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Paranoia and Political Hacking in Mr. Robot
Gregory Maher

The second season of the television series Mr. Robot delves deeply into society’s collective paranoia about hacking, data leaks, and cybersecurity. In doing so, it has had an uncanny ability to mirror or even predict real-life events. For a storyline that follows a group of fictional hackers, the news of hacks involving the National Security Agency, the Democratic National Committee, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are never far from the viewer’s mind. But it’s not just the events in which hackers achieve center stage that ring true; the release of the season one finale was postponed due to its graphic similarity to last year’s on-air murder of television reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward.

Through the first season (which aired on the USA Network in 2015) and into the second (released this past July), Mr. Robot has demonstrated the humanity and complexity of hackers. Mainstream media coverage frequently vilifies hackers, portraying them as “masked others”—a portrayal that many hackers seem to relish. Series creator, writer, and director Sam Esmail destroys these conceptions and ties the show’s plot into the fabric of contemporary cyber warfare, with its constant struggle of threats, undermining, and blackmail.

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The entities in the world of Mr. Robot are best visualized on a vertical spectrum. This spectrum extends from the legal and visible players down into the “deep web” of “unindexed” (unsearchable, and thus effectively invisible) and the “dark web” of illegal activity. At the pinnacle is E Corp, a global conglomerate involved in everything from computers to consumer credit to banking. At the other end is fsociety, a loose hacker collective led by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), whose primary goal is to bring down E Corp and erase financial records in order to eliminate all debts as a form of economic revolution. Between these two ends is Allsafe, a cybersecurity firm where lead character Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) works as a security engineer, protecting clients such as E Corp from cyberattacks.

At the opening of the second season, the viewer begins to see that this spectrum is the controlled narrative presented by the media and generally accepted by the public. New points appear on the spectrum as the FBI, the Dark Army (based on real hacking groups such as the Chinese PLA Unit 61398), and other players enter the plot. At the same time, viewers get a closer look at the interdependent community of people—siblings, parents, and friends—for whom “hacker” is but one portion of their identities.

Elliot has always had an affinity for hacking. During his childhood, it allowed an escape from his strict household and fed his persistent desire for secret knowledge. Elliot’s strength, his ability to overcome barriers of privacy, grants him access to others’ weaknesses. In the process, Elliot adopted the murky, indecipherable persona of hacker and continued to advance his skill as a “white-hat” hacker—seeking loopholes in companies’ systems—before becoming a security engineer at Allsafe Cybersecurity.

Elliot’s role as hacker is not to act as an agent of chaos—the evil “masked other”—but as the conscience of the viewer, questioning and overturning the accepted narrative of the upper, “legal” end of the spectrum. While socially awkward, Elliot becomes an archetype of the modern assassin. He is hooded in black, with dark eyes and large pupils that reflect his own acute fear of being watched. He holds an unsmiling awareness of his power: exposing his targets’ source code and, by extension, their hidden sins.

At the beginning of the first season, the viewer meets Elliot in a scene when he is exposing an internet café owner’s child pornography ring. In this moment, and successive ones, Elliot grapples with this power. He confronts person after person over their dark secrets: infidelity, perversion, or ouster business plots. The “victims” are often those he perceives to be closest to him, and thus with the greatest chance of betraying him; of proving his paranoia is justified. At other times, Elliot is simply striking where he sees a weakness, both enraptured by the ephemeral power and driven by a deeper anger. It seems that everyone Elliot knows is hiding something, accessible just on the other side of an email password or phishing scam.

Elliot suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, manifested at times in anxiety attacks. During these scenes of high tension or action he finds calm in conversing with an unknown other. At one point he says, “I wish I could be an observer like you—then I could think more calmly.” That might be Elliot addressing the viewer directly, but there’s another layer of meaning, as well. Elliot’s father developed leukemia as a result of exposure while working on a mysterious E Corps project, and the illness led to his untimely death. This imaginary conversation partner becomes a proxy companion to fill the void left by his father’s death, and this imaginary presence increasingly insinuates itself into Elliot’s already unstable consciousness.

