How ‘Mr. Ro­bot’ won the prize for hacker re­al­ism

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Bree Fowler The Associated Press

Fi­nally, the com­puter hack­ers of the world have a TV show they can call their own.

“Mr. Ro­bot,” a mind­bend­ing drama in which a mor­phine-us­ing com­put­er­se­cu­rity drone gets en­meshed in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary plot against cor­po­rate dom­i­na­tion, is notable for many things — un­re­li­able nar­ra­tion, an omi­nous Chris­tian Slater, hal­lu­ci­na­tory plot twists, a fore­bod­ing and dystopic at­mos­phere shot through with black hu­mor.

(There’s also the star turn by Rami Malek as young hacker Elliot Alder­son; he took home an Emmy for best lead ac­tor in a dra­matic se­ries Sun­day night. Malek opened his ac­cep­tance speech with a call­back to one of his char­ac­ter’s first lines: “Please tell me you’re see­ing this, too.”)

But the show is also un­usu­ally ded­i­cated to get­ting the de­tails of hacker cul­ture and com­puter vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties right. That’s won it a de­voted fol­low­ing among peo­ple who know more than a lit­tle about both sub­jects — and who are used to see­ing car­toon­ish hacker stereo­types and lu­di­crous tech­ni­cal jar­gon in main­stream pro­grams.

SWEAT­ING THE SMALL STUFF

“For me the big­gest thing was, I watched all of sea­son one and didn’t throw any­thing at the TV,” said long­time hacker Marc Rogers dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion that packed a ball­room at the re­cent Def Con hacker con­ven­tion in Las Vegas.

Rogers joined the show as one of its hacker con­sul­tants for its se­cond sea­son, which wraps up Wed­nes­day night. He’s one of a small group of real-world ex­perts, in­clud­ing com­puter-se­cu­rity mavens and a for­mer FBI cy­ber­crime spe­cial­ist, who share the same mis­sion: Keep the hacks re­al­is­tic while mak­ing sure that the show is still good TV.

Be­cause if they don’t, they’re go­ing to hear about it from the real-life hack­ers.

“It’s in­sane,” said Kor Adana, a “Mr. Ro­bot” writer who worked as a net­work se­cu­rity an­a­lyst be­fore break­ing into show busi­ness. “Even if we show part of a screen for a mil­lisec­ond, It will get screen­shot­ted and it will get dis­sected and some­one will post a re­ally in­tri­cate write up about what we’re do­ing; whether it makes sense or whether we’re just phon­ing it in.”

Adana, who man­ages the team of con­sul­tants in ad­di­tion to serv­ing as a writer, said the fo­cus on ac­cu­racy has al­ways been part of “Mr. Ro­bot.” The show’s cre­ator, Sam Es­mail, dab­bled in hack­ing as a teenager, then saw fam­ily mem­bers in Egypt use so­cial me­dia and other tech­nol­ogy to push for po­lit­i­cal change dur­ing the Arab Spring.

HACK­ING IN ITS DNA

Es­mail liked the idea of young peo­ple chang­ing the world via their su­pe­rior un­der­stand­ing of tech­nol­ogy. That’s more or less what the hacker char­ac­ters in “Mr. Ro­bot” try to do — though they’re not al­ways suc­cess­ful, Adana said. But Es­mail in­sisted on do­ing it right.

Adana and an­other con­sul­tant joined the show dur­ing the first sea­son, with Adana pitch­ing ideas in the writer’s room. No­body wanted to see “Mr. Ro­bot” mocked on­line like two hack­ing-cen­tric CBS thrillers, “Scor­pion” (which fea­tures faked-up com­puter code in its logo) and the now-can­celed “CSI: Cy­ber.”

As with any TV show, though, the story comes first. The con­sul­tants brain­storm to cre­ate re­al­is­tic hacks that get Elliot from point A to point B

in the story; only then do they write the code that will show up on screens. And while real-life hack­ers tend to reuse hacks that work, char­ac­ters on the show need to keep com­ing up with new ones to keep things in­ter­est­ing.

Next, the con­sul­tants work with the props de­part­ment to make sure the sets fea­ture ap­pro­pri­ate hard­ware and give the code to an an­i­ma­tor, who cre­ates the text that ac­tu­ally ap­pears in the show. They take care to en­sure the code is typo free, al­though they do tweak some el­e­ments to en­sure they’re not pro­vid­ing a “how to” guide for as­pir­ing hack­ers.

aren’t un­com­mon.

Some­times hacks are yanked if they can’t be fixed. For ex­am­ple, a ran­somware at­tack orig­i­nally writ­ten into the se­cond sea­son pre­mier was ul­ti­mately cut and re­placed af­ter con­sul­tants de­cided it wouldn’t re­ally work on a tech­ni­cal level.

Adana and the con­sul­tants are also re­spon­si­ble for flesh­ing out the show’s hacker char­ac­ters, en­sur­ing that they’re more than quirky, bor­der­line autis­tic ge­niuses. Elliot, for in­stance, is at heart an ide­al­ist who wants to change the world for the bet­ter, al­though he’s also a flawed and fre­quently un­sta­ble per­son who has a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with both main­stream so­ci­ety and re­al­ity it­self.

“I think the young, and kind of an­gry, re­bel­lious, anti-author­ity hack­ers re­lated to him in a way,” Adana said. “He’s ide­al­is­tic in the same way as a lot of hack­tivists (who) want to change the world. They want to make an im­pact through tech­nol­ogy and that’s what he’s do­ing.”

DAVID GIESBRECHT — USA NET­WORK VIA AP, FILE

This file photo pro­vided by USA Net­works shows, Rami Malek, left, as Elliot, and Chris­tian Slater as Mr. Ro­bot in a scene from the pi­lot episode of the tele­vi­sion se­ries, “Mr. Ro­bot.” The cre­ative team be­hind the award-win­ning “Mr. Ro­bot” knows that if it doesn’t get de­tails right, they’re go­ing to hear about it. Unlike other shows about hack­ers, “Mr. Ro­bot,” which wraps up its se­cond sea­son on has been praised by the hacker com­mu­nity for re­al­is­ti­cally por­tray­ing what they do.

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