In sixth grade, Mrs Minninger assigned our class an independent study project – give a presentation on any topic of our choosing. I chose hackers.
When it came time to present, I came across the same problem that producers and directors have been struggling with for almost 30 years now: How do I make hacking look interesting in a visual way?
Mr Robot focuses on Elliot, a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who finds himself in the midst of a 'hacktivist' plan to take down a huge corporation (Credit: USA Network)
I ended up showing the war dialing clip from the film WarGames and the “Rabbit! Flu shot!” clip from the film Hackers. (Years later, I referenced the same Hackers clip in season one of Mr Robot when Mobley and Romero watch it in the hotel on the way to [data security facility] Steel Mountain.)
At the end of my presentation, Mrs Minninger said, “That’s not what real hacking looks like. That looks like a video game.” She didn’t know anything about network security, but she was right.
That was the mid-90s. Today, audiences are more sophisticated. They consist of real users who spend a great deal of time on their phones, tablets, and laptops. They have a better idea of what’s possible and how the technology functions. We live in a world of ransomware attacks, predator drones, phishing scams, and data breaches that have the power to sway an election. As time goes on, it’s becoming more difficult to get away with false portrayals of hacking and technology. Some of the most famous offenders are...
Swordfish – John Travolta forces Hugh Jackman’s character to hack into the Department of Defense in under 60 seconds. We see cheesy 3D visuals of viruses and authentication attempts.
Enemy of the State – Jack Black’s character looks at security footage and uses the cliché “zoom and enhance” function. Not only does he successfully zoom into the footage with no loss of picture quality, but he’s able to somehow rotate the image in a 3D space.
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory – Need to hack a computer? No worries. All it will take is a gigabyte of memory. That’s all Eric Bogosian needs to get into a system. In the world of this movie, hacking is that easy.
From operating systems to tools used, the hacking methods depicted in Mr Robot have been praised by cybersecurity firms and real hackers alike (Credit: USA Network)
NCIS – Famously dubbed “2 idiots 1 keyboard,” this is the most absurd and incorrect portrayal of computer usage, let alone hacking, that I’ve ever seen. Two agents furiously type on one keyboard at the same time in order to combat a hacker who’s overtaking the system – all while flashy snippets of graphics and code strobe the screen.
Hackers – This is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using video game graphics to represent hacking. We fly through 3D visualisations of data and encounter a singing virus that screams for help when it’s being attacked.
GoldenEye – Again, Alan Cumming’s screen looks like a video game here. He uses a single command “send spike” and that’s all it takes to break into a computer system.
Jurassic Park – In the midst of a velociraptor attack, Ariana Richards sits down at a computer and says, “It’s a Unix system. I know this.” Then she somehow hacks the entire Jurassic Park security system in a matter of seconds and takes control of the automatic doors. This scene is filled with tension, but what she does is analogous to someone loading a browser on a Macbook and then saying, “It’s Safari. I know this,” and then going on to compromise someone’s Gmail account in a couple seconds. While most people troll this scene for its usage of 3D graphics on screen, she’s actually using a real 3D filesystem called FSN.
Why does Hollywood get hacking so wrong?
There’s an easy explanation for this trend. Most writers, directors, and producers believe that it’s impossible to portray real hacking on screen and still have it be entertaining. (That’s why you see the cheesy game-like graphics, skulls, and expository messages on screen.) I couldn’t disagree more with this mindset.
If a scene needs flashy or inaccurate graphics on a computer in order to increase the drama or explain a plot point, there’s an issue with the writing. On Mr Robot, we work hard to ensure that the stakes of the scene and the character motivations are clear even if you have no idea how the technology works. If you do understand the technology, you have the added bonus of recognising real vulnerabilities, real desktop environments, and authentic dialogue that fits the context of the hack.
A perfect example of this is the beginning of Episode Four in Season One, when Elliot explains his plan to hack into Steel Mountain. A layperson watching that scene understands that they need to break in somewhere and destroy some data – it will be risky, but it’s necessary. A hacker watching that scene will recognise Elliot’s accurate use of a Raspberry Pi and his plan to destroy the data sitting on archived LTO tapes by exploiting the HVAC system.
Christian Slater as 'Mr Robot' (left) and Rami Malek as Elliot (right) (Credit: USA Network)
Most shows and films don’t have a team dedicated to achieving this level of technical accuracy. On Mr Robot, the authenticity is incorporated into the outlining phase when we’re fleshing out the stories – before we even start writing the scripts. When we’re filming the series, we use practical screens with real code on them. We don’t shoot green screens and “burn in” content in post-production. We use real software as often as possible.
I have an amazing team of hackers (Ryan Kazanciyan, Andre McGregor, James Plouffe) who consult on the show. We test each attack before it gets incorporated into the story. What sets us apart from the rest of these productions is the extra effort that goes into getting the little details right.
That grain of authenticity is a relief for the tech community, but it also resonates with the lay audience. People with no cybersecurity experience can intuit and judge the technical accuracy on screen; they say that our show looks and sounds real.
So thank you, Mrs Minninger, for inadvertently teaching me a lesson that would help shape my career: don’t make it look like a video game.
Kor Adana is a writer/producer on USA Network’s Mr Robot.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.