BY WILLIAM BEUTLER
The first season finale of Mr. Robot airs tonight, and if you haven’t been watching already, it’s worth visiting soon. Not only is it a moody, cinematic, well-plotted, twist-springing suspense thriller, but it’s also the best depiction of hackers in popular entertainment yet.
As explained in better detail by others, Mr. Robot gets hacker subculture mostly right, and hews close enough to the technical details to be interesting where it doesn’t. Root kits are deployed, professionals use MacBooks, hackers use commodity PC hardware, Gnome and KDE desktop environments are referenced, and all of the code displayed on-screen (and there’s a lot) has at least some basis in reality. Spiking the football, two characters are seen deriding the movie Hackers for its many famous errors. The show knows what it’s doing.
This careful treatment even extends to Wikipedia, which comes up in the first half of the show’s fifth episode, eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv (yes, that’s actually its title). In this scene, a Wikipedia hoax is used as a plot device to advance the show’s narrative, and I think it’s worth looking at closely.
Scene-level spoilers follow.
In this episode, our troubled hero, Elliot (Rami Malek, pictured below), conspires with hacker group fsociety to infiltrate a data security firm based on the real life company Iron Mountain. To gain access, Elliot persuades a sales employee to believe that he is “Sam Sepiol”, a Zuckerbergian software tycoon (note the hoodie). Key to this scheme: a Wikipedia article purporting to verify this identity.
Unable to get past the lobby, Elliot implores the salesman to look him up. As Elliot turns to walk away, the employee taps the fictitious name into his tablet (clearly an iPad, though most devices on the show are enclosed in third-party cases to avoid unduly promoting specific brands). The first result is Wikipedia, followed by a few supporting news stories.
The sales employee clicks on Wikipedia first, and finds all the evidence he needs to decide Elliot is in fact Sam Sepiol, billionaire founder of “tech start-up company Bleetz”. The name and photo match, and this unique sales opportunity is about to walk right out the door.
Just before that happens, the employee shouts after him, and Elliot’s hack succeeds. Here the narration kicks in, as Elliot explains how an accomplice, a fellow hacker named Mobley, has pulled this off:
It’s no wonder Wikipedia is never accurate. Anyone can edit them. Well, not anyone. Nerds like Mobley built a lot of credit over the years with his 20,000 edits. And still people trust it, beholden to all the Mobleys of the world for their information.
Here’s Mobley, apparently editing the page from the van in the parking lot outside:
At this point, we are also shown two views of the edit page for the Sam Sepiol Wikipedia entry, one medium close-up and one close close-up, as Mobley prepares this Wikipedia-enabled social engineering:
I dunno about you, but I thought that was pretty cool. Some additional observations:
- Like much else on the series that pertains to technology, Mr. Robot gets the social aspects of this correct. Despite exhortations from everyone to be careful about the information to be found on Wikipedia, the truth is we use it frequently to verify our hunches, and when the information sounds right, we go with it. Sometimes that’s a bad move! (I went several years thinking T. Boone Pickens’ real first name was “Thunder” because I’d visited the page when someone had messed with it.) Likewise, it’s much more likely that a dubious entry would be given benefit of the doubt if the creating editor has thousands of edits and years of editing history—at least long enough for the ruse to work.
- You know what else is accurate, right? Yeah, I know plenty of Wikipedia editors who look just like Mobley.
- I can’t tell what’s more absurd: that elements of everyday real life such as Google and Wikipedia logos cannot be used on TV without a license, or that production companies rarely if ever pay it (just like no one ever sings “Happy Birthday”). The motivations of both parties are not difficult to understand, but I fail to understand why a solution hasn’t been found. Mr. Robot is obviously not alone in this, and in fact they do a better job than most. Although Wikipedia is referenced in Elliot’s voiceover, on the page the would-be Wikipedia logo reads “The Knowledge Base” which is at least on point.
- It’s never clarified whether Sam Sepiol is a real person in Mr. Robot‘s world whose article has been co-opted for the purposes of social engineering, or whether this page is a brand-new creation. I’m not certain the show’s producers know for sure themselves. After all, there are other news stories about Sepiol on the web, so if fsociety hacked Wikipedia, they somehow also hacked Google News or its equivalent. As suggested by the final still, Mobley’s final touch is adding Sepiol’s net worth to the introduction of the article. If Sepiol is a real entrepreneur, is it necessary for him to be one of the world’s richest men to get past security? On the other hand, it would be far easier to modify an existing entry, replace the photo, and embellish its claims. It could certainly be accomplished much faster than an all-new entry, which would require at least a couple of weeks to float to the top of Google’s search results. And in that time, you at least hope Wikipedia editors would have caught the hoax.
- Following my comment above that the show isn’t always technically accurate, but is still interesting, the original mockup of the Sepiol page is an impressively faithful adaptation of Wikipedia’s mobile web display. The introductory paragraph reads like any one of probably hundreds of fawning biographies; the inbox contains the right information; the internal links and citations look right. Even the icons for editing the page and adding it to a watch list are where they should be. For comparison, I’ve uploaded the iPad view of actor Rami Malek’s Wikipedia bio.
- Meanwhile, the desktop version of the edit page is pretty good, while the Wikipedia markup code depicted gets more right than not. Although most references have been reduced to what you would see on the rendered page itself—“”—the double brackets around internal links is spot on. There are in fact some ref tags in evidence, the inbox template is stacked properly even if it’s missing some crucial markup, and (you have to squint) there is such thing as a “cite web” template. Whatever it gets wrong, it’s amazing how much it gets right.
- The day the episode first aired in the U.S., July 22, a hard redirect for Sam Sepiol was created, sending anyone who searches for this article instead to—you guessed it—the Mr. Robot (TV series) Wikipedia entry.
Anything I’ve missed?
H3LL0FRI3ND UPDATE: The season finale of Mr. Robot will now air Wednesday, Sept. 2 at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.