Researching Mr. Robot, Elliot’s world, and cybersecurity at Comic-Con

(With Comic-Con International 2016 taking place in ESET’s own backyard again this year, we are digging into all-things cybersecurity at the Con. In this article, Guest Writer Anna Keeve enters the world of Mr. Robot).

mr-robot-spaceDuring Comic-Con International 2016, ESET  is providing tons of tips for staying safe online while traveling, and hitting the streets to make sure people are cyber-aware, while arming them with ESET travel gear. (Check out some of the cosplayer photos with cyber tips on our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.) But, what we really geeked-out on, was getting one of the first looks at the Mr. Robot pop-up activation and Mr. Robot VR experience set up on 4th Street in downtown San Diego.

Taking over an empty retail space, Mr. Robot Creator Sam Esmail managed to seamlessly bring Mr. Robot as near-to-life as possible with an experience that amalgamates the physical world with the digital one.

First you enter through a replica “Mr. Robot” computer-repair storefront that appears in the show periodically in flashback scenes that take place in the early 1990s. Walking in, you feel as though you have been transported back in time – surrounded by Commodore 64 computers, dissected circuit boards, and Gameboy’s in glass cases. The genius is in the details, and you immediately gain an appreciation for how far technology has come, and also get a sense of the chaotic and unorganized life the vigilante-hacker Elliot Alderson’s father, the Mr. Robot store owner (played by Christian Slater), was living.

anna-mr-robot-room-spaceYou then transition from the Mr. Robot shop and enter into a replica of Elliot’s room, where much of the show, which stars Rami Malek as Elliot, takes place in present day. Armed with VR headsets, you get comfy in your seat of choice, (I took a seat on Elliot’s bed). Then you can plunge into the 11 minute short film – written, directed and produced by Esmail – that takes the viewer on a journey through an experience narrated by Elliot, as he recounts an early encounter with his former love-interest. The story and experience takes you deep into Elliot’s thoughts, and allows you to see the sometimes painfully-awkward but honest moments the two share together.

However, for us, the most fascinating aspect of the entire venture was what we may have learned about Elliot from the carefully placed items in his room and the attention to detail…like the numerous books lying around or stashed on shelves.

Based on the books we saw, Elliot reads some seriously technical stuff. ESET security researcher Stephen Cobb thought this was an authentic touch. After all, hackers are not born knowing how everything works, although that is the impression you get from some screen portrayals. They have to get their knowledge from somewhere, and sometimes that is plain old paper books.

delphi-book-spacedAmong Elliot’s books was one on SQL Server 2008 – perhaps EvilCorp is running SQL Server and Elliot was researching it for one of his hacks? We also noticed that Elliot has a book on Delphi. This volume struck a chord with some of ESET’s security researchers. Delphi is a powerful programming environment that has been around for quite a while and still has some serious enterprise users. A possible cybersecurity clue? Delphi has in the past been targeted by malware, notably Win32/Induc. ESET malware researchers extensively analyzed this virus family in articles you can find here.

Elliot also keeps up on his tech trends, and apparently reads Wired Magazine – one of our favorite mags, copies of which are frequently passed around the office at ESET.

Did you notice that Rubik’s Cube placed on Elliot’s desk? Is that really used as a mind-game past-time, or is it a storage place for something a hacker might not want anyone to find?

Prominently placed on the beside table were several flip phones…likely burner phones. Flip phones are Elliot’s mobile device of choice since they generally don’t store or have the ability to share personal information, are often untraceable, and in most cases, they don’t transmit your information across the internet.

A Mr. Robot rep on-site at the activation explained that series creator Esmail is intrigued by cybersecurity, as well as the digital age in general, and leans heavily on several cyber consultants he works with on a daily basis to make sure that everything is accurately depicted. The rep also pointed out that Esmail felt it was important that the show represent women who code (a topic that ESET security researcher Lysa Myers writes about). The show also give females a serious share of the show’s voice. For example, Elliot’s sister Darleen (played by Carly Chaikin) is a major player, and perhaps even more talented than Elliot. She was able to quickly write the program that infiltrated EvilCorp’s network with a ransomware attack (which we go into detail about here.)

At Comic-Con 2016 Esmail and his team managed to orchestrate a tactile experience that captured all the senses, and brought us one step closer to understanding the complex psyche of his creation, Elliot Alderson. And perhaps, most importantly, we gained a new appreciation of a pop-culture phenomenon that might go down in history as the iconic hacker show of our generation, one that deepened awareness of what it means to be living in an increasingly fragile digital age.

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