I just finished watching the first episode of Mr. Robot, the new show on USA Network about “a cyber-security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night...recruited by a mysterious underground group to destroy the firm he's paid to protect”. Let’s just get this out of the way upfront: It’s a great show.
It’s good television in its own right, but the real genius is in the way it doesn’t bother dumbing down the geek-speak for the sake of viewers who aren’t nerds looking for something to fill the void left by the season finale of Game of Thrones. There’s rootkits (I won’t tell you how one of the engineers explained the concept of a rootkit to a less savvy colleague), Tor, encryption, shots of command lines with actual recognizable commands, Gnome vs. KDE references, and all sorts of other goodies that will make the technorati feel right at home.
At the same time, there’s enough psychological drama, romance, general intrigue, populist and anti establishment themes, drugs, and good tunes to keep even my wife engaged. And let’s just say she didn’t chuckle at the Gnome and KDE references. She was probably looking for a lawn gnome screensaver on the main character’s monitor.
So yes, it’s a darned fine show and I’m completely hooked. But what struck me about the show outside its general glow of awesome was the way that it completely mainstreamed hacker culture. The hero (a fairly flawed genius antihero) is a gifted hacker with serious social anxiety and borderline personality disorders. The group who is engineering a worldwide social revolution? Hackers. The villains are corporate suits, government types, and a CTO you love to hate (sorry to any CTOs who are reading this - the guy is a caricature, but it sets up the corporate IT versus hacker conflict quite nicely).
Sure, the mainstream audience probably didn’t get the significance of Christian Slater’s white hat that he waves around or our hero’s black hoodie that he pulls off at key moments. But the rise of hacktivism, the near-hero status that figures like Edward Snowden and groups like Anonymous have achieved in some circles, and growing security concerns for businesses and individuals alike are all reflected in the themes, relationships, and actions in Mr. Robot.
As in Mr. Robot, the modern security landscape isn’t just about good guys and bad guys. White hats, black hats, and a whole lot of gray go at it every day, under the radar of everyday citizens. We wrestle with ethical issues, with privacy, with crime, and politics and the gray areas where they intersect. So regardless of their color, hats off to Mr. Robot for exploring topics that are just now starting to hit the public consciousness.