08/26/2016

Decoding The Hacks Of ‘Mr. Robot’

11:24 minutes

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson with Christian Slater. Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network
Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson with Christian Slater. Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network

In the TV show Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity programmer, joins the hactivist group fsociety. Elliot is focused on bringing down E Corp, the company responsible for his father’s death. He hacks into the company’s system using raspberry pis, DeepSounds discs, and DDoS attacks. Kor Adana, a writer and technology producer for the show, talks about drawing inspiration from the toolkit of real-life hackers.


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Segment Guests

Kor Adana

Kor Adana is a writer and technology producer for the television show Mr. Robot. He’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

SPEAKER: Corporate greed has taken over. Money is more important than people. Rebels hack the financial system seeking to take down the banks. This is not Oryx and Crake This is a little– battle between good and evil with cyber crime and lawlessness. And if you’re a fan of the cable show “Mr. Robot,” you recognize why the main character, Elliot, the cybersecurity programmer, joined the hacker vigilante group, F Society. And in Season Two, Elliot refocuses his target.

-What exactly are you doing?

-I’m hacking the FBI.

SPEAKER: Whoa. Whoa. I saw that episode last night I think. It sounds like things are going to get complicated for Elliot and everybody there. Hacking the FBI is pretty serious. But realistic? Hmm. Where did these elaborate hacks come from? That’s the responsibility of my next guest. And warning, if you aren’t caught up on this show, there might be a few spoilers here. Kor Adana is a writer and technology producer for “Mr. Robot.” He’s based out of Los Angeles. And he’s here in our New York studios. Thanks for coming in.

KOR ADANA: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

SPEAKER: You don’t shy away from showing all that code on the screen?

KOR ADANA: No, I think we’re one of the first television shows to really show how it’s done and have a realistic portrayal of the software in the code. I mean, I may have seen it– I know that the “Matrix” film used an N-Map tool. But that’s about it. Most of the time, it looks like a video game.

SPEAKER: Because I have had coders tell me, I freeze the screen and I look and see if the code is real or not.

KOR ADANA: There’s a whole subset of our viewership that freezes every single frame of our–

SPEAKER: Really?

KOR ADANA: –our computer screens. They break down the tools that we’re using, the versions of the software. They look for hidden codes in the screens that we hide in there for them. It’s really fun and interactive.

SPEAKER: There are hidden codes?

KOR ADANA: There are hidden codes. A huge part of my job is incorporating Easter eggs in the show and making that level of interactivity there. So if you see IP addresses or URL web addresses or even bar codes or QR codes anywhere on the show, they will lead somewhere.

SPEAKER: Wow.

KOR ADANA: And if you want to go down that rabbit hole, there might be a prize at the end of it.

SPEAKER: I’m going.

KOR ADANA: It’s a lot of fun.

SPEAKER: Maybe we’ll be able to list them on our website. And everybody can look at the codes.

KOR ADANA: If you can find them. There are a few that haven’t been found yet.

SPEAKER: Well take us through the process about creating the idea for a hack. How did you come up with what you were going to do?

KOR ADANA: So what we do– it starts in the writer’s room, and the story will always come first. So I, along with the other writers and Sam, our show runner and our creator, will come up with the character points, the plot points. And we’ll figure out– we’ll map out where our characters need to go, how they get from point A to point B in the story, and what kind of arcs and turns are there. And how we will use technology and hacking to kind of weave in and weave it into the story and get from point A to B.

So usually, we’ll map out the story. And then there’ll be a placeholder there where Sam will say, all right Kor, we need a hack here. Like, we need this piece of information.

SPEAKER: We need to hack– we need to bring down, basically the bank, in the first–

KOR ADANA: We need to bring down Bank of [INAUDIBLE] somehow. Go figure out how to do it. So that’s when I go home and do my research. And I have a whole team of consultants that work under me who are very smart hackers. And we have a couple of ex-FBI consultants as well, who weigh in.

And we have this little technology brainstorming session that happens in tandem with our story writer’s room. And we’ll come up with different realistic scenarios. And then once we finalize that idea, I’ll pitch it to the other writers, and everyone agrees. And at that point, it’s just like a paragraph in the screenplay, and in the script. It’s just a couple of lines, very general, broad strokes.

SPEAKER: When you say it’s a realistic scenario, you actually have people who think about how you could hack the bank? Bring it down?

KOR ADANA: Definitely.

SPEAKER: And in this second season, you’re hacking the FBI?

KOR ADANA: We are hacking the–

SPEAKER: Is that possible?

KOR ADANA: The way in which we did it in Season Two is possible. We had numerous conversations with [? Andrea ?] McGregor and Michael [? Bizell, ?] our two ex-FBI cyber consultants. And we talked about the nature of the network infrastructure of the FBI, how they have certain unclassified networks. And one of the things that really stood out was you know, like other companies, they have standard issued phones.

So we thought, OK, if we have the FBI operating out of E Corp, and they’re doing an investigation there. We don’t have to attack the FBI field office. We can attack the FBI agents who are in that building. And if they all have the same kind of Android phone, we can write a custom built exploit that will attack those phones and collect all the data from those phones.

So that will be our kind of fishing approach, that net approach to see what kind of data we can gather from all these agents.

SPEAKER: And you worked in cybersecurity before–

KOR ADANA: I did. I was– I worked in cybersecurity for a major automotive company. And I did penetration testing. I developed network security policies. I did computer forensics. And basically white hat hacking. And I was able to bring a lot of that experience into building out a realistic network infrastructure for Evil Corp, and just tackling our hacks from an authentic place.

