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What Mr. Robot can teach IT professionals

My favorite thing about Futurama, the zany sci-fi cartoon from Simspons mastermind Matt Groening, was that it wasn’t afraid to dive headfirst into the hard sciences, between punchlines and gags. Whether riffing on Schrodinger’s cat or depicting a beer brand sold exclusively in Klein bottles, the show treated tricky scientific topics with great care. Its allusions weren’t superficial; they stood up to scrutiny.

These days, Futurama is off the air (again). But thanks to USA’s Mr. Robot, science and technology purists have found another prime time property that treats its subject matter — network security, and the exploitation of it — with a similar sense of nuance. WARNING: Spoilers may lie ahead.

Creator/showrunner Sam Esmail has brought an intriguing, stylish depiction of infosec, network architecture and hacker culture closer to rank-and-file TV viewers than ever before. But considering that the show’s protagonists are cybercriminals, is Mr. Robot doing more to help or hurt the world of IT?

“Any time we can engage society in learning about the real-world dangers of cyber threats is a help,” says network access expert Chris Bihary, co-founder and CEO of Garland Technology. “The show clearly portrays the many moving pieces involved in IT cyber security vs. attacker, and the fact that the best plans often don’t work out as anticipated.”

The dramatic arc of the show, currently nine episodes into its second season during its mid-season break, focuses on the ambitions of the hacker group “fsociety,” led by the enigmatic Elliot Alderson and his alter ego, Mr. Robot. The group manages to hack — and eventually “own” — various massive networks, from nefarious global conglomerates to federal authorities. Nothing feels oversimplified: indeed, criminal activity runs rampant, but not all of Mr. Robot’s criminals are villains.

Will Fleurant, a network engineer at netBlazr, a Boston-based ISP, points to a moment of moral responsibility for Elliot, when a rather scary acquaintance tasks him with administering a black-market website over a Tor, a series of relays for anonymous digital communications. “When we mention ’hacktivism’ in the second season, Elliot took the hidden site on the Tor network and made it run on the public internet,” Fleurant says. “Because of what he saw on there,” which included human trafficking, illegal firearms sales, and other assorted horrors, “Elliot got the site shut down by putting it on the public internet. His own code of ethics came into play, he had the power to save something or do something right, even by way of doing something illegal (hacking).”

But the show is more complicated than a morality play about noble vigilante hackers taking on a brand of capitalism that’s flown off the rails. In fact, many of Mr. Robot’s stronger implications make the digital world feel downright chaotic and unsafe. Note the marketing tag line for season two: “CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION.”

“So many companies, especially small businesses think they are too small to worry about hacks, ransomware, etc.,” says Bihary. “Most business people still think, ‘my firewall is set up, so my business is okay.’ In truth, every person and organization is at continual risk. Network security leaders always talk about when a breach happens — never if.”

Despite the ominous turns, however, Fleurant recognizes Mr. Robot’s role in illustrating real-world imperatives that are achievable here and now.

“The show is slowly becoming an advertisement for cyber security and preventative work,” he says. “When things do break, what does IT do? The show highlights the real need for cyber security experts.”

That may very well be the legacy of Mr. Robot in the long view: as a binge-watchable call-to-arms for a host of IT professionals wondering how best to navigate the shifting sands of the modern network security environment.