USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” is the first television show to really get hacking right with its realistic depictions of technical details and hacker culture, and one of the main reasons for that is just one man: Kor Adana, a former hacker himself who now serves as a staff writer and technical consultant on the show.
“From what I’ve seen in a lot of film and television, it’s the hacker [being depicted] in the dark basement with the glowing screen,” said Adana, at a Monday night event on hackers in film and television hosted at Google’s office in Venice, California.
That depiction is inaccurate to say the least. And it’s one that Adana, a former network security analyst for Toyota, has worked diligently to correct over two seasons of “Mr. Robot.” That work has paid off, since the critically-acclaimed show is beloved by real hackers, security professionals, and even non-techies for its drama and realism.
For those unfamiliar, 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.
Real world testing
Eventually Elliot 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). While Elliott also has a very bad drug addiction and makes an unreliable narrator, his hacks are legitimate – right down to the tools and code depicted onscreen.
“Everything in the show is feasible,” Adana said.
At the Google event, Adana explained how the show maintains this accuracy, and it starts with an interesting choice for showrunner and creator Sam Esmail: Figuring out whether something is going to work before it’s written into the script.
In the writer’s room, Esmail and others will usually go to Adana and explain what they want Elliott to do: Perhaps they want him to gain access to a bank or take over someone’s smartphone, for example. Then it’s up to Adana to figure out whether it can actually be done.
“For us, if the hack isn’t feasible in real life, it doesn’t get in the script,” he said. Once he learns what Esmail wants, he’ll reach out to his team of consultants, which include other experts such as Marc Rogers, an information security manager with CloudFlare and head of security for the Def Con hacking conference; and Michael Bazzell, a former FBI cybercrime investigator who now teaches open source intelligence-gathering techniques.
After they figure it out – with Adana often performing the hack himself as a test – he’ll bring it back and say yeah, it can be done. Interestingly, Adana has to clear many of his hacks with USA’s legal department first, since they need to sign off on the depiction of certain tools, such as the Social Engineer Toolkit or ransomware code known as Cryptowall.
“We fudge the timing”
Once Adana gets the okay, the graphics team recreates the hack in Flash animation so the computer screens in front of the actors display what a hacker would really be doing. Unlike other shows which would use a blank screen and then insert computer code in post-production, “Mr. Robot” has the animation right there in front of the actor, and Adana shows them where to place their fingers and when to type.
Adana does have just one criticism of the show, which has been mentioned by some critics. “If there is one criticism of our own work,” Adana said. “It is that we fudge the timing.”
The hacks are carried out very fast onscreen, but that is understandable when you have an hour-long show that needs to depict the cracking of a password that would take a normal hacker days, if not weeks, to get through. Adana also mentioned that he tries to keep a low online profile, and doesn’t share nearly as much about himself as many people do on social media, for fear of it aiding those who might try and hack him.
And the realization among actors on the show that what they do on the show can be done in real life, along with Adana’s own security-mindedness, certainly has made the crew wary.
“There is a healthy level of paranoia there,” he told Business Insider.