The Unusually Accurate Portrait of Hacking on USA’s Mr. Robot

Rami Malek as Elliot in Mr. Robot. Photo: Virginia Sherwood/USA Network

Michael Bazzell was in high school when he built his first computer, an Intel 80386 that he constructed with help from a friend who worked in a computer store. “You had to understand how it all worked, like installing your own operating system,” says Bazzell, whose first version of DOS was 6.22. “That was groundbreaking at the time.”

It was also when Bazzell first became a hacker. “I don’t want to get into too many details, but I’ve always been fascinated by hacking, dissecting things to see how they work and then reverse engineering.” When he joined a Midwest police department as a cybercrime detective in the late 1990s, Bazzell’s skill set was particularly useful: “We were making up things as we went along. At that point, malware was simply executable — if you could get a person to double-click on something, you would damage the machine. Now the goal is to remotely access a system and take complete control.”

After ten years working for the FBI’s cybercrime task force, shuffling between hacker and child-pornography cases, Bazzell left the agency for Hollywood, and now serves as a technical assistant for USA’s Mr. Robot, a hacking drama that has been widely praised for its technical accuracy. “I felt this could be the first-ever show that cares about getting hacking right, even if it means altering a story line,” says Bazzell, whom Vulture spoke with about Mr. Robot’s attention to detail.

You’ve said that you weren’t involved in forming the pilot episode, but the opening scene, involving Elliot’s bust of a coffee-shop child-pornography ring must have hit close to home.
That’s when I was hooked. I had some great conversations with Sam Esmail and Chad Hamilton [executive producer], and they sent me the first version of the pilot. That opening scene, I definitely could associate with that world based on my investigations. I realized this was something more than a green-screen hacking show that would use false information.

Had you ever investigated any cases that rang true to that scene?
I worked primarily investigating child solicitation and exploitation cases, and once you are a part of them, you never forget. Most notably was, I had a ring of people that would take their children, as young as 2 years old, drive them around the country to have sex with strange men. At the time, when we first started investigating it, the case seemed unbelievable. They all would meet over the internet. They would offer their children on webcams to model and gain interest with the other offenders. That case was so disturbing, and sticks out as [an example of] the bad ways the internet can turn.

That is terrifying. So, that scene must have been so accurate for you to read and not quibble with it.
I had spoken to Chad first, and then Sam right after that, and they both explained accuracy was so important to them that they could not afford to get it wrong. Once I understood how much accuracy meant to Sam, I was sold.

So like the root kit Tyrell Wellick installs on the Android in episode three.
Actually, the very first conversation I had with Sam, we talked about that scene. Part of the conversation was what I would expect to see in that type of situation. Could it be done, and how quickly could it be done. And again, Sam’s dedication to accuracy — he didn’t want to show that unless the root kit could be installed in that amount of time. That was the very first thing we talked about. We looked at it very closely to make sure that everything was right.

After some of the technological blunders onscreen, from Hackers to Blackhat, it’s refreshing to watch a program with an intensity for the truth.
We knew if we weren’t accurate, people wouldn’t care for the show. We’ve had a couple of moments we altered that weren’t devastating to the storyline. The scripted technology didn't work. It wasn’t plausible, and we didn’t want to sell something not plausible to the audience. We stopped and we made changes. To give Sam credit, the moment either myself or Kor Adana, another technical adviser, says something isn’t right with the technology, the world stops until we get it right. There are no shortcuts or cheat sheets — Sam gave very specific instructions to not stop until each episode was accurate.

Even though you must have expected the level of scrutiny this show has received on forums and Reddit, has it reached a surprising level?
I actually was naïve to the amount of people that would scrutinize our work, but I’m thrilled the tech community has dissected that scene and proven it was plausible.

What is interesting is that it is so accurate, everyone wants to prove it is accurate or not accurate. There will always be some things not 100 percent correct. There was a huge online audience that revolted at the idea of an IP address that doesn’t exist — in one of the scenes, there is an octet above 255, which would not be a proper IP address, and there were many people who screamed about that. The story behind that is simply that legal would not let Sam publish a real IP address because that would be irresponsible and inappropriate. Sometimes you lose those battles, and Sam had to put a bad IP address in the scene.

With this level of scrutiny, if we did publish a real IP address, it would get a hug of death from Reddit because everyone wants to see what it comes back to.

When you talk about not being 100 percent correct, does that extend to the use of time in the show? Elliot seems to be able to crack passwords in record speed.
When dealing with this kind of a show on hacking, there is no option but to suspend time somewhat. It you wanted a perfect hacking show, the entire season would be using a John the Ripper to run against a password. That would be the whole show. I understand those concessions have to be taken. You have 44 minutes in an episode to convey what you want, so you have to suspend time.

Do you want to show the audience member 20 minutes of brute force or dictionary attacks, or do we have to suck it up and say the technology has been proven, let’s speed the story along? Sam does a great job of walking that line of making it accurate and also getting a good storyline.

What are the planning sessions like for each script?
We have quite a bit of time. Right after I started talking with Chad and Sam, I was emailed scripts, way before the pilot was being advertised. We had a lot of time to dissect those scripts and identify any areas that could be improved.

Kor has been the person I talk to daily about these things. He has a strong tech background, and he and I together would hammer out all we possibly could and then present it to the writers and Sam.

The storyline has shifted in the past two episodes toward something called a “raspberry pi,” a technology that seems niche even for a show like Mr. Robot.
Raspberry pi is an extremely popular device right now. It is basically a mini computer, the size of a deck of cards with the full processing power of a mini computer at only $30 or so. They are very common in the hacking community as an intrusion method because you can put a Linux distribution or operating system on it and have full network capability.

So the idea of using a raspberry pi to control the temperature and melt Evil Corp’s data isn’t that far-fetched.
Sam and Kor had already done much of the research on raspberry pi, and this was just another way Mr. Robot uses current and real technology versus fictional technology that doesn’t exist in real life. Despite a raspberry pi basically being a smaller computer and quite common — anyone in my community knows about raspberry pi and uses them frequently — I have never seen one onscreen before.

In episode five, we see Elliot install the raspberry pi behind an electrical panel connected to the bathroom. Could FSociety actually control the device from their Coney Island headquarters?
That was my technical involvement in the episode. If it is simply placed into a network, it does nothing, but if you have a raspberry pi with a connection available to it, such as through a cellular network and its access, you can be anywhere in the world and still connect to the device. And those were the tweaks I worked on to add to the script, making sure the raspberry pi would be accessible remotely.

After news of cheating/dating site Ashley Madison being hacked, and the Hacker’s Group in Italy being cracked, hacking is certainly trending.
I talked with Sam about how the timing for this type of show has never been better. You don’t watch a newscast every day without some reference to a breach or stolen data or hackers, so we’re overdue for a show to explain how this world works.