Mr. Robot

“How does he have so much time to watch television and go to movies?” Is that what you’re thinking? Well, I just finished a two year death march to produce the first five episodes of Dangerous Thoughts. My brain is fried from overuse of its creative faculties. It’s time to take someone else’s energy in.

Luckily for me, there is a ton of good stuff out there now that we live in the World of Niche.

Mr. Robot is unique among cyber-oriented TV shows in that it doesn’t actively offend my every sense every time someone opens their mouth or starts typing on a keyboard. Or in the case of NCIS, two people typing on the same keyboard because that’s obviously twice as fast.

As a programmer, I get a little twitchy when characters start blathering techno-speak as fast as they can, hoping to simply numb the minds of those watching so they’ll believe the bullshit came from a real bull. But Mr. Robot’s writers, or more likely their technical consultants from Anonymous, know more about hacking than I do so it all comes off as relatively plausible to my ear.

Even the one thing that first hit me as bad, Hollywood-style logic, later turned to make the most sense.

Everything about the show is surprising and spoilery so I’m going to drop a spoiler bar right here and continue out of sight of those who haven’t watched this excellent show yet.


First of all, let’s get the 900lb gorilla out of the way: It wasn’t obvious but it was definitely knowable that his father was a hallucination. A lot of people don’t like this Fight Club trope but I do — but only when it’s handled as well as it is in Mr. Robot. The way they spring it on you is what makes it special.  The reveal that Elliott has forgotten Darlene is his sister puts a nice spin on the whole thing and smooths the way for the big reveal.

Now, let’s talk about the ending. There is nothing better than a season that ends with everything tied up and yet still leaving you wanting more. They pulled off the hack, they brought down the world economic system. It’s a happy ending for everyone but the One Percent. Except…

Who actually executed the hack? Where is Tyrell? Why can’t Elliott remember anything from the last three days?

Who’s at the door?

I have some theories – and what better indicator that a story has its hooks in you than sitting around theorizing about it after it ends? — but they mostly rely on that thing I mentioned above that first struck me as technically wrong but then later seemed like the exact right solution.

Why encrypt Evil Corp.’s data? Why not just delete it? Deleting files is much faster than encrypting them and then they’re gone so there’s no danger someone will discover the key and decrypt them.

First of all, neither one of those things is true on a technical level. Deleting a file from a hard drive is quick, except that it’s not gone. You’ve just instructed the operating system that these blocks are now free to be used again. It’s easy to un-delete files from a hard disk unless they’ve been written over with 0’s and 1’s over and over again until the magnetic fingerprint of their former data is completely erased. That takes a lot of time and has the disadvantage of making the data immediately unavailable which would tip off the sysadmins.

Ransomware encrypts the data on the drive while still making it available to the user. Until the encryption is complete, every request for data from the drive is automatically decrypted and provided to the system so the user is no wiser. Once encryption is complete, the driver stops decrypting data until the user pays the ransom and gets the key.

So it actually makes more sense to encrypt the petabytes of data stored at Steel Mountain’s facilities than to delete it. Once you throw away that key, it’s as good as lost forever. The only way to decrypt that data is to use a brute force attack trying every possible byte string combination until you hit the right one. There just isn’t that much computing power on Earth yet.

And, of course, there is a timeliness component. It won’t do you much good to get back nine trillion dollars worth of mortgages in thirty years. Hell, it won’t do you any good to get your financial ledgers back next month. Money and time are inextricably linked and it’s the data that keeps them moving.

There is one possible rub here, technically speaking: If fSociety used RSA encryption, there’s always the NSA’s legendary backdoor to worry about. But these guys are hard core coders, I doubt they would rely on someone else’s AES implementation, plus RSA is asymmetric which would require a lot of extra computational cycles and storage for no good reason. So let’s let this one go.

Who performed the hack? Where is Tyrell? Why is the White Rose having cocktails with the CEO of Evil Corp? Who’s at the door?

Let’s go back to something Elliott said in one of his ramblings: The encryption routine was code that Darlene put together in a couple of hours. If it’s that easy to write, it’s got to be easy to modify, especially if all you want to do is remove the last command that deletes the 256 byte key.

My theory is that Tyrell performed the hack (possibly after drugging Elliott) and then modified the code so he would have the key once the encryption was complete. That would give him the ultimate power over the company that screwed him. Unbeknownst to him, the White Rose had the same plan. The Dark Army modified the code executed in China so they could keep the key.

One thing that would be interesting (but technically not feasible) would be if you needed both keys, Tyrell’s and the White Rose’s, to decrypt the data.

Who’s at the door? Tyrell’s at the door, probably there to tell Elliott that they are now unreasonably wealthy, the most powerful men in the world.

Of course, CEO Price has already said they know who did it and that he will be dealt with in the usual way. Surely, they suspect the grasping, reaching, obsessed Tyrell and if he does have the key, he’s going to discover that having it and using it are two different things.

One last off the wall theory: Didn’t the conversation between Elliott and Tyrell’s wife remind you of conversations between Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club? For a moment, I started to think that Elliott and Tyrell were the same person. The way she was giving him that knowing look and saying how different her husband had been acting three days ago. I don’t know. It can’t possibly be true given the early interactions between the two, but it was a surreal moment.

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