Meet the hacker keeping ‘Mr. Robot’ so real it’s scary

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Hackers are a different breed, but they also may be the activist evolved.

Earlier this week concept store Story in New York City — in collaboration with USA Network — held a panel on “The Politics of Hacking.” Moderated by The Verge reporter Russell Brandom, the panel featured Kor Adana, writer and tech consultant for USA Network’s hit show on hacking, Mr. Robot. Also on the panel were Matthew Mitchell, digital security consultant at Crypto Harlem; Molly Sauter, researcher at The Berkman Center, a graduate student at McGill University, and author of The Coming Swarmas well as Adrianne Jeffries, managing editor at Motherboard.

“The Sony [hack] happened a couple of days before Mr. Robot got a series pick-up,” Adana said before the crowd burst into laughter over the irony. “The notion of data dumps worked its way into our season 1 storyline strictly because of Sony. You see it in episode two and three of season 1 where you have Evil Corp data dumps, a major plot point of season 1 that may or may not come back in season 2.”

Adana was tightlipped on season 2 details but did reveal two topics that potentially will be discussed: encrypted messaging and the internet of things (IoT). Encrypted messaging apps such as Jabber, Signal, and Ricochet were mentioned by the panelists, which Adana says will be incorporated into season 2 in some form.

His thoughts on the new craze of internet connected home appliances was a bit more dismissive. “There’s no reason to have a refrigerator that’s connected to your home network, it serves no purpose,” Adana said. “Some of these things are nonsensical. Also something that may or may not show up [in season 2].”

Following the panel, Adana spoke with Digital Trends about how working for a corporation helped inspire Mr. Robot‘s taking down of E Corp (referred to on the show as “EvilCorp”) in season 1, why tech consultants are needed in television, and more.

Spoiler alert: Major spoilers from Mr. Robot season 1 are revealed below. Read on at your own risk.

Digital Trends: Your job on Mr. Robot grew to being a tech consultant for the show. That’s pretty new for TV shows. I only know of Mr. Robot and Silicon Valley having thoseWhy are tech consultants becoming integral to TV shows?

“A lot of my contributions in the writer’s room was to try to nail the authenticity.”

Kor Adana: It’s part of the age that we live in and the way that we communicate with each other now. Everyone has a cellphone these days, or a smartphone. Everyone has a tablet. Everyone has a laptop. Everyone is constantly communicating via text messaging or via email. So, it’s become part of our language and to me it’s as important as dialogue from a writing perspective to showcase this in a realistic way. So, when I started working on Mr. Robot, a lot of my contributions in the writer’s room was try to nail the authenticity. How would this actually work in the real world? I think the audience has responded to it in such a great way. They see it on the screen. They see exactly how we’re using the technology and the way that technology is exploited to create the drama and create the paranoia. I think it’s something you’re going to see more and more of.

I think Hollywood in general is late in adopting the technology and the portrayal of the technology. It’s been something the Infosec (Information Security) community, even long before Mr. Robot, has been complaining about. There’s so many memes out there making fun of … I’m not going to name shows, but you know what I’m talking about. Shows where people are just dropping lingo about [Microsoft] Visual Basic. Or having two agents typing at the same time at a computer, it’s just ridiculous. You’re flying through a directory structure with 3D graphics coming at you and you’re typing furiously and it’s turning that interactivity with the software into a video game, which makes me cringe.  [Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail] and I came from the same school of thought. “If we do it in a real way, there is inherent drama in it.” Mr. Robot, and even Silicon Valley has proven that.

Is there a specific scene or screen grab from Mr. Robot season one that you were proud you were able to get on air to show the authenticity?

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It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire season. It’s at the end of episode 8, where Elliott goes through his CD collection, grabs the first one that’s unlabeled, throws it in his machine and it just comes up as a normal audio disc. He runs this steganography tool called DeepSound to extract hidden, encrypted images that were stored within the .cda tracks. It’s this long push in, with this huge musical crescendo from an M83 track [M83’s Gone]. It serves so many purposes. One, I’m so proud of the screen, because we show all of it, we showed the entire animation in its entirety, which is a rarity, because I usually develop a lot more detail into these animations — but this one we showed it. So it’s cool from a tech perspective to see that steganography in action.

From an emotional standpoint, just him experiencing the reveal of “this is my father. Mr. Robot is my father.” Him reaching that realization, the music reaching that crescendo, and him going to the door and opening it with Christian [Slater] there saying “we need to talk.” I think that we were firing on all cylinders there. I’ve seen that scene a couple hundred times and I can go home tonight, put it on, and probably get teary eyed.

“If we do it in a real way, there is inherent drama in it.”

In past interviews you have said certain hacks that happened in real life around the time Mr. Robot‘s first season was airing that resembled plot points in the show were merely coincidental. Now that Mr. Robot is this venerated source of authentic depiction of the hacking culture, do you now have a responsibility to address certain things going on in the world? 

We try and incorporate what’s in the zeitgeist. It’s a contemporary show about the times that we live in now, from a technology perspective. So, we’d be doing a disservice to everyone if we didn’t address certain topics that were coming up in tech, or encryption. It’s something we’re well aware of when it goes into the breaking of the episodes, and we try to do it in a subtle way. We’re not going to have a character just talk openly about the benefits or dangers of using encryption, or the government having a side door into encrypted mobile devices. We’ll incorporate it into a subtle way and let the viewer make up their own mind. Hopefully they have enough information there to make up their own mind on the subject. We do want to incorporate current events as much as possible.

How does a former white hat hacker help write about a show that works so much with the nefarious side of hacking? Are there any moral vagaries you have to go through?

Before, I was a white hat hacker in my teenage, stupid years I took a lot more risks, and I did some things I probably should not have done when I was exploring the technology. Some of that comes into the show where I can throw out an idea like “I’ve done this before. This is how Elliott can completely own this person and I know that it works and it’ll be cool to see in a show.” From the white hat perspective, working in cyber security, it really helps structure and solidify how Evil Corp’s network was structured. So the fact there’s a data center here in the U.S. and there is a data center overseas for either redundancies or disaster recovery. There’s offsite tape backups like Steel Mountain [from season 1]. Those really set up the targets for [hacker group] FSociety to attack and it kind of dictated the attack vectors they would use to compromise these systems.

So, a lot of my work in cyber security and white hat hacking, penetration testing, came in handy when really advising on the big hack of season 1. How would I take down a major corporation? Well I worked at a major corporation, I know how I would take it down, this is how I’d do it. So, let’s have FSociety follow a similar path. It’s a little bit of both. Some of the vigilante hacking, and some of the one-offs like Tyrell hacking and installing malicious spyware on Anwar’s phone and rooting the Android phone at the end of episode three. I’ve done something similar to that in my younger years. Some of the bigger scope, wider scope Evil Corp hacks are definitely from my days of working at Enterprise Cybersecurity.

I know you can’t reveal too many details about season 2, but are there any news stories that Mr. Robot will be focusing on at all?

I don’t think I can answer that, but I will say encryption is definitely something we’re going to be talking about as well as … secure communication. So, you’ll see some of that in season 2. I think that’s as detailed as I can get, unfortunately.

Mr. Robot returns for season 2 on July 13 on USA, with back-to-back episodes starting at 10 p.m. ET.

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