Technical experts ensure security exploits are grounded in reality

Last month, in conjunction with a feature on the Top 10 Hacking Movies of All Time, The Daily Swig published extracts from an interview with Jeff Moss where he talked about his favorite hacking movies.

Moss, founder of the DEF CON and Black Hat security events, served as a technical consultant to Mr. Robot – a television show that gets kudos for its accurate portrayal of technology, hacking, and security exploits.

Mr. Robot came to the end of its four-season run in December, with viewers saying goodbye to its main character Elliot Alderson – security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night. He is played by Rami Malek.

To mark the conclusion of the show, The Daily Swig is publishing the second part of its interview with Moss, conducted on the sidelines of last year’s Black Hat Europe security conference.

Have you ever worked with any other film or TV show as a technical advisor?

Jeff Moss: This would be my first. I like it and I wouldn’t mind doing it again. In the past there’s been scenes depicted at DEF CON from various [television] shows. They’ll send you the script and say ‘Hey, what do you think? Is there anything major in here that you’d change?’.

That’s sort of different. They’ve already written it, so you’re just kind of fact-checking.

With this [Mr. Robot] there’d be long, long conversations on the phone about ‘Why would Elliot go there and do that when he could do that other thing much faster?’, or ‘Why would he stand by the window when he’s so paranoid and he knows people are after him – wouldn’t he just stay away from the window?’

This will cause them to rethink. Sometimes they would rewrite scenes or sometimes they’d cut scenes.

And I’m not the only one [technical advisor] doing that.

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How many technical experts are there working on any one season?

JM: There’s always one technical writer. There’s always four writers and Sam [Esmail]. When you read the screenplays, you can see who’s getting credit.

There’s generally one technical writer and that’s their main gig. They’re a writer but they’re expected to do the technical scenes. The technical writer would coordinate with experts.

So I would provide feedback. For example, this lock is vulnerable so if you want to show Elliot breaking into a data centre or something then this is the model you need to have because that’s the one that we know is vulnerable.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how to do it because I haven’t broken it, but here’s someone who has.

You would then put them [the technical writer] in touch with someone who is able to break that lock. And then they would do the screengrabs and give you all the proper versions of the right tools you’d use, or the right lingo.

And then someone recreates the scene [on film] that the expert showed you how to do in the first place. It’s the actor’s fingers that you see in the finished [hacking] scene typing in the commands.

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How did the actors feel about this way of working?

JM: DEF CON did a village at the Tribeca Film Festival. Mr. Robot was sponsoring us, so I got to do an interview panel with all the actors. The word that came up the most with all these actors was authenticity – that’s their catchphrase, or their touchstone. Actors want to be authentic.

Anything that made it a more authentic experience was something that they thought brought credibility to the role.

It seems like there’s someone on the show who looks at the technology and makes sure it was around in the depicted period – and also vulnerable in the same way.

Right, that person, or job, is called the continuity. At one point, I thought I wanted to do film. I took this 11-month course covering everything from writing, lighting, sound editing, and video. It’s really fun to actually see it from the screenwriting side because you really don’t get to see that interactivity when you’re taking the classes.

You do it once, and you get it reviewed, but you don’t get to see all the feedback. All the revisions – the blue lines, the red lines, the yellow line, the green lines, the network rewrites, and so on. You can see all these little changes happening.

One episode might have 12 or 14 rewrites along the way.

What other aspects of Mr. Robot stand out to you?

JM: Mr. Robot was ground-breaking for a number of reasons. Number one: it successfully pulled off the voiceover. TV shows don’t normally use voiceovers… because it’s pretty hard to do.

When Sam Esmail had the voiceover for Elliot in Mr. Robot that was a big gamble – and it turned out to work spectacularly. I’ve noticed a lot more voiceover in other shows lately. I don’t know if it was that influence [from Mr. Robot] or that they creative teams are rediscovering this tool.

One of the things that nobody technical really likes about the show [Mr. Robot] is that, with the time pressure, you never get to see Elliot prepare. This doesn’t happen once in the four seasons, as far as I’m aware, where he takes the time to prepare and do recon to get ready to do his attack. It’s always a sort of given.

I always wanted to show all the work behind the scenes. Yes, Elliot is a ninja, but he’s a ninja because he does all this other stuff. He’s been preparing for months and years, and here he is at the pinnacle of his skill, busting it all out, but he didn’t just do it on the spot. It’s been a lifetime of building skills.

They kind of alluded to that but they never show it. I think it’s a missed opportunity but it’s not key or core to the story.

The other one is the focus on mental illness. The characters [in Mr. Robot] are all sort of compromised and messy. There’s no moralistically pure character. I think that was also pioneering in the sense that heroes are generally good.

With Mr. Robot the whole basis of the story is the complicated relationship the main character has with his mental demons.

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