BY ABIGAIL TRACY
Mr. Robot is breaking the mold. Despite the typical trajectory of other cyber crime shows and movies, the rookie USA Network hacker drama has grabbed the attention of both critics and viewers who have exalted the show for its compelling story line and accurate portrayal of cyber security and crime.
Mr. Robot revolves around the life of Elliot Anderson, a vigilante hacker—played by Rami Malek—who works as a cyber security engineer during the day but spends his nights hacking into the lives of others. Within a mere two episodes into its premiere season, Mr. Robot quickly embedded Elliot in the world of underground hacking and introduced the protagonist to FSociety—a coalition of hackers led by Christian Slater’s character “Mr. Robot.” FSociety has enlisted Elliot to help bring down E-Corp, a corporate conglomerate that just happens to be the biggest client of the cyber security firm where Elliot works. The show follows Elliot as he wrestles with right and wrong as a hacker with a moral compass.
While Mr. Robot’s plot is in itself is fascinating and Malek’s portrayal of Elliot is captivating, the drama’s main selling point is that it actually delivers a believable portrait of the world of hacking. So to learn more about the making of the show—which airs Wednesday nights at 10pm EST—Forbes spoke with Michael Bazzell, Mr. Robot’s technical consultant. Bazzell worked for 15 years as cyber crime detective—10 of which he spent with the FBI’s cyber crime task force—before Sam Esmail, one of Mr. Robot’s directors, tapped him as an expert to work on the show. Now acyber crime security consultant, Bazzell spoke with us about Mr. Robot’semphasis on accuracy and attention to detail and how it has managed to separate itself from cyber crime movies and television shows of the past.
Critics have praised Mr. Robot as one of the most accurate displays of hacking ever on television or in movies. How is Mr. Robot really getting it right in your opinion?
I think it is Sam [Esmail], 100 percent. When I first saw the early version of the pilot—which I had no influence on whatsoever—I knew that Sam not only understood hacking but had a very good grasp on it. Instead of showing hackers typing frantically and bypassing every firewall in a system, he focused right away on social engineering, email phishing and the more realistic ways that criminals will get to your information. Then there is all of the computer code. We make any computer code shown on the screen accurate. We don’t need to fake it. There is no reason to put random characters up to please the audience. We want that code to be accurate so that even the most sophisticated hacker or technical person out there will not roll their eyes at a scene.
The moment that there is a problem or something that isn’t 100% perfect, Sam is willing to change whatever needs to be changed to make it right—whether that means dialogue, changing the scene or changing where that scene goes. He is so concerned with accuracy that he is willing to sacrifice some of the story line if he has to.
So the Mr. Robot team has made concessions for accuracy even when trying to move a story line forward?
We have. We have had a couple of scenes where there was a general place that we wanted to get to, but the technology and the hack being used didn’t really play out. It was not very realistic, it was not even plausible and we corrected it.
What was it about that first episode that really piqued your interest and ultimately led to your involvement in Mr. Robot?
I think for me it wasn’t necessarily the technology. It was the moment that I realized that Elliot was that moral ethical hacker that’s not motivated by money. He has a bigger view of things. He is more worried about doing what is right and what he should be doing versus what will line his wallet. That’s when I was sold and that’s when I couldn’t wait to be involved, whether to provide accuracy or a storyline.
That episode opens with a scene in which viewers learn that Elliot hacked a coffee shop owner who was running handful of child pornography sites. Elliot admits to tipping off the authorities and there is a subsequent bust. Is this a realistic scenario?
Those busts happen in a lot of different ways. Obviously, there are a lot of tips that come in but the FBI can’t bust in a door based on a tip but they can investigate, to prove a tip accurate or inaccurate. In that scene, that type of scenario is very plausible if the authorities received not only a tip but digital evidence that supports that tip. They could absolutely obtain a search warrant, an arrest warrant and seize computers. That happens quite a bit. Law enforcement does have many proactive operations to look for this stuff all the time and I would say that the majority of busts result from proactive investigations but also there are a good number of cases where that tip leads you to finding a person. I have had several cases where a single person’s tip has led to multiple arrests across the country and in a couple of cases even led to lifetime prison sentences.
