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Case Studies

How Mr. Robot ‘fudged’ its hacks to protect the public

Showrunners debated over how accurate to make the show’s exploits

Mr. Robot poster

AMC's Mr. Robot is a modern Robin Hood tale about a gang of hacktivists taking on a morally reprehensible multinational corporation. The show has garnered particular attention for the authenticity with which it portrays hacking and cybersecurity, and showrunner Sam Esmail went to great pains to make sure all of the hacks shown in the series were plausible and realistic up to a point.

James Plouffe, a strategic technologist at MobileIron, was one of many cybersecurity industry practitioners that Esmail brought in to advise the writers on the technical elements of fsociety's hacks and exploits. According to Plouffe, there was some debate among the show's writers and technical experts as to exactly how true to life the fictional anarcho-hacker collective's exploits should be.

"You wanted to get it right, but not right enough that someone could copy," he explained in an interview with IT Pro. "And I don't want to spoil it for folks who haven't seen some of the things that take place in season three, but I remember kicking around some of the ideas to make certain things happen. And there was this debate between those of us who are working as tech consultants about whether or not it was technically feasible, and a little bit of research suggested that it was."

"There were some folks on the side of 'we want to make this hyper accurate'. And my position was, for the safety of total strangers, let's maybe fudge the math a little bit, so that it doesn't become a public safety issue."

It's hard to argue Mr. Robot hasn't had a huge impact in the cybersecurity industry in the years since it first hit screens; various hackers (including black, white and grey hat varieties) have already begun adopting the show's iconography as part of their public personas.

For Plouffe, it's gratifying he gets to be a part of something that resonates so deeply with the cyber security community: "I appreciate it, in the sense that it was great to be part of something that I would have wanted to watch." 

He also hopes that seeing the reality of cyber attacks as portrayed in Mr. Robot has helped contextualise cyber security issues for members of the general public, and raise awareness of threats.

"All the things that happened in Mr. Robot are practical, are based on real things. When you see them log into a firewall console, that's actually a piece of Cisco hardware that's been mocked up. So if anything, I hope that people see that the issues are real," said Plouffe. 

"A lot of the activities in Mr. Robot hinge on pretty basic stuff, like getting people to do something dumb; pick up a USB drive in a parking lot, take a free CD from a musician, you know, social engineering stuff. Stuff that we're all susceptible to, potentially. I think people can understand those. And hopefully, it also underscored the ease with which some of that can happen and makes people think twice."

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