Rehan HoodaSep 24, 2016 03:22:13 IST
Mr. Robot, you must have been living under some kind of special rock if you haven't heard of it. Assuming you haven't, let me introduce you to the TV show that I consider to be the most important in quite some time.
This television show just completed airing its second season and garnered a lot of attention online. The reason for most of that attention is Rami Malek, the lead actor who just recently walked away with an Emmy for 'Outstanding Lead Actor in a drama series.'
I have been following this television show since its pilot, which aired in June 2015, and it blew my mind. Recalling the first episode "eps1.0_hellofriend.mov," it opens with the main character "packet sniffing" and "intercepting traffic," which means that he read all the data that was being sent to a Wi-Fi modem from the surrounding smartphones or laptops to try and figure out what users are doing. This started as 'oh, the name looks interesting, let's check this out,' turning into 'it's about technology and hacking' to 'wow, this is talking about stuff that has never been seen in any cinematic depiction of technology and hacking'.
This article isn't about the cinematic, television and entertainment aspects of this television show. But instead, this is a discussion about why "Mr. Robot" is so rare and critical to representing technology and "hacking" to everyone else. This is about how the technological world is like a coin with two sides. One side is about people who don't know anything about technology and how they perceive the tech nerds, coders, engineers and general enthusiasts. The other side is the way the tech nerds are being portrayed and how horribly unjust and wrong that portrayal has been so far.
For people who have the technical skills and follow the field, the terms are easy and familiar, while for everyone else, this is alien. "Everyone else" here refers to the general internet users, who don't follow technology and are scared of the unknown. Which is fine if we look at it from a broader perspective considering interests and time. Even though it is scary when we observe the world around us, where people chose to depend on technology without understanding how it can be downright magical as well as nasty. But, that is the precise reason for which computer engineers and IT departments exist.
To stop and help the uninitiated, let me explain what "hacking" really means and the driving philosophy behind it. Hacking, in very crude terms, can be termed as 'gaining unauthorised access,' which means breaking the rules. Computers and by extension, your smartphone, computer, laptop, traffic lights, digital watches, banking systems, everything work on set limits, set logic defined at the time of making the system. "Hacking" really is to cut across the limits because that way was not set by the creator of the system. The rules in place can be for plenty of reasons, the most basic ones ranging from limiting the framework of what can and what cannot be done, to limiting the roles of the users in the ways that have been tried, tested and are same.
A real world example to "hacking" would be using the zebra crossing to cross the road and following traffic rules to travel, making things easier both for the pedestrians as well as the drivers on the road. Limiting the area where people will cross the road and the use of signals and rules give the drivers guidelines on how other drivers will behave. Breaking these rules will be fatal for the pedestrians crossing the road as well as the drivers. This need for rules, restrictions and guidelines mirror the real world into the cyber, technological world.
So hackers are removing and cutting across the limits, sometimes by exploiting the improper structure of rules (software and computer systems) and sometimes exploiting flaws in the implementation of those standards. For all other times, hackers rely on the ignorance of the users, the general public. The reason for this ignorance can be time, specialised technical skills as well as a strange feeling attached to how technology, gadgets and devices work.
For decades now, hacking and everything tech related is portrayed as some magical dark art where a hacker armed with the internet connection and more than 3-4 monitors in front can launch nukes, destroy nations, fail economies and even change the world. All of this has a few things in common; the hacker is shabby looking human with no concept of personal hygiene and the computer being used is always set to a black background and green coloured text. The cinematic world has made such strong stereotypes where these antisocial hackers are socially awkward and follow the dark path. Some of the depictions have been downright funny, and every "hacking" attack can be summed up in the characters ramming their fingers against the keyboard to prevent the end of the world or gain access to super secret top level documents and files from the government.
The frustration for the real world hackers and technology nerds, who understand how gadgets function is the inaccurate portrayal of everything. Time and again they have been frustrated by how comical and cartoonish the things have been painted as. No attempt has been made to portray the reality of hacking which takes years, if not decades of hard work, frustration, learning, mistakes and dedication go behind learning how a particular piece of technology works. Nobody has attempted to work on the flip side and what it costs on a human level to devote yourself to something that is "alien" and "magical" for everyone else around them.
Mr. Robot came as a blast of fresh air in a world where hackers are misunderstood, painted with broad strokes of stereotypical lines A show that would help everyone else in the room identify with the one guy coding on the laptop was long in making. Maybe 'identify' is a strong word instead, to know what effort and dedication go behind the coding which makes all the gadgets and devices "just work." People all across the tech world have critically praised this, and the cinematic world has acknowledged the amount of hard work that went behind it.
Mr. Robot had a team of cyber consultants who works for days, if not weeks or months, behind discussions on what is possible in the real world and what can be done using the technology to avoid the unrealistic. The hacking methods and mediums being used in the depiction are spot on that they almost predict what is going on around in with the world with last year's Ashley Madison and this year's Bitcoin exchange hack.
There is no doubt the creator of the show Sam Esmail, the production team, crew and the actors have worked on everything with such relentless passion and love. But most of the effort and passion is only noticeable to the tech nerds and hackers which work almost as a tribute to all the computer engineers, phone repair guys, software engineers and hackers.
The clever demonstration of stagefright, scrubbing metadata, Android zero days, magnetic strip scanners, homemade hacker antennas, Pwn Phone, passwords on a post-it note, traffic interception, etc is warranted. Most interesting ones like hacking the smart home to hijack someone's home, hiding files in different files, Chinese underground hackers, state-sponsored hacker groups, Stuxnet-like code, malware, password scrubbers, reverse address, onion websites and installing spyware on phones winks at all the tech nerds. All these demonstrations are in turn helping make everyone else about what is possible with the mix of technology and ignorance.
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