Halfway through the first season Elliot transforms from mere hacker into a full-fledged operative, gaining access to an E Corp data center.Hacking here requires lock-picking skills to pass through secured doors, improvisation to respond to unforeseen obstacles, and deception to move past more complicated barriers in the temperature-controlled warehouses full of servers. Elliot realizes in this scene, within the labyrinthine Steel Mountain facility of E Corp, that the full meaning of exploiting system weaknesses includes manipulating others to get them to divulge or allow access to information.

Part of what makes the series so compelling is its realistic handling of hacking and cyber security. So many film and TV depictions of hackers rely on corny stereotypes—think of Skyfall’s lascivious hacker, Raoul Silva, versus the cardigan-draped Q. The intended audience for Mr. Robot’s hacking scenes is security professionals. To that end, the series’ tech consultant, Michael Bazzell, a security specialist and former FBI cybercrimes investigator, checks every detail for accuracy. The main cast attended hacking seminars as preparation for the show, and Malek worked with a typing instructor in order to realistically channel Elliot’s behavior.

Esmail’s approach to developing the show’s characters is to see them not simply as hackers, but as humans with their own lives, dispositions, and even personal style. Mr. Robot permits the viewer to reconsider the role of hackers and their work. In one striking scene, fsociety pays off a worker at a kill shelter to allow the group to burn evidence of their E Corp hack. Faced with the sobering presence of the crematory oven, the hackers pick the locks on the dogs’ cages to let them escape.

Composer Mac Quayle’s churning electronic beat aligns the mood of the series with the unknown, with technology beyond the grasp of most viewers. The soundtrack combines seamlessly with the series’ dark color palette, both favoring interior and nighttime scenes. When the interior camera pans over a window, the white light from outside appears harsh and unforgiving. Mr. Robot also employs elements of the horror genre such as high-pitched noises like the pressurized rush of wind before a subway train and the screech of its brakes against metal tracks. Pounding, disorienting music is often layered over scenes of crowds in which the central action is occurring. This oversaturation mimics Elliot’s own anxiety attacks, his sense of the world closing in on him. One character, White Rose (BD Wong), leader of the Dark Army hacker group, summarizes it best when he tells Elliot, “We’re all living in each other’s paranoia.” During hacking scenes, Elliot’s own adrenal hyperawareness only amplifies the effect. 

The way the show details the whole process of the hack, from planning to execution to the inevitable political and economic fallout, also blurs the line between the series and reality. For instance, following Wikileaks’ release of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee in July, the DNC established a “cybersecurity advisory board” composed of security and big tech policy experts. The DNC has been criticized for not including any actual cybersecurity technologists on the board and for misunderstanding the motivation and culture of hacking—the importance of both which are clearly demonstrated in Mr. Robot. Like corporate, media, and governmental entities, political candidates often deride hackers’ efforts as terrorist, anarchic, or puerile, but they have no choice but to rely on hackers’ expertise to test their system security and move ahead after being cyberattacked.

Now that hacking is a ubiquitous threat for any major political campaign, questions about the role of data security and access are unavoidable. What data should be publically accessible, especially data related to campaign finance and elected officials? Elections have long been built on information disseminated by journalists and platforms pushed by either party. The current presidential election exemplifies the ease with which politicians spin half-truths and anecdotes into a partisan “reality” for a dissatisfied public.

The hacktivist introduces a new dynamic into this process. By accessing private information and releasing it widely, hacktivists reveal the barefaced truth of politicians, corporate figures, and others. Whether hacktivists should have a voice in the current election is debatable. Regardless, the information they make available can cause voters to reevaluate public figures and their policies, as well as provide a ground for legal action.

In Mr. Robot, Elliot’s hallucinations and flashbacks cause the viewer to look back and try to piece together what is past, present, or speculative—what is reality and what is in his head. Mr. Robot does not fully separate its reality from our reality. Because of this, the show prompts its viewers to analyze the truths with which we are presented, especially as we wade through the tangle of election media coverage. People want to believe what they see, and leaked information provides a proof-test. There is a cost to that knowledge, however: not just the illegality of such hacks, but the sickening reality of deception. Mr. Robot reminds us that hackers are fully formed, psychologically complex individuals. Likewise, it reminds us that we need to pay close attention to the motives, sources, contexts, and framing of information—as well as the methods used in its apprehension.

  

Gregory Maher lives and writes in Chicago, where he is a regular contributor for Newcity Magazine.

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