How realistic are the hacks in ‘Mr. Robot’?

Mr. Robot

Fans of the show "Mr. Robot" know that cybersecurity programmer Elliot Alderson is no character to mess with. As a member of the cyber-vigilante group "fsociety," Elliot is dedicated to bringing down E Corp, the company responsible for his father’s death, through technological sleights of hand. Elliot’s hacks have made use of Raspberry Pi computers, DeepSounds discs, and DDoS attacks, and recently even targeted the FBI.

While the show’s hacks may look fantastical, Kor Adana, a writer and technology producer for "Mr. Robot," says that they’re completely plausible. Adana’s background is in cybersecurity, and he works with a team of experienced hackers to develop the technological storylines for "Mr. Robot." Together, they ensure that even on-screen IP addresses, URLs, and QR codes lead viewers to real destinations.

“There’s a whole subset of our viewership that freezes every single frame of our computer screens,” Adana says. “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.”

Such frame-by-frame detail is possible because "Mr. Robot’s"writing team begins soliciting tech input in the writers’ room. Adana says that after the writers sketch out story arcs and character trajectories, they pass the torch to his team to figure out how technology and hacking will move the story from point A to point B.

“That’s when I go home and do my research,” Adana says. “I have a whole team of consultants that work under me who are very smart hackers. … We have this little technology brainstorming session that happens in tandem with our story writers’ room, and we’ll come up with different realistic scenarios.”

Coming up with realistic scenarios means that for season two, Adana’s team had to brainstorm a conceivable means of hacking the FBI. They arrived at a solution with the help of their two ex-FBI cyber consultants.

“We talked about the nature of the network infrastructure of the FBI, how they have certain unclassified networks,” Adana says. “One of the things that really stood out was [that], like other companies, they have standard-issue 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.”

Spoiler alert: In the show, fsociety uses a custom exploit to attack and collect data from the FBI agents’ Android phones. Like many of the hacks in the show, it’s a readily understandable hack employed to sophisticated ends. 

Adana says that the on-screen technology and hacking in "Mr. Robot" is one way of deepening the show’s appeal to a wider audience — not to mention the fact that it makes for thrilling television. Case in point: In the first season, Elliot uses a credit card-sized computer (Raspberry Pi) to jack up the temperature in an offsite storage room where E Corp’s data is contained on magnetic tapes.

“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,” Adana says. “And that was something that we were able to convey to the non-techie audience, and something that the techie audience would appreciate.”

Want to dig a little deeper into the “Easter eggs” hidden in "Mr. Robot" by Adana’s team? Learn more at these links, also available on the Science Friday website.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.