stoking the fire of the anxieties/paranoia of an online era: mr.robot, “hacktivism” & stuxnet

Last night I finished writing a paper for class around 12am and given the fact that I had woken up at 12:30pm that day I figured I still had a few hours to kill before going to bed. So I got stoned and starting watching the first episode of season 2 of Mr.Robot. However, several minutes into the video I was streaming I realized that this was not the first actual episode but instead an hour long promo video for the season: “Mr.Robot: Decoded” – basically a documentary covering the realism of the show (they used the terms realist/real/realism approx. 50x throughout) and the parallels that can be drawn to the current time in regards to ‘hacktivism’ and naturally, I could not bring myself to stop watching. I became so utterly enthralled in this portrayal or tell-all about the world of hacking that I did what I often do in these situations and compulsively jotted notes into my phone and snapchatted various points of interest for others to enjoy.

[NOTE: if you don’t know what Mr.Robot is about, I just googled “what is mr.robot about?” since I feel entirely incapable of giving a succinct summary. So here it is: “It stars Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Alderson is recruited by an insurrectionary anarchist known as “Mr. Robot“, played by Christian Slater, to join a group of hacktivists.”

When I saw the first season of Mr.Robot I had nobody to discuss it with. I would recommend it selectively to those who I knew would find it paradigmatically transformative but my efforts were to no avail. I suspect the title retracted the seriousness and prophetic quality of the show and despite attempts to describe the show as one “about hacking, anti-corporatism, mental illness and morphine addiction” I never managed to recruit a fellow-observer. So I figured, why not pour my thoughts here instead?

So the show is very fight-club-esque (minus the hatred of women). By that I mean it’s experimental in regards to its attempt to empathetically portray mental illness. There is a scene in the first episode of season 2 where the Elliot, the protagonist is coping with his illness (specified as anxiety/depression but I would argue there is more to it than that  – but I am not one who typically supports diagnostic speculation in fictional characters) by writing in a journal while ignoring the “voice inside his head, “mr.robot” or his “father” – played by Christian Slater – as Slater proceeds to shoot him in the head and berate him. Elliot writes “he shot me, again” – a very chaotic and painfully accurate depiction of the intensity in which these unconscious shouts loudly at the subject. Honestly, it’s not easy to write about this but what I can say is that as someone who has experienced similarly shattering confusion and bewilderment in the containment of psychological episodes I can grateful for the acute honesty in Rami Malek’s performance (he plays Elliot).

With the psychological component of the film aside however, this documentary style promotional video for the show provided other rich and critical information.

Here, rather than simply explaining the significance of the program I’ll insert a screenshot of the blazed-as-fuck notes I hazily typed out at 3:30am…

 

 

Let’s start with the first note. Yes, this is true, Mr.Robot actually predicted (scripted, filmed and aired before the actual event) two hacks. First the Ashley-Madison leaks where a plotline followed Elliot’s psychologist’s husband being exposed for cheating used the hypothetical (now real) scenario of a dating website designed to facilitate marital affairs being hacked. Secondly, the air-date of an episode featuring a plotline where a news anchor actually shoots himself on live TV had to be delayed due to an actual story with the same series of events unfolding in real-time.

GOVS/CORPS: While I was watching there was a brief segment that negotiated the ethical commitments of corporations to cooperate with governments in providing access to people’s information stored on devices made by said corporations. A fragment of this clip mentioned Apple and their reluctance to give the state access to information which of course lead my imagination to ponder whether or not Apple was on the other side of perhaps a corporate-government alliance and scheme to share citizen’s personal information…of that of course I’m not sure but it’s a funny consideration. And while the documentary was so explicitly not even about Mr. Robot but instead using the show as a conduit or voice for anti-establishment, anti-corporatist agendas entering the mainstream. I think that was what was so striking about this program, it was so clearly stating that which has been smothered and hidden away in plain sight but doing so to an audience that was captured first through the fictional narrative of Elliot and the compelling storyline but now held captive through the (justified) exploitation of their paranoia.

In fact, executive producer Sam Esmail himself is interviewed in the film, stating “I have an anti-corporate, anti-establishment spirit in me” and goes onto say that while he supports the efforts of occupy wall street he would rather support real change like the revolutionary Arab Spring movement that utilized social media and modern communicative technology to bring about experienced social change.

One aspect of hacking that initially struck me in the opening lines of the program was the fact that, yes, we are in desensitized to a certain extent about the way in which technology is constantly shifting power in the political and social realm. News stories about massive hacks are also shrugged off. We are so inundated with evidence for the power available in hacking that monumental news stories like the incredible “Panama Papers” leak rolls off our shoulders like almost nothing. (All of this caused me to rethink my own political efforts and reconsider them with a more critical and realistic edge. I do think there is something to be said for taking up space, entering public discourse and stating a challenge to the establishment to bring about change but where the real power for political upheaval lives must be in hacking. )There, I said it. I am entirely uneducated and probably never going to really understand how hacking works but let me say this now, I do support it and while sometimes I think, “have we just become sedated, no longer thinking for ourselves or why can’t we come up with adequate pathways to construct alternative forms of resistance” now I am realizing that maybe our brightest and most dedicated anarchists are hacking. The optics are no longer a factor…in the same way they are for traditional political movements, in fact, optics hinder the effectiveness of hacking and in this way, the possibilities of this means to upheaval are unannounced and thus more and more transformative when hacks enter the mainstream and political realm.

