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Modern field guide to security and privacy

'Mr. Robot' a hit with actual hackers

Experienced hackers praise the accuracy of USA Network's dark and gritty drama that premieres Wednesday. Because of that, they say, it stands apart from other Hollywood portrayals. 

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    Rami Malek plays Elliot, the main character in USA Network's "Mr. Robot."
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USA Network's new drama "Mr. Robot" starts with a dark and shadowy scene in which protagonist Elliot describes a vast global conspiracy. At first, the show may seem like another caricature of hacker culture – Elliot often wears a hoodie, he's disaffected, he's a loner – but people intimately familiar with the darker corners of the Internet have so far praised the show for its accuracy.

"I know people pretty much exactly like that character,” says Gregg Housh, formerly an active member of the hacktivist collective Anonymous who also worked as a consultant on the Netflix series "House of Cards."

Elliot, played by Rami Malek, is a troubled young man who works as a cybersecurity engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night. He's recruited to join an underground hacking group that solicits his help to bring down the company that Elliot is paid to protect.

The character rings true from "paranoid and introverted personality" to "how he dresses," says Mr. Housh, who saw "Mr. Robot" ahead of its premiere Wednesday night. Even from one episode, he said, it seemed that the producers and writers cared about the "little details" and took pains not to portray the lead character Elliot in a "sensationalist" way.

One of those details is Elliot’s penchant of hacking anyone who comes into his life, from coworkers and his therapist, as if he's satisfying an addiction.

"No other hacker television show or film has really explored that aspect," says Jaime Cochran, the former leader of a notorious hacker and trolling crew who appeared in the 2014 documentary "The Hacker Wars." "It is an addiction, truly," she says. "It takes a special type of person who won't let the computer best them."

Indeed, she said, Elliot's character will resonate with "anyone that ever grew up idealistic in the hacking scene." The character's antiestablishment attitude will resonate within that community, where many see hacking or other computer actions as forms of protest and effective ways to fight global injustice.

The show comes at a time when hacker figures more prominently in the zeitgeist of the moment – from Edward Snowden to suspects in the Office of Personnel Management breach – and has emerged as a favorite Hollywood antihero. But the show also deals with much more personal conflicts, such as drug addiction. 

That, too, is a problem that many within fringe hacker communities cope with, says Ms. Cochran. "It also hits a spot that I believe a lot of hackers – not all – struggle with, which is substance abuse/addiction,” she said.

Personal and political struggles aside, those who have already seen the pilot also say the show gets the technical details right – or at least good enough for TV.

"While not perfect, it'll suffice for entertainment purposes," said Cochran. "To be fair, a realistic hacking show would just be someone debugging software and writing exploits," she said. And, that would get boring quickly.

Housh said his favorite parts of the show were the sequences in which Elliot was doing work on the computer, which showed up on screen as just text going into command line without much fancy graphical interface. 

For the notorious hacker who goes by the pseudonym Aramaki, a member of the hacker outfit that Cochran formerly led, the only flaws in "Mr. Robot" seemed cosmetic. 

"I can say without a doubt, Elliot represents every [chief information officer's] nightmare situation," said Aramaki. "Just from the synopsis alone it seems 99 percent more accurate than any CBS crime drama made recently." 

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