Mr. Robot: The Importance of Getting it Right

Team Tanium Posted on 07.13.16 — by Team Tanium

Q&A with Andre McGregor & Ryan Kazanciyan, the Tanium Duo Working Behind-the-Scenes on USA Network’s Hit Show

Mr. Robot, USA Network’s critically-acclaimed cyberthriller, offers viewers a peek into the dark fictional world of a vigilante hacker tasked with saving the world. Though the premise sounds like fantasy, the technology and hacking techniques featured in the show are surprisingly real. And for good reason: Mr. Robot’s attention to detail and popularity has had the positive effect of raising awareness about the real-life cyber threats facing our world today. In preparing for Season 2, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail tapped Tanium’s Director of Security Andre McGregor and Chief Security Architect Ryan Kazanciyan as technical consultants to help infuse reality into this season’s binge-worthy action.

With tonight’s premiere of Mr. Robot’s second season, we sat down with Andre and Ryan to learn more about their work on the show – and find out how this show’s dystopian fantasy serves as an important platform for awareness and change.

What kind of guidance do you provide Mr. Robot?          

Andre McGregor: We met with the show’s writers, led by technical writer Kor Adana, back in January to go over the general framework for Season 2. At that time, Kor and the writers’ room had a solid outline of where the season was going, and they wanted more information to fill in the gaps for character development and scene accuracy. In the writers’ room we discussed the specific hacks they had planned and brainstormed ways to maintain the realism.

Ryan Kazanciyan: Kor and the show’s creators are really committed to getting the details right – the best stories are guided by truth. You’ll find that the images and commands shown on screen are real, as are the dialogue and context around them. Of course, hacks that might take hours or days are condensed and streamlined to make sense for TV. But the show has done a good job of lining up the right tools and techniques that would be used if the depicted hacks were to be carried out in the real world.

Helping craft some of the hacking scenes was a fun throwback to when I used to do penetration testing and red-teaming, so-called “ethical hacking,” as a consultant. I strongly believe that a strong offense informs strong defense, so even though my day-to-day work focuses more on building solutions for attack detection and response, I like keeping that other half of my brain active.

What did the writing and editing process look like?

AM: While most of the initial work was done over email, I was given access to the scripts early on to read, review, and offer feedback as the writers wanted to make sure each character’s lines were accurate and believable. Every week there was a new set of scripts to read and comment. Once filming started, I received phone calls, emails, and text messages at all times of the day/night to provide real-time feedback.

RK: In some cases, an on-screen sequence that might be shown for only a few seconds was built over weeks of back-and-forth collaboration and fine-tuning. And you just know that infosec-savvy fans are going to be taking screen grabs and scrutinizing each and every command, so it needs to stand up to that!

It sounds like the hacks portrayed are pretty accurate – why are the show’s creators so committed to staying true to life?

AM: The hacking on this show is as accurately portrayed as possible for TV because it makes for better drama — and it helps viewers better understand their real-life vulnerability to cyber attack. The show has found a way to effectively demonstrate how ubiquitous and easy hacking has become in mainstream society – it’s a scary reality for everyone in the world today. Banking, critical infrastructure, and even your own email are vulnerable to attack. A show like Mr. Robot raises awareness not only among people who may not think about this all the time, but also for government leaders who are not exposed to this new global threat day in and day out. It forces us as a society to question how much of this is art imitating life and to ask ourselves what we are doing about it.

Why do you think has Mr. Robot been such a success?

RK: High-profile hacks have basically become part of the zeitgeist of the last two or three years. As I mentioned on the “Mr. Robot D3c0ded” special, some of these attacks sound like the storylines of a show or movie: Ashley Madison, OPM, Sony, ransomware shutting down hospitals, the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee – the list goes on and on. Mr. Robot taps into that reality and fear that any person–or any organization–can get hacked. And if the targets are governments or the too-big-to-fail businesses we depend upon, the repercussions are chilling. Plus, it’s got a great story and compelling human drama irrespective of the technical aspects.

AM: Mr. Robot does an amazing job of emulating and dramatizing the outrage and confusion going on in society today. It taps into something real, and it resonates with viewers. We’re pleased our work can help educate and energize the public about cybersecurity. It’s why we do it.

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