SPEAKER: Take us through one of the hacks. Take us through the–

KOR ADANA: Well in Season One, if you remember, I mean, the engine for Season One is taking down Evil Corp. So I met with Sam early on and we basically mapped out all the locations of where Evil Corp would store their data. So we know that they would have a US data center with local backups. We knew that they would have an off site data center probably. Like most companies have another data center for redundancy or disaster recovery. We knew that they’d probably have off site tape backups.

So once I started to map out, like, the network topology of Evil Corp, that’s where we were inspired to like, all right, how would we actually take down– how would we actually destroy this data?

So I’d throw out some ideas of her– we could use the worm that was installed in the pilot episode, that Elliot installed. And we could have that encrypt all of the data in the US data center. We have a Chinese hacker group that could take care of the China data center. And we have different– we have different ideas for how to tackle the off site tapes as well.

And I remember throwing out ideas like, OK, we could use magnets. Because you know, it’s magnetic tape. We could use magnets to destroy it. But another great show, “Braking Bad,” already used that idea. So that’s where we came up with the climate control hack. At Steel Mountain. Which was a lot of fun to develop because we really got into the hardware that was used. And we were able to incorporate a little credit card sized computer called a Raspberry Pi, which I’m sure you–

SPEAKER: I know what that– I knew what that was. I was talking to my wife. I said, that’s a little computer.

KOR ADANA: Yeah and I’ve never seen that in a show before. And I’ve never seen that be used for a major hack before. So it was a lot of fun to incorporate the Raspberry Pi and get into the nitty gritty specifics about how we’re going to hack the climate control system and up the temperature in that room so we could basically melt those tapes. And it was something that we think we were able to convey to the audience– the non-techie audience. And something that the techie audience would appreciate.

SPEAKER: Talking with Kor Adana, writer and technology producer for “Mr. Robot” on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

You know, we have a very wide ranging audience on Science Friday. And we talk about things that everybody can understand. And then we talk about high tech stuff. We get into high tech stuff, we think sometimes we’re getting too far into the weeds. We’re not going far enough into the weeds for some people. They really want that. Do you find that true? That they love to see that technology detail?

KOR ADANA: That’s one thing that I found surprising early on. And it’s something that I latched onto. Because once we started incorporating that level of detail into Season One, I started seeing all these posts on Reddit, and on Twitter, and on social media of these people taking screenshots of the screens and breaking it down and looking for secret codes. And then we– I just thought– I thought, all right. This is great. This is what they want. Let’s incorporate more of these little details. And it’s a huge part of my job.

SPEAKER: Are the details also true about the personalities? Of the hackers?

KOR ADANA: Definitely. I– and this is something that’s interesting. Because I’m lucky enough to– I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to a lot of hackers and a lot of writers. And I know when Sam created the character of Elliot and put together the different characters of F Society, I know he used himself as some of the–

SPEAKER: Which one is he?

KOR ADANA: I mean he’s very close to Elliot.

SPEAKER: Yeah.

KOR ADANA: But just in terms of the anxieties and the neuroses and the worries that writers go through, and you know, the isolation and the loneliness and just being able to lock yourself in a room and work on a script and solve a story problem. It’s very similar to that of a hacker. There are a lot of hackers who are socially awkward. There are a lot of writers who are socially awkward. I’ve spoken to a lot of hackers who say that they were huge introverts before they started going to different hacker conferences, like Def Con and Black Hat. And that’s where they really met other people like them and they were able to talk– you know, learn how to talk to people.

So we used a lot of that, and incorporated a lot of that into our hacker characters, our members of F Society.

SPEAKER: We’re seeing so much in the arts. We were talking about Oryx and Crake before. A dystopian society. Dystopia has become such a meme these days. And in “Mr. Robot,” Elliot and the F Society start out with good intentions. But it quickly goes bad, doesn’t it? Can hackers not be shown as good people at the end? People who are not trying to take something down, but to build something up? Because they start saying they want to do that. But toward the end of the episode, they’re saying, boy did we make a mistake. I’m using euphemistic language.

KOR ADANA: Definitely. And the series is not over yet. So we don’t really know where this is going. But its– the intentions were good. I mean, if you watch Season One, you can get on board with their plan. They– Elliot wanted to save the world. And maybe perhaps F society was a little naive with that plan. And this season is all about the consequences and repercussions of that decision of taking down Evil Corp. Yeah. Erasing the debt sounds like a great idea. But it’s obvious that they didn’t think things through all the way.

And I think that’s something that people involved in hacktivism or hackers or you know, young and angry, you know, militant viewers out there who latch on to Season One would be like, yeah that’s great. I think it’s intriguing and compelling to see the fall out of that and see how our characters deal with the fact that maybe they were wrong and maybe they didn’t think this all the way through.

SPEAKER: Well this prison angle has got me thinking a little further in advance. Got me a little shaky. Everybody will have to watch and see what I’m talking about. So I’m not giving anything away.

KOR ADANA: You gave a little bit away.

SPEAKER: Just a little bit.

KOR ADANA: Just a little bit.

SPEAKER: Just a little. Get everybody to keep watching. Kor Adana, writer and technology producer for “Mr. Robot.” Thank you very much. It’s a great show.

Thank you so much for having me.

SPEAKER: “Mr. Robot”– “Mr. Robot” is on Wednesdays at 10:00 on USA Network.

KOR ADANA: USA. Yup.

SPEAKER: And you can find a few of “Mr. Robot” Easter eggs, which you talked about, on our website at ScienceFriday.com/mrrobot.

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