BY ABIGAIL TRACY
The following contains spoilers of the ninth episode of the first season of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, which airs at 10pm EST on Wednesdays.
With the conclusion of the debut season of USA Network’s Mr. Robot rapidly approaching, there are a handful of loose ends still yet to be wrapped up by the rookie drama’s director Sam Esmail and his legion of adept writers. With this in mind, it is likely unsurprising to most Mr. Robot fans that the penultimate episode of the show’s first season “Mirroring” (eps1.8_m1rr0r1ng.qt) is light on hacking, unlike most episodes prior. Save for the single conversation between Elliot and Tyrell Wellick at the very end, “Mirroring” entirely focuses on story line and character arcs.
Not to say that it is uneventful by any means. In fact, Wednesday’s episode finally reveals the true nature of Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot character to viewers. Turns out that he is in fact dead and that all of Mr. Robot’s previous interactions with Elliot have been figments of the socially-inept protagonist’s imagination and on top of that, apparently FSociety is the brainchild of none other than Darlene and Elliot—two major plot advancements.
Given the nature of the ninth Mr. Robot episode, however, for this week’s recap on top of explaining the minimal hacking with the help of Mr. Robot’s technical consultant Michael Bazzell, I have decided to focus the latter half of my article on some of the old school technology that makes a cameo in “Mirroring” during the flashback set in one of Elliot’s presumed childhood haunts–the Mr. Robot store.
Redundancies and China
After being let go from E Corp and the birth of his child, an unstable Tyrell Wellick lets himself into Elliot’s apartment to confront him about his suspicions, because as he so acutely puts it—Elliot is “the one constant in a sea of variables.” And after Tyrell shares the details of Sharon Knowles fatal strangulation at his hands, Elliot shares FSociety’s plan to take down E Corp.
Thus far in the series, this scene is the most concise description of the hacker coalition’s scheme. You learn that FSociety plans to encrypt all of E Corp’s files so that its financial records will be impossible to access. Bazzell explained this process to me in further detail.
“Encryption basically encodes any data in a way that only an authorized person can view the real content. Most file encryption possesses some type of password that unlocks the data. As an example, most password storage applications are encrypted. You must enter a password to decrypt the data,” Bazzell said. “This can apply to single files or full disc encryption on an entire computer hard drive.”
Elliot adds that after the encryption is complete, the encryption key will self-delete after the full encryption process is completed. According to Bazzell, encryption keys are somewhat like the rules to an encryption, meaning that they contain the necessary instruction for a password to unlock the data. In even simpler terms, this means that if FSociety manages to pull off its grand plan, E Corp is screwed.
“Using today’s technology, properly encrypted data could take hundreds of years to unlock without the official authorization,” stressed Bazzell. “Most corporations rely heavily on their data. It is priceless. If it disappeared one day, the impact would be devastating. Imagine if a company such as Evil Corp lost all of its data one day. They would have no records of customers.”
After Elliot explains the basic conceit of the plan, Tyrell asks about the company’s data backups. As discussed in previous recaps, Elliot and company plan to destroy these by hijacking the storage facilities’ climate control systems with a Raspberry Pi and cranking up the buildings’ temperatures, which the team can do remotely and seamlessly across all locations because they are connected to a single network managed by the company AirDream.
In several episodes this season, there have been brief, loose mentions of “China,” the greatest example of which occurs in the fifth episode after the Dark Army backs out of the payload sync at the last minute. Mr. Robot says, “If we move forward and they don’t, China still holds all the redundant information. It will be pointless.”
The conversation between Tyrell and Elliot clarifies what Mr. Robot was referring to and reveals exactly why FSociety needs the Dark Army. “China” refers to another information backup system based overseas that requires the fellow hacker crew’s help to destroy.
“Many companies store redundant data in other countries. This way, a physical catastrophe in one country would not destroy all the data,” he explained. “The data in the other country could be replicated to replace the destroyed data. In this scenario, all data must be encrypted or destroyed at one time. This would prevent the ability to simply replicate a backup into a live environment.”