Let’s take a broader view for a second. Can you talk to me about hacking in general and the biggest lessons you learned about it during your time working as a cyber crime investigator?
Sure, I think there are some really big misconceptions surrounding hacking. Our society has attached a negative connotation to the word hacker that has just seemed to have stuck around forever. I would like to separate hackers from criminals. Many people believe that hackers are these evil misfits that operate individually in dark basements and are all motivated by money or a desire to cause unnecessary evil. In reality, hackers are often simply very smart people that work in groups to bring change. Sometimes they are misguided and inappropriate, but they often use their skills to expose hidden details of governments and corporations. Obviously this crosses the line of overexposure often, but most hackers believe that their actions are justified.
In regards to criminal hackers and organizations, a misconception is that they are these unorganized clusters of criminals targeting individuals. But in reality, these groups are very organized, their attacks are very sophisticated and they are very focused on specific goals. When we hear about a major data breach, it is unlikely that an individual criminal made that happen. It is more likely that it was a group effort and that it probably took a long time.
Let’s dig into this concept of hacking for the ‘greater good’ and social justice. Do you think that Elliot and the F-Society are an accurate portrayal of real hackers, as opposed to this idea of a criminal hacker in a basement who is attacking individuals for money?
I do. I think it is completely accurate. Hackers are not just misfits that live off of stolen credit card money. They have real jobs and real lives, but they also have a desire to make change and do the right thing—even if that does mean breaking the law. I don’t think that the real world has a true understanding of these people. I think many think of them as these evil, dark criminals that just sit and laugh at the evil that they are doing. In reality, a lot of the hackers are real people, with real feelings and are relatable.
So would you say that there is a typical profile of a hacker? Or is that too difficult to pin down?
I don’t think that there is. There are so many types of hackers and there are so many types of criminal hackers. There are people who are truly not social whatsoever and there are people who are very social. I have worked with a lot of people in the hacking community and in the network security community and it takes all types. I don’t think that there is one profile, but I will say that the thing the majority of those that I have met and that I have worked with have in common is a skill set and a knowledge that just isn’t replicated a lot in the rest of the world.
What have television shows and movies gotten wrong in the past about hacking? Is there one thing that you think Mr. Robot is getting right that others didn’t?
I think that a lot of shows in the past focused too much on unrealistic hacking that happens immediately. I have seen many scenes where in order to hack faster, they type faster. I have even seen scenes where two people are typing on one keyboard in order to get the hack done twice as fast. That’s just not realistic.
What I also love about this show is that it’s not afraid to fail. All hacks don’t work. Even the best hacker is going to fail. Things are going to go wrong. In most of the hacking shows and movies that I have watched, every hack works perfectly. They get the job done and they get it done in ten seconds. In Mr. Robot, Sam is not afraid to show failures and things that just don’t work. When that happens, a true hacker doesn’t quit. He or she goes back to the drawing board and finds a new solution. That is realistic.
Are there any aspects of hacking that simply don’t translate to the screen?
The biggest thing is time. I think that the hardest to thing to show is that hacking involves repetitive work that takes a long time. Obviously you can’t show 15 hours of a person letting a computer program run but I think that Sam has done a very good job letting the viewer understand that hacking doesn’t happen overnight but takes time, planning and proper execution. A lot of the hacking shows that we have seen up to this point simply cheat, allow the hack to happen in ten seconds and allow the hackers to get lucky.
Are there any scenes that really stand out to you in particular as really great examples of what hacking looks like in the real world?
There are but they are in upcoming episodes and I would never provide a spoiler. I will say that viewers will see within weeks those types of scenes and I am really excited to see how they play out.