Mr. Robot is a rare thing when it comes to cybersecurity, a TV show that not only ‘gets it’ (at all) but by general consensus more often than not actually gets it right in a lot of places, too.
Much has already been written and debated around its technical authenticity, and there are indeed whole blogs and forums dedicated to analysing and dissecting the finer detail of tools and techniques used in each and every episode. Some of them exhibit a somewhat worrying level of scrutiny and ‘nit-picking’ when, after all, this is just a fictional TV show, people!
Given the fact that no other recent show or movie would even warrant such discussion, this is of itself an accolade of sorts. Whether Mr. Robot will raise the bar and mark a positive evolution in the way in which cyber (both security and criminality) is portrayed in quality drama more generally or whether it is simply a one-off show for us ‘nerds’ remains to be seen. As with much offbeat and ‘alternative’ TV drama, there is a somewhat inevitable disparity between its critical acclaim and ratings that may suggest the latter.
Given the attention that it’s garnered, however, it also poses an interesting question for security folk as to whether, as I’ve heard some recently suggest, Mr. Robot could actually promote or even inspire hacktivism or just plain hacking. In my humble view, I find that scenario unlikely but then again not altogether impossible.
Firstly on this question: Mr. Robot can hardly be accused of ‘glamorising’ its subject nor its central character Elliot Alderson. In fact, it is clear from the outset that the show is as much about advanced stages of paranoia, clinical depression and social anxiety disorder as it is anything to do with technology and hacking. Few I would imagine are likely to wish to emulate Elliot’s dark and troubled world of danger, isolation, addiction and personal tragedy, either.
But let’s not underestimate the allure of the vigilante or anti-hero, particularly in the world of cult TV and movies. After all, Robert de Niro will be far better remembered and regarded by many for Raging Bull or for his role as the vigilante Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver than perhaps his more recent appearance in The Intern. Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail has even openly acknowledged influence from Taxi Driver for the show’s first-person narration brought to us not always reliably by Elliot’s troubled mind, although it could be observed that the show’s depiction of the underbelly of New York, poignant use of music, focus on a vigilante vengeance theme, and study of delusional madness are hardly coming from an altogether different place either.
Other influences include The Matrix and most overtly Fight Club (blatantly referenced and acknowledged by the use of music in the episode eps1.8m1rr0r1ng.q .). Both much-loved cult classics, of course. With actor Rami Said Malek having now won both the Critics’ Choice Award and the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, both the show and character of Elliott have likely established for themselves a similar status.
This is a show primarily built around hacking, however, and Elliot is not the only hacker in the show. Another of Mr. Robot’s strengths is that members of the show’s fictional collective “fsociety” are depicted as clever, diverse, and of unlikely alliance, thereby dispelling the usual patronising TV depiction of hackers as either teenagers in hoods or ‘foreign’ spies. They also appear to run merry rings around those managing the fictional Allsafe cybersecurity company, its more regular security ‘experts,’ and its customers.
Furthermore, through such characters, the show dares to voice some views of the world rarely heard in TV drama. Those range from almost nihilistic disillusionment to downright anger with mainstream politics, corporate culture, inequality, and consumerism. (But with a certain irony, you can now happily consume to your hearts content fsociety t-shirts, face masks, and a whole extensive range of consumer merchandise associated with the show. The revolution it appears will be televised and it will come with its own lucrative franchise tie-in.)
Finally, there is also perhaps the danger that putting so much out there about hacking and social engineering techniques could not only pique further dubious interest but even lead to poorly attempted copy-cat attempts.
Given that some of its plots and themes are for the purpose of entertainment are more far-fetched than many of its hacks, it is hardly likely that simply as a result of watching Mr. Robot someone who has never contemplated such a thing before will rush to the dark web to obtain an arsenal of rootkits, hacking manuals, or even ‘just’ a MaaS (Malware as a service) subscription. Likewise, if someone is inclined toward hacking or other online criminality, they will do so for many reasons regardless of any TV show. Great topical drama often reflects the time in which it was made, and Mr. Robot more than anything else around right now deals in matters that are already happening online whether we like them or not.
It does also highlight the need for much more credible and realistic depictions of positive cyber defender type characters on screens big and small, ones that certainly can’t continue along the lines of some of the simplistic and clichéd attempts we’ve seen so far.
Vintage British Police drama ‘The Sweeney’ broke new ground for its time with gritty tales of the elite London Metropolitan Police ‘Flying Squad,’ a show depicted in a way which was previously unheard of for a mainstream TV audience accustomed to watching simplistic police stories. To deliver justice and get their job done, ‘The Sweeneys’ hardened but always fair central characters crossed lines, used unorthodox and sometimes brutal tactics, and most unusually for such a police drama of the time didn’t always ‘get their man.’ In the episode ‘Tomorrow Man’ it also had what must be one of the first themes in a British drama of ‘insider threat’ computer hacking, even if back then the hacking involved a disgruntled former employee who programmed a company’s mainframe system and had to clamber the roof where it was housed to gain access to his system.
In the meantime I’m very pleasantly surprised Mr. Robot has been commissioned for a third season. I confess at this point to have only just finished S1 on a UK satellite channel and am delighted (despite all the daily spoiler-dodging) to have many more hours of clever, crazy television to view of a show I was initially somewhat skeptical of but for once see exactly what all the fuss is about.
Even if we can’t be sure Mr. Robot is that good for security, it’s certainly good for TV.
About the Author: Angus Macrae is a CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) in good standing, a CCP (NCSC Certified Professional for the IT Security Officer role at Senior Practitioner level) and PCIP (PCI SSC Payment Card Industry Professional.) He is currently the IT security lead for King’s Service Centre supporting the services of King’s College London, one of the worlds’ top 20 universities
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.