‘Mr. Robot’ Wants to Change the Encryption Debate

USA Network

USA Network


This post contains mild spoilers for season one of Mr. Robot.

Elliot Alderson, the brilliant protagonist of Mr. Robot, encrypts everything he does. Obviously. I just had to confirm that fact with Sam Esmail, the mastermind behind last year’s breakout hacking thriller.

“Yes, absolutely,” Esmail told me as we sat beneath a giant Mr. Robot-themed Ferris wheel at the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. “I think he would encrypt everything, for sure.”

Season one’s 10 dizzying, drug-fueled episodes portrayed hacking more realistically than perhaps any piece of pop fiction has before. Alderson, who is part of the F Society, a hacking collective loosely based on Anonymous, socially engineers his way into the digital lives of his victims by pretending to be calling from their bank’s fraud department, for instance. At the end of season one, Alderson committed a massive hack that will grab the attention of the FBI in season two.

“The FBI wasn’t in the first season because we hadn’t committed a crime yet,” Esmail told me (Alderson committed lots of small criminal hacks in the first season, but apparently no one bothered to tell law enforcement). “Now that the crime is committed, I want to bring that aspect into the world. It’s an interesting conversation to bring up, and it’s one I don’t think people quite understand the nuances of yet. This second season is an opportunity to do that, but it fits organically to the story.”

Newsroom and American Horror Story vet Grace Gummer has been brought on to play an FBI field agent who will investigate the hack. The debate over whether the FBI should be allowed to require Apple to help it retrieve files off of encrypted iPhonesrages on in tech circles, courtrooms, and on Capitol Hill (where it has made for some entertaining hearings), it’s still an esoteric topic that, in the wrong hands, would either be brutally boring or highly sensationalized on a fictional show. Esmail, perhaps emboldened by the success of the first season, believes he can capture the nuance without losing the attention of his viewers.

“I was always frustrated by shows and movies i watched about ‘hacking,’ and I put that in quotes, because it’s essentially cheesy graphics flying at you on the screen,” Esmail said. “I wanted to do something to show that hacking is not about a guy on the keyboard, a lot of it is social engineering and subtleties of trying to find someone’s vulnerability and exploit that vulnerability. I’m glad to show that other aspect of hacking, because that really is the way people will get hacked.”

Watching Alderson brute-force his way into accounts or figure out someone’s security question is not as immediately sexy as having, say, a hulked-up hacker shoot rocket launchers at people for two hours, but it’s ultimately more compelling and it’s more socially important, and audiences have responded.

The show’s pilot screened for the first time at SXSW a year ago in a small theatre. This year, the show’s installation at SXSW—which has the aforementioned Ferris wheel and the F Society arcade from the show—has lines that stretch around the block.

“I don’t know if it’s gaining momentum or if we’ve been a slow burn,” Esmail said. “It’s a weird show about hacking, and it’s kind of an obscure topic to the public. My dream of the show was to have it be a cult hit—the fact it’s gotten this big is kind of insane to me.”

This is all to say that Mr. Robot has had a real impact on public discourse and how seriously people take their own personal security. Christian Slater, who plays Mr. Robot in the show, deadpanned at a panel later in the day that working on the show didn’t make him want to be a hacker, but it did make him beef up his personal security: “My level of awareness of all that tech stuff has increased, with the updating of the passwords and all of those things,” he said.

With his soapbox more firmly established, Esmail says it’s time to take on the encryption debate.

“I don’t know if it’s our job to make a commentary, but it’s to bring it up and have a conversation about it—the encryption thing—Apple vs the FBI,” he said later during a panel. “We talked to our FBI consultants about this, and I am totally opposed to [their point of view] and I’m on Tim Cook’s side. We should have encryption, which was part of the story before this whole Apple vs FBI thing happened. Privacy is going to be a huge issue in the next decade or so. If our show at least contributes to that conversation, brings it up, it’ll get people to join the debate.”