Quick Answer: Mr. Robot is currently one of the most accurate media representations of the hacking community. Instead of the stereotypical Hollywood hacker or "computer nerd," fsociety is a diverse group of hackers that reflect our reality today. Although some of the hacking done in the show uses artistic license, Mr. Robot is a scary parallel to real life.
There have been countless television series about computer hackers that have failed to get it right. CSI: Cyber (2015 - 2016) used gibberish as code and animated graphics to explain hacking. Scorpion (2014 - ) had an infamous scene that included gratuitous action to make the hacking seem more interesting to watch. Unlike these other shows, Mr. Robot (2015 - ) finally made hacking approachable to the average viewer while keeping it smart and realistic.
Mr. Robot closely follows the hacker ethic, or the common philosophy of hackers. Steven Levy first defined the hacker ethic in 1984, but it is still commonly followed today. In his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Levy describes the philosophy through six main principles:
- Access to computers—and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
- All information should be free.
- Mistrust authority—Promote decentralization.
- Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
- You can create art and beauty on a computer.
- Computers can change your life for the better.
Although Mr. Robot embodies all of these principles to an extent, the show showcases some more than others. Perhaps the most obvious principle the show highlights is "Mistrust authority—Promote decentralization." The show focuses on the hacker group fsociety led by the mysterious anarchist Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) whose goal is to free the masses from their "corporate overlords" and remove all debt.
Mr. Robot's mask and face of fsociety
Another principle that is quickly apparent is "Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position." The hackers of Mr. Robot are all from varied backgrounds. At first glance, no one would assume that any of them were members of an anarchist hacker group. For example, there's Trenton (Sunita Mani), a female hacker and Iranian-American college student. She does not fit the stereotypical Hollywood hacker of an antisocial, young, Caucasian male. However, in reality, there is no blueprint for a typical hacker.
Sunita Mani as Trenton (left) and some of the members of fsociety
When Mr. Robot first premiered, 2600: The Hacker Quarterly editor and hacker Eric Corley gave a glowing review of the show and its portrayal of hackers. He lauded the show's protagoinst, Elliot (Rami Malek). In the Autumn 2015 edition of 2600, Corley (under the pen name Emmanuel Goldstein) wrote, "Elliot is the type of person you would pass on the street and never think twice about, apart from maybe wondering if he might be some sort of garden variety lunatic. No, Elliot is far from such mainstream hacker characters as David Lightman, Lucas Wolenczak, or Wesley Crusher—about as far as you could imagine. And it's about time."
Elliot is not the typical "computer nerd," nor are his hacks overly flashy. The creators of Mr. Robot consult with several tech advisors and hackers to makes sure all the hacks are extremely detailed and accurate. This means all of the code seen on the computer screens is real. In a Reddit AMA, staff writer and tech consultant Kor Adana said, "We shoot all of our screens practically, so I create detailed breakdowns with video samples and screenshots of how the screen would actually look if the hack were taking place for real. Then, we have a flash animator (the amazing Adam Brustein) create an animation for the actors to interact with. After we go through some revisions, I work with the actors to practice running through the animation. For example, I'll work with Rami to make sure he's typing the right keys at the right time (i.e. an alt/tab when we see him change windows)."
Elliot at his computer
The hacks done by Elliot and fsociety are frighteningly realistic. In an interview with Fusion, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was impressed by the technology seen in the show, which is "more accurate than what you usually see on TV." It's the small details that make Mr. Robot's portrayal of hackers so authentic. Elliot and Tyrell use Linux operating systems. The hackers communicate using IRC (Internet relay chat). Elliot sets up social engineering attacks using SET (social engineering toolkit).
In fact, Mr. Robot relies heavily on social engineering as a form of hacking. Most media representations of hacking tend to neglect social engineering, but it is one of the simplest but most effective ways to hack. In an interview with Co.Create, show creator Sam Esmail said, "Hacking requires a lot of social engineering. It's not just about a guy on a keyboard coding or breaking into a system. It's a lot of figuring out human behavior patterns and trying to find and exploit the vulnerability in the system of human behaviors. For whatever reason, television shows about hacking sort of always miss that huge component, which is where the drama is." Instead of relying on technology, characters such as Elliot and Tyrell use human interaction to trick people into giving personal information to crack passwords.
However, not everything in the series is realistic. Hacking someone out of jail in 24 hours is implausible (even Elliot said so). Compromising webcams and attaching unauthorized USB drives to systems aren't as easy as the show makes it seem. One nitpick tech consultant Jeff Moss, aka Dark Tangent, had was that "the characters don't wear gloves, and leave their fingerprints everywhere. On USB sticks, RasPiis, etc." However, this error may be intentional since Season Two will focus on the FBI investigating the 5/9 hack and tracking down the members of fsociety.
Even with some of these inaccuracies, Mr. Robot maintains an authentic depiction of the hacking community, not only with its hacks but also with its hackers. Eric Corley of 2600 said, "For that, Mr. Robot succeeds in bringing forth the most truly human portrayal of a hacker I've seen outside of real life itself." The show upholds the hacker ethic and the beliefs of the hacking community. Though Levy's final principle of the hacker ethic is "Computers can change your life for the better," we'll see if this holds true for Elliot and the rest of fsociety in the coming season.