Floppy Discs and Nostalgia
As that basically wraps up the onscreen hacking in “Mirroring,” I am now going to shift my focus to the flashback scene at the very beginning of the episode. Much like Mr. Robot’s portrayal of hacking, this scene is incredibly accurate as to what a computer hardware store would have looked like back in 1994. The episode’s opening sequence is essentially a treasure trove of antiquated computer technology.
Right of the bat, viewers are inundated with computer tech from the era in which the scene is set. It opens with a shot of two old computers (logos covered by stickers that read “Try Me Out,” so can’t nail down the model), followed by a pan of an external CD-ROM, what looks like an Exabyte drive and Super Nintendo cartridges complimented by a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Zapper gun. Then as the shot changes, a model of an NEC PowerMate 433D and presumably a Sega Genesis 16-bit console (the logo is absent) fill the frame—all of which would be right at home at store like Mr. Robot in 1994.
Then you see Mr. Robot, or Edward Alderson as you learn in the episode, ripping labels off 3.5 inch floppy discs. In 1994, shareware was big for companies. For the uninitiated, a portmanteau derived from the combination of the words ‘share’ and ‘software,’ shareware was free software given out by companies that people were encouraged to share with each other. In this scene, it is likely shareware stored on floppy discs that Mr. Robot is ripping the labels off. The video game DOOM was actually first released in December 1993 via shareware.
At this time, floppy discs were the standard. Even though by 1994, CD-ROMs existed it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that they really usurped floppies. In an interview Dag Spicer, a senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, even recalled getting a giant box full of more than two dozen floppy discs that he had to use to download Windows 3.1 for Workgroups (the precursor to Window’s ’95).
To put floppy discs in perspective, they stored about 1.44 megabytes of data. A standard CD-ROM now stores 700 MB, which is larger than most hard drives back in 1994 (Mr. Robot mentions a 800 MB hard drive in the scene). Today a typically flash drive could store somewhere around 64,000 MB of data. So yeah, technology has come a long way over the past decade. For many years, people continued to use both CD-ROMs and floppies. It actually wasn’t until 2010 that Sony, the market leader, announced that it was going to discontinue the production of its 3.5 inch floppy discs.
“No technology just sort of winks out and then is gone. They drag on for years and years and people have [two] systems for while before they finally cut the cord,” Spicer said.
In this opening scene, Mr. Robot receives a phone call and while on the call he references a “Pentium 90,” what he is referring to is an Intel Pentium 90 Megahertz (MHz) microprocessor. According to Spicer, the first Pentium chip came out in 1993 and had a 60 MHz clock rate, which meant that it was slightly slower than the model mentioned in the episode. Some argued that Pentium chips were too powerful for desktop computers and only meant for server-class computers according to Spicer, who says that this was “of course spectacularly incorrect.”
At this time, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was Intel’s greatest competitor in the micro processing space—a complicated rivalry explained Spicer.
“AMD was sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the microprocessor world. They didn’t get any respect, but they also had some gigantic design waves,” he explained.
But beyond these few products that I have called out that are specific to the time period Esmail was shooting for in this scene, Bazzell argued that the conversation Mr. Robot has on the phone is indicative of the way people invested in and thought about technology back in 1994. He argued that people cared more about their hardware back then.
“We researched the best processors, motherboards, and RAM in order to possess the perfect computer. Today, people often buy the computer that is prettiest or comes in a favorite color. While some gamers and hardcore computing enthusiasts still salivate over the latest speed specifications on new hardware, the masses simply buy what is popular,” he continued. “Most people also do not have a relationship with the inner workings of their devices. I assume that the majority of computer owners never open their machine at all. Back then, we valued every component and upgraded hardware consistently. Today, most people throw the device in the trash and buy a new one when convenient.”
Important note: For the finale episode of Mr. Robot, I have been informed that it is important for viewers to watch the episode all the way to the end, past the credits–think of it like a Marvel movie.