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What has Mr. Robot done for the security industry?

Sep 28, 20164 mins
IT JobsSecurityTechnology Industry

Depicting the life of cybercriminals, the hit show fails to show the heroes of cyber

Yes, it’s just a TV show, but television plays a huge role in creating cultural phenomenons, and Mr. Robot has certainly found its place in pop culture. Anti-hero Elliot, a hacker whose ambition is to save the world from E Corp, struggles with mental illness. The voices inside his head are constantly in a conflict of good vs evil. As a result, Elliot’s good intentions have paved his road to hell.

Where does that leave the rest of us, though? By definition the anti-hero is heroic but lacks the qualities of strength, courage, integrity, and virtue of those celebrated heroes we know and love. But, the anti-hero isn’t all bad. As was the case with Tony Soprano or Nurse Jackie, they do possess some endearing character traits that prevent us from hating them all together. Thus, the viewers grow to love the dark hero. 

What happens to society, though, when the dark hero–the cybercriminal–earns empathy from the audience?

Stephen Cobb, ESET senior security researcher felt let down by the absence of a hero role for cybersecurity. “Elliot isn’t a hero. He is as an insider threat. I am struggling with the fact that we don’t have enough people in the security industry. When you talk to young people, they are fascinated with breaking things but not so much by protecting things. Heroes always protect, and what Elliot is doing is illegal and unethical,” Cobb said.

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Sure, Mr. Robot doesn’t have that much of an affect on the industry broadly. Though, there are a lot of the technical aspect of hacking accurately displayed that aren’t displayed very often. Cobb said, “The show provides an opportunity to say,’Yes, that is happening,’ but the very surreal nature in which Elliot exists is somewhat disconcerting. Cybercrime is more complicated than the show suggests.”

Perhaps, Cobb said, the show goes a little too far. “You leave asking is that all it takes? That a piece of code could kill the world. It’s a problem we have in security research. Sometimes we see malicious code that is very well written. We avoid using the term sophisticated because the people who take apart the codes are by and large much smarter than those who write them.” 

Many aspects of the show are a realistic depiction of the hacker life, but the cybercrime world, said Cobb, is in some ways much more organized. “There is a day to day business of cybercrime, of ransomware campaigns, or harvesting information by infecting machines. It’s a business, a very well developed business in some areas,” Cobb said.

The people who run the exchanges in which stolen data is bought and sold are the people making the money in cybercrime. The real groups, like Anonymous, with whom Elliot might feel connected if he existed in our world, are quite complex. “The criminals we see are very different from those in the dark market. Malicious code and stolen data are efficiently run,” said Cobb.

Whether they are operating on Tor or communicating in controlled access chat rooms and other online meeting places, you can’t get in unless you have stolen information and you have to prove that the data you have is stolen. 

Still the show has raised awareness about the reality that cyber crime has the potential to do great harm. Even Secretary Clinton declared that cybersecurity is the nation’s number one threat to focus on moving forward, and that’s where Mr. Robot has done some good.

Cobb said, “To the extent that it raises people’s awareness, it’s good. There are aspects of hacking that are not widely known, especially with IoT. I do think there is potential in IoT to get ahead of some of these security problems. I have a feeling there is a reservation around self driving cars and home automation. People are asking what if this gets hacked. Can you hack this like Elliot did?”

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In the end, the show is just that, a show. It’s purpose is to entertain, and it’s a psychological drama. Cobb said, “It’s a version of reality that isn’t quite the one we live in, and it’s free to do what it wants to do. It’s not The Wire which took place in the real world and was very technologically accurate. That’s exciting, it’s a place where you can actually beat people like Elliot.”

With any luck, the show will inspire young men and women to look to cybersecurity as a career because right now, Cobb said, “The industry’s biggest problem is getting people to do the work.”


Kacy Zurkus is a freelance writer for CSO and has contributed to several other publications including The Parallax, and K12 Tech Decisions. She covers a variety of security and risk topics as well as technology in education, privacy and dating. She has also self-published a memoir, Finding My Way Home: A Memoir about Life, Love, and Family under the pseudonym "C.K. O'Neil."

Zurkus has nearly 20 years experience as a high school teacher on English and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University (2011). She earned a Master's in Education from University of Massachusetts (1999) and a BA in English from Regis College (1996). Recently, The University of Southern California invited Zurkus to give a guest lecture on social engineering.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Kacy Zurkus and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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