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Mr. Robot’: Four of the Show’s Best Hacks, Explained

Former teenage hacker-turned-technical adviser gives us the scoop on series’ realistic cyber-sabotage.

Former teenage hacker-turned-technical adviser gives us the scoop on series' realistic cyber-sabotage.

When it comes to hacking, Mr. Robot has one rule: If it can’t be done in real life, it doesn’t appear on the show. That’s where Kor Adana comes in. A former teenage hacker who went straight after a brush with the law, Adana used to work as a cyber-security expert at a large multinational corporation, just like Elliot in the show, but quit to pursue a career in TV writing. Now he has a job that incorporates all his various expertise: as a member of Mr. Robot‘s writing staff and its chief technical adviser. With one foot in the hacking world and one foot in the writer’s room, Adana is the one most responsible for translating showrunner Sam Esmail’s ideas to the screen in a technologically accurate and visually compelling way. Here, Adana walks us through a few his favourite hacks from the show.

The Minicomputer
“The Raspberry Pi is a small, credit-card-sized computer that you can program any number of ways,” Adana says. Last season, when Elliot’s fsociety crew attacked a data-storage facility called Steel Mountain, they attached a Raspberry Pi to a thermostat and used it to hack into the facility’s climate-control system, which they planned to overheat in order to start a fire. “That was an exciting thing for us to showcase, because it’s relatively new, and I’ve never seen it on a show or in a movie before,” he says. “It was really really fun to incorporate it in a realistic way.”

In this case, realistic is an understatement. “We actually kind of modified it a bit, because it was a little too big to fit behind a thermostat,” Adana admits. “We removed this wireless network port that was pretty bulky, so that it would fit easier — but then, in order to make it so that it could still connect to the network, we soldered a network cable directly to the board. We took the time to solder every single copper wire, as if we were doing it for real.” (Adana knows it would have been easier just to get a bigger thermostat, but for some reason, the props department couldn’t get one in time. “There was some mixup or something,” he says. “So I said, ‘Give me a soldering iron and we’ll get this done.'”)

Unfortunately, in the end, all the effort was kind of for naught. “The whole thing got covered up with electrical tape, so you can’t really tell in the episode,” Adana says a little sadly. “We kind of went above and beyond. But we knew.”

Related: ‘Mr. Robot’, Inside TV’s Hacktivist Breakout Hit

Grand Theft Auto
On their way to Steel Mountain, fsociety used a series of three real-life gadgets to do some old-fashioned breaking and entering. First, to steal a soccer mom’s minivan, they employed a 315 mHz remote-control code scanner. “Basically it’s a device that intercepts the unlock signal on your car’s wireless key fob, then clones it,” Adana says. “They waited for the mom to unlock her door, intercepted and recorded the signal, and then replayed it to unlock the van.”

Once inside the van, the hackers gained access to the car’s CAN-bus port. “A lot of newer models of car have this port, which connects to the car’s internal computer network,” Adana says. “Once they tap into the computer through the CAN-bus, they’re able to manipulate the car” — in other words, drive it — “using a laptop.”

Lastly, the hackers broke into a hotel room using a dry-erase marker. “This is actually a widely known vulnerability with a certain brand of hotel lock,” Adana says. “You basically empty out a dry-erase marker and stick what’s called an Arduino controller inside. Just by putting it next to the lock for a second, it’s able to cause it to unlock.”

1035x485 Mr Robot CDs

The Super CD
For the big reveal at the end of the first season’s eighth episode — where Elliot learns (spoiler alert) that Mr. Robot is actually his hallucination of his dead father — Adana turned to a program called DeepSound, a steganography tool that lets users hide files within other files. “[Elliot] was basically encrypting and hiding JPEG images inside an audio track on a CD,” Adana says. “If anyone ever came across his CD collection and tried to play the CDs, they would work fine and look like normal audio CDs. It would be really hard to tell that he’s hiding files if you didn’t know beforehand.”

Adana says there are several steganography tools out there, but he chose DeepSound because it’s the most visual, so the audience could follow what was happening. “Even though DeepSound is a Windows tool, and I usually try to stay away from Windows,” he says. “I want Elliot to operate in Linux, because that’s what hackers would do.” As a compromise, he had Elliot run Windows inside Linux, “in what’s called a virtual machine. Which was fun,” Adana says. “Or fun for geeks like me.”

The Card Thieves
In order to gain access to Steel Mountain itself, fsociety needed to copy an employee’s ID badge. “They use something called a Tastic RFID Thief, which is like a big scanner,” Adana says. “Mr. Robot is walking through a coffee shop and walks by someone who works at Steel Mountain, and all he needs to do is get within three or four feet of the guy’s badge, and the scanner is able to pull the content off that badge.”

Adana says there’s also a real device called a MagSpoof, which can wirelessly copy the magnetic strip on any credit card, giving a nefarious hacker access to your account. For an upcoming episode this season, the show’s writers wanted something similar, only for a hotel-room keycard — so they decided to create it themselves. “It was really awesome, because we actually got in touch with the guy who created the MagSpoof and worked with him to create a custom tool for our story purposes on the show,” Adana says. “It actually works; we had it on set when we shot the episode, and I have it now. But I promise I haven’t used it.”