Warning: This piece contains minor spoilers for the most recent episode of Mr. Robot (S2E7)
If it wasn’t already obvious, the people behind it Mr Robot keep an eye on the news. But unlike some of the headline-grabbed shows syndicated elsewhere in the US, reality serves as a backdrop—and not necessarily direct plot inspiration—for the series. As NPR TV critic Eric Deggans told us ahead of this season, such a strategy “makes viewers feel like everything is grounded in reality… Because they’ve got the details right, the average viewer — and 80 percent of viewers may not know the computer stuff – can look at it and it feels good And when the show has to do something that’s unrealistic, it makes it much easier to buy it.
Last week, Mr Robot putting this idea to the ultimate test. S2’s big reveal has left viewers confused about what reality means in the show’s universe, but that question largely applies to main character Elliot Alderson’s perception and perception. not the show in general. Within the same hour, for example, Elliot takes a very realistic approach to torpedoing the series’ stand-in for the Silk Road, Midland City. When invited by the site’s administrator to take on some system administration duties, he subtly opens Midland City to non-Tor traffic, indexes it on some top search engines, buys a few banner ads elsewhere, then tips the FBI on the whole thing. Easy and truthful.
During a webinar ahead of the show’s final episode, two of Mr Robot‘s primary technical advisors only confirmed this ethos. Mr Robot is a show based in reality, not on it. So while the biggest emotional storyline at the moment involves Elliot’s often dodgy consciousness, things like Midland City or the FBI’s increased involvement provide a stable base for the show to build those narrative threads on.
“Obviously I have to withhold a lot of what I want to talk about because it will be at the end of this season and into next season,” said Andre McGregor, an ex-FBI man who is now the director of cybersecurity. at tanium. McGregor wanted to start by discussing how his FBI background has been implemented, in both obvious (FBI character Dom) and subtle ways. “The way this all started: E-Corp is being hacked and the government needs to have a response, and that will come through the FBI. Most recently Presidential Directive 41 designated the FBI as the lead incident responder for national security cyber attacks and Sam [Esmail] really wanted to understand how that process works: what tools are used by agents and computer scientists, how they interact with intelligence analysts and the NSA, and how that information is generated and collected.
While Presidential Directive 41 has a release date of July 2016, the show has managed to tailor its portrayal of national cyber responses accordingly. That level of accuracy extends beyond just using McGregor and the show’s technical advisors. An FBI public affairs official recently told Ars via email that the show has become so accurate, in part because producer Joe Iberti (formerly of Boardwalk Empire) has a long-standing relationship with FBI press officials. And creator Sam Esmail even traveled to a field office with some set designers to explore a real cyber floor and arrange for actor Grace Gummer (Dom) to connect with two current female cops.
Making the infosec rounds
Under details big (the feds) and small (getting Alf‘s original voice actor or the Full house theme song writers for a recent episode), Mr Robots tech, especially the depiction of hacking, still best illustrates this commitment to realism. The care given to a single screenshot of code has been discussed all over the internet at this point, but the same fact-checking happens for things as simple as statements.
“I’m getting calls from Kor [Adana], and he’ll say, “Oh, I’m on set right now and we’re trying to figure out how to say a word,” McGregor said. “I won’t give it away because you’ll see it soon, but they even want to know how hackers or the infosec community say the terms we use. Things like ee-maks vs em-aks [for Emacs] help reaffirm that the show remains true to life.
Perhaps the most telling way the show maintains its accuracy comes from McGregor and Tanium colleague Ryan Kazanciyan’s travel schedule. Together with other show advisors and Mr Robot‘s lead technical writer Kor Adana, the duo has been making the rounds on the recent infosec conference circuit. So researcher Samy Kamkar’s MagSpoof device — which uses an electromagnet to copy information from a card and then transmit it accordingly — didn’t accidentally appear in a recent episode. And when asked during the webinar if they ever worry about copycat attackers in real life, McGregor was quick to point out the show’s reliance on exploits discussed in the wild:
I think we’re pretty good at showing hacks that have already been done. I’m throwing this out to the audience that’s listening, if you have any hack ideas and you want to pass them on, I think Ryan and I would both be interested in hearing about them. We keep track of what’s going on in public, of course, and we attended Black Hat/DefCon to keep up to date, but if an audience member has something really cool, we’d love to hear about it.
But we don’t show anything that is magical or that no one else would think of. Pretty much everything you’ve seen on TV has been done or written about in the private sector somewhere before. We don’t show anything that someone else is going to copy from us.
For more on the subject of accuracy, check out as we welcome some members of the Mr Robot writer’s room as guests-to-be decoded, the mr. Robot podcast from Ars Technica. In the meantime, below is our most recent podcast. If you have any feedback, show ideas, or even questions for featured writers in the coming week, get in touch through the comments section, on iTunes, or via email.