You Can Learn a Lot By Watching ‘Mr. Robot’

The series is chock full of good advice.

By The Editors
July 13, 2016 9:00 am

If you watch one television show this summer, make it Mr. Robot.

The critically-acclaimed series on USA, airing Wednesdays at 10pm EST, follows the tumultuous life of Elliot Alderson (the stone-faced Rami Malek), a troubled cybersecurity engineer and hacker vigilante recruited into the ranks of an hacktivist collective led by the mysterious “Mr. Robot.” Lauded for tight, fast-paced writing, Malek’s performance, and creator Sam Esmail’s portrayal of mental illness, Mr. Robot also earned praise for its realistic take on the world of hacking. Forget the scrolling lines of code from The Net or the ridiculous spinning telephone booths from Hackers; Mr. Robot evokes the grit and grime of real-world cybersecurity with unusual sophistication.

Luckily, the summer’s most enthralling techno-thriller also delivers some useful life-hacks as well:

1. Hide your secrets in plain sight.
One of the most subtle threads running through Mr. Robot is an emphasis on steganography, the act of hiding something in plain sight. Elliot, vigilante hacker by night, has a day job working as a security engineer for a firm whose biggest client is E Corp, one of the largest corporations in the world. While the show’s hacker collective has a classic secret lair, located in an abandoned Coney Island arcade, Elliot himself is ostensibly a productive member of society with a good job at one of the world’s most prominent companies.

It’s no surprise, then, that Elliot hides critical data in plain sight as well: on CD-ROMs camoflauged as random CDs, available for anyone’s perusal in a dusty old case. Instead of a squirreling away information in some hidden hole somewhere, Elliot’s tool of choice is DeepSound, an audio converter that lets users conceal encrypted data within audio files — essentially hiding in plain hearing. Lucky for you, the tool is very real and relatively easy to use, as Wired points out. Have a secure file you want to keep away from prying eyes? Forget the safe; your data’s better hidden out in the open.

2. Trust no one. Especially a customer service rep…
In one episode, Elliot successfully targets his therapist’s deceitful boyfriend with phishing attack (pretending to be a trustworthy agent in order to acquire sensitive data). Posing as a company security engineer, he tricks the cheating bastard into giving up enough personal information to make his social media accounts vulnerable to hacking. Elliott then blackmails him into leaving the woman alone. The scuzzy boyfriend learns a valuable lesson, and so do we: Beware of unusual text messages or emails, and the next time you get a call from a customer service agent looking for some sensitive information, ask for a manager — chances are, they aren’t who they say they are.

3. …or a street rapper.
Engaging with one of those supposed aspriring rappers who pass out CDs on city street corners is always a dicey proposition. The track he appears to be offering you gratis is inevitably going to cost you $10, if not more, and as often as not the CD will be blank. But when one Mr. Robot character forks over the cash and then slips the CD into his computer, it turns out to contain a malicious bit of software that wreaks havoc on his life.  

4. Encrypt everything — or use an email service that does.
Elliot isn’t naive enough to think that enabling two-factor authentication on his Gmail account will actually keep his email safe. That’s why he uses ProtonMail, a Swiss-run browser-based email service built with end-to-end encryption (read: everything is encrypted, all the time) that’s designed to withstand even the most sophisticated cyber attacks. Users can even choose to set their emails to self-destruct like an illicit SnapChat.

“One of the benefits of ProtonMail is that it’s end-to-end encryption, and it’s done in a way that even the owners of ProtonMail can’t see your content, and there’s no IP logging,” Mr. Robot technical advisor Michael Bazzell told Wired. The best thing about it? It’s totally free — but spring for the paid version. It’s a bargain at just 48€ ($53) a month and supports online privacy.

5. If you’re addicted to a hard-to-obtain narcotic, be nice to your dealer.
Elliot makes daily use of a time-release version of Morphine, which is not a subtance you can pick up on any old street corner. Fortunately he’s sleeping with his dealer, so it’s all good.

6. Beware the overshare.
In one of the series’ creepier sequences, Elliot manages to hack into his therapist’s email and social media accounts using bits of personal information she posted freely online. (Her password turns out to be her favorite musician, Bob Dylan, and her birth year in reverse. Of all Elliot’s high-tech tricks, the technique he relies on most is exploiting people’s propensity to simply give him all the information he needs.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone with a Facebook account: Every article you post, every interest you list, is one more data point ripe for exploitation by a clever hacker. The best thing you can do is keep as much information as possible, however innocuous and inane, off the internet. And for Christ’s sake: “Password” is an awful password. If you have trouble keeping track of secure passwords, use a service like Dashlane to do it for you. Their encrypted passwords would even stump Elliot.

7. Speaking of therapists … have you considered an imaginary friend?
Mr. Robot has been described as a more tech-savvy version of Fight Club, and with good reason: Christian Slater’s role as the eponymous leader of a group of hacktivists recalls a less charismatic Tyler Durden, and his relationship to the mentally-unstable Elliot only becomes more murky as the first season progresses.

But with the massively successful global hack that concludes the first season, Elliot finds himself alone, adrift, and in need of a mentor. His special pal—who is a figment of his imagination—turns out to be just what the doctor ordered.

8. If you have major gaps in your memory, be careful whom you hit on. 
At one point Elliott, who has significant memory problems, puts the moves on another hacker. Turns out they have a preexisting relationship that (spoiler alert) precludes a sexual relationship. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

9. Walk softly and carry a big stick.
Elliott is not a big talker. In fact, he might well be the most reserved and soft-spoken protagonist ever to be the subject of a major TV series. Then again, he doesn’t have to do a lot of bragging. He has real skills, and actions speak louder than words.

10. Never use a computer, ever.
The big lesson of Mr. Robot is simple: If you’re connected to the internet (and even, sometimes, if you’re not), you’re vulnerable to hacking. With half of all American adults hacked in 2014 alone, now seems like a good time to pack up and head for the mountains.

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