What is hacking? The program defined hacking in a really clear and decisive (maybe even non-partisan) way:

“Hacking: using technology in a way it was not intended for.”

That’s it. It’s so simple and it’s a lot less scary when you think about it this way. The feature had a moment where they discuss the “ethics of hactivism” and said “technology consultant” (I suspect just a hacker dude who makes sure everything is accurate AF) for the show states, “when we feel that there’s injustice, sometimes the only way to deal with it is to … out monster the monster.”

A particularly interesting component of this documentary was the way in which social engineering plays out on the site of the individual security agent as a site of weakness for cybersecurity/security. “Taking advantage of the human element” of security involves hackers thinking like…well, humans. Thinking about how we set our passwords and why using our dogs name or our kid’s birthday as a password is incredibly stupid. Human security guards have access to information that can take hackers further in an information system than you might imagine. These individuals are, as I understood, the achilles heel / trojan horse of cybersecurity (I can loosely argue reasons why both of these metaphors work and also why they don’t.)

There was a moment in the program where Rami is being interviewed, asked about how much he had to learn in order to convincingly play Elliot, and he admits, “I’ve learned quite a bit – mmm…maybe too much” she bites his bottom lip as if he feels like he should’ve thought this answer out before and then says, “it’s kind of scary…what I’m capable of.” I actually burst out laughing at this point, it’s glaringly obvious the kind of insane power that is now hidden in plain sight.

The constant reiteration of the “realism” stokes the fire of paranoia but for reasons justifiable, this is not fear-mongering for fear-mongering’s sake: it’s directed. Quotes include:

“Mr.Robot is a realistic portrayal of computer hacking and as alerted us to the real world dangers we all face…now we’ll find out just how much we’re at risk…” (*cue commercial break). 

“More than just imagery, Mr. Robot’s realism extends to the schemes and methods that are currently in use by the hacking community.”

So they constantly draw parallels between episode plotlines and real world hacks. In fact, one the episodes mirrors the STUXNET HACK almost seamlessly. Stuxnet “is a malicious computer worm believed to be a jointly built AmericanIsraeli cyber weapon. Although neither state has confirmed this openly, anonymous US officials speaking to The Washington Post claimed the worm was developed during the Bush administration to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with what would seem like a long series of unfortunate accidents. (THX WIKIPEDIA)

To me, that information, is fucking wild. Just the other day I was reading Vol.10, Iss. 7 of “Fire This Time” that described the relationships between Syria, Iran and the US:

“If Syria falls to the imperialist powers, it would put the US in a much better position, politically and militarily, to invade or attack Iran. The US has had their sights set on the overthrow of the independent and anti-imperialist Iranian government since the Iranian revolution of 1979 ousted the US-backed president of that country. Since then, Iran has managed to raise the standard of living for its citizens, surpassing many of its US-supported neighbours both in terms of social gains and technological advances. The US views the Iranian example of success as an independent country as a threat to its interests in the region. (pg. 3, Fire This Time!)

So as a collaborative effort between Israel and the US, Stuxnet functions by targeting machines using the Microsoft Windows operating system and networks. Stuxnet reportedly compromised Iranian PLCs, collecting information on industrial systems and causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart.Stuxnet reportedly ruined almost one fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. 

Fucking wild. Honestly, knowing this, out-monstering the monster seems totally justified- if not necessary. In the modern era, technological warfare seems to be yet another means to capture the resources (oil) of other nations and undermine the power of foreign governments. All of this just to further destroy the ecology and prolong the urgent transition to sustainable energy. To avoid launching into a tangent, I will leave it at that. Mr. Robot functions on many levels. To some, the show may operate as mere entertainment, something that stirs and plays on the paranoia of the dramatic and rapidly changing technological-environment of the time. On another level however, there seems to be political resistance built into this story. Sure, Elliot’s personal and psychological journey are enough to secure audience’s attention but the way in which an attentive audience must grapple with the truth embedded in this journey, the relevance and implications of it all, is undeniable and productive. Audiences are not only being alerted to the realm of possibilities for “hacktivism” and anarchism, but arguably they are called to action with the very notion that Mr.Robot blurs the lines between fiction and reality – constructing a historical/political moment situated in both.

So there it is. My two cents. For tonight, I honestly have no plans a part from watching the next few episodes and reading every think-piece available.

(*edited note: its 1:09am the same night and I am trying to watch the third episode of season 2 and 8 of the streaming links (all of them) have been removed in the last hour. I searched reddit for answers and didn’t find anything besides the fact that nobody watches this show on cable, it’s all streamed and pirated…how will they gauge it’s rating #s??? lol)

 

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