BY JENNA WORTHAM
In the first episode of “Mr. Robot,” a drama that is nearing the end of its first season on the USA Network, Elliot — the show’s main character, played by Rami Malek — delivers a memorable monologue about his disillusionment with society. Elliot’s Margaret Keane-size eyes go blank as he describes feelings of isolation and disconnection from popular culture.
“Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children?” his voice-over intones. “Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit? The world itself is just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our burning commentary, masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money.”
Any good television show can let you crawl inside the head of a character, but “Mr. Robot” does more: It gives you access to the inner workings of a culture. The series, about a hacker (Elliot) with social-anxiety disorder, has become a sleeper hit of the summer for reasons that go beyond the show’s clever pacing and dramatic story arcs. We now live in a world where hacks of all kinds are happening with alarming frequency and data dumps have become a weapon in both the geopolitical and personal arenas. (A colleague who covers cybersecurity for The Times is fond of saying that the difference between companies that have been hacked and those that haven’t been is simply that the ones who say they haven’t been hacked just don’t know it yet.) “Mr. Robot” feels, then, like a fictional CliffsNotes for the dark corridors of the Web, offering a degree of insight into the mentality of the kind of figures that, for example, targeted Ashley Madison, a dating service marketed to people interested in extramarital affairs, in an exhaustive leak of customer data earlier this month.
At its core, the show is a study in how hyperconsumerism and social-media overload have produced a class of disenfranchised individuals who also happen to have the ability to crack databases containing valuable and vulnerable information. Elliot is a chronically depressed computer technician who works at a omnipotent and powerful technology company. His preferred means of interacting with people is breaking into their email and social-media accounts to understand who they are, a habit that is portrayed as both tragic and creepy. Occasionally, when he finds something he finds abhorrent — like a cafe owner who peddles in child pornography — he turns the incriminating data over to the police. But as the show progresses, his anarchistic ideas become more convoluted, and the moral footing he uses to justify his behavior morphs in ways that make it harder to sympathize with him.
Elliot’s character doesn’t represent the entirety of hacker culture — which is by no means monolithic — any more than the hip-hop dynasty of “Empire” represents the entirety of black culture. But “Mr. Robot” is clearly getting something right: A member of the hacking collective Anonymous told The International Business Times that the show “is the most accurate portrayal of security and hacking culture ever to grace the screen.” Sam Esmail, the creator and director of the show, has spoken at length about his determination to treat hacking as an art and an ideology, not just as the province of havoc-prone teenagers with nothing better to do. “Mr. Robot” is so remarkably adept at channeling the dystopian present that in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment, producers decided to postpone the show’s scheduled finale because of the plot’s similarity to the recent on-air killing of a TV news crew in Roanoke, Va.
Elliot’s character arc neatly encapsulates the evolution of hackers’ motives as we’ve come to understand them through the highest-profile data heists and online stunts of the past decade, from a kind of mischievous intramural competition to an ideologically motivated crusade to something much more complex and elusive. In 2006, Anonymous came to be synonymous with online “trolling”: igniting arguments, invading forums with spam and harassing individuals by sending dozens of pizzas to their homes, among other pranks. With time, however, the collective began setting its sights on meatier targets. The group battled child pornographers, leaked sensitive information about law-enforcement groups in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, systematically pursued the Church of Scientology, lent its resources to events like anti-police-brutality marches and unearthed embarrassing information about public figures to garner media attention for their various causes.
Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and author who researches hacker culture, credits groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks with popularizing direct-action leaking — the practice of releasing massive troves of information that reveal corrupt activities and damaging information — as a form of sabotage. “A politics of sabotage goes far beyond simply the desire to expose wrongdoing by releasing emails but making an attempt to discredit and destroy the company or at least cause them serious financial loss through the hack,” said Coleman in an email exchange.
Impact Team, the group claiming responsibility for breaking into the servers and posting 30 gigabytes of data from Ashley Madison, is clearly influenced by these groups. The group said it targeted the site because “for a company whose main promise is secrecy, it’s like you didn’t even try.” But truthfully, no one really knows what prompted the group’s actions. As with other hacking organizations that have emerged after Anonymous, the offered rationale for the attacks is vague and opaque enough that Reddit threads and online forums are teeming with theories about the real motivation: competitor-sponsored corporate espionage, a twisted P.R. scheme, bitcoin-funded chaos for kicks.
As time goes on, we are likely to know even less about the aims of the groups and individuals who orchestrate such attacks, Coleman argues. “If these hackers are good — as in having good security — we should know very little about them and their motives,” she says. “The less we know, the more safe they are.”
Cyberespionage and geopolitical sabotage via cyberattack is more than a paranoid fantasy; it is the new normal. Often, as in the 2014 Sony Pictures hack — which may or may not have been sponsored by North Korea — they involve staggering amounts of confidential data, troves so large they are difficult to handle, much less examine. And yet we still have no clear character sketch of the perpetrators, which only enhances the appeal of a show like “Mr. Robot.” It may be fictional, but at least it helps us make sense of the strange new world taking shape beneath our feet.