: Cyber, Hollywood has singularly failed to crack the code for the hacker drama.
But Mr Robot, the clever, complex, “hacktivist” series – the new season of which is out this week – has attracted not just critical acclaim, scooping the Golden Globe for Best Television Series, Drama earlier this year, but has also won the approval of America’s most wanted whistleblower. “The fact that Mr Edward Snowden is a fan of the show is pretty huge,” acknowledges Mr Robot’s star, Mr Rami Malek, whose intense glare and hypnotic, monotone delivery are among the many elements that made the first series such compulsive viewing, and one of the breakout TV hits of the year. “That he sees our show as having authenticity is like getting an award in its own right,” says Mr Malek.
In a stunt entirely in keeping with its themes, the first episode of season two was “leaked” last weekend, three days ahead of its official US release, and four days ahead of the UK. During a Facebook Live interview with its creator Mr Sam Esmail, a man in a Monopoly mask “hijacked” the broadcast to let viewers know they could watch the episode on Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter, where it appeared only briefly, before disappearing once more.
Mr Malek plays Elliot Alderson, a talented young computer engineer and hacker, recruited by the mysterious anarchist Mr Robot (played by Mr Christian Slater) to fsociety, a band of vigilantes aiming to cancel global debt by bringing down the world’s largest conglomerate, “Evil Corp”.
Whether one believes that Mr Snowden’s actions in exposing the National Security Agency’s sprawling surveillance programmes were traitorous or heroic, he was undoubtedly acting on his conscience. So, also, fsociety’s motivations are deeply rooted in social justice, with a strong sense of righteousness and little regard for the criminality of their actions.
Messrs Rami Malek and Christian Slater in Mr Robot Season Two. Photograph by Ms Sarah Shatz/USA Network
Mr Esmail was inspired in part by his tech-savvy twentysomething relatives in Egypt, who were caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. “These are young people who use technology to their advantage, to channel the anger against the status quo and try and make a change to better their lives,” he says.
For the character Elliot, who suffers from severe, unspecified mental health issues which lead to delusions, hacking is also a coping mechanism – his way of controlling, making sense of, and connecting with a world he feels otherwise disconnected from. Bad at reading people and social cues, he excels at reading machines; and while there may be real-life hackers out there who also make charismatic cocktail party hosts, I’d wager that their numbers are relatively small.
At one point in the first season of Mr Robot, two members of fsociety joke about how their exploits might inevitably be turned into a terrible TV show. It’s a pointed and well-laid gag, because what’s particularly brilliant about Mr Robot is how it sidesteps the usual Hollywood clichés about hacking and cyber crime. With references to tech terminology – Tor, GNOME, Linux, rootkits and .DAT files, the rules on Mr Robot are: no green screens, and no fictitious, impossible hacks. Thanks to Mr Kor Adana, a teen-hacker-turned-technical-advisor on the show, everything that appears on a character’s computer screen could be freeze-framed and replicated in real life. Which, if you’ve watched it, is a rather terrifying thought.
The show has already featured the Raspberry Pi, a tiny credit-card-sized computer, fitted to a thermostat to hack a climate-control system and start a fire; “Super CDs”, encrypted with JPEGs and other files hidden inside audio tracks and undetectable; and breaking into a hotel room using a dry-erase marker, fitted with a minute electronic board – all taken from the real world of hacking. In short, you can watch and learn. Or totally panic and change all your passwords, right now. Either way, you’ll enjoy yourself.