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As Mr. Robot Season 2 comes to a close, the show’s attention to detail may feel almost overwhelming. Looking back on the season is like staring into an abyss of plot lines and technical tricks. So we waded through it all and pulled out seven favorite hacks, easter eggs, and tidbits of the season that exemplify the show’s impressive commitment to hackery verisimilitude, ranked by our highly subjective taste in nerd-cred references.
7. Darlene Hacks Postmate to Get More Coupons
In episode four, Darlene mentions that she’s set up a hack to get extra clicks on her Postmate delivery service affiliate link, thus generating money she can use to order takeout. Even if you’re not quite on Darlene’s level of thrift—or grift—you’ve probably used your second email address at some point to sign up for a service again and get another new customer offer or deal. An affiliate link takes that promo-hacking further: It’s a URL that has identifying information tacked on about the person who generated it so a service or advertiser can track traffic to the link. Affiliate link programs give rewards to people who distribute their link and generate clicks. For hackers, or anyone, abusing affiliate links is the logical (and legal) thing to do when VC-funded startups are doling out nonstop promotional deals.
6. Scrubbing the Metadata Before Uploading a Video to Vimeo
Hackers are always looking for crumbs of information that they can use against their targets, but they also need to cover their own tracks. In Episode 8, while fsociety squats in the smart home of Susan Jacobs, E Corp’s general counsel, they release a new video warning the FBI not to come after them. Before Trenton uploads the video to Vimeo, though, we see her wiping the metadata using real command line functions. (For extra opsec points, the shot also shows he’s running the anonymity software Tor’s Vidalia control panel.) This way, the video file won’t reveal potentially traceable information like location data, when the video was recorded, or what type of equipment and software was used to create and process it. In other parts of Mr. Robot, characters are careful to remove their fingerprints from equipment and even wipe FBI office CCTV footage.
5. Elliot’s Android Zero Day and Hacking the FBI With a Femtocell
This is a great large-scale hack with a lot of moving pieces. It also came during episodes 5 and 6 at a point in the season when viewers were really jonesing to see Elliot back in hacktion. (Sorry.) The idea here was to find a way to infiltrate and monitor FBI smartphones, so, of course, Elliot busted out an unpatched Android vulnerability that allows him to take control. Though a lot of this information comes through in a voice-over monologue, we do see Elliot working on writing a script to exploit the bug. To actually run the program on FBI phones and take them over, though, he needs a way to deliver his hacking tool. So in the second step of the attack, Angela physically goes to the FBI office and inconspicuously drops off a device called a femtocell. These tools are used to extend cell coverage into areas with poor signal, and when they’re set up, phones will automatically connect to them like a normal cell tower. By physically planting the femtocell in the FBI office, fsociety greatly increases the chance that it will be pumping out the strongest signal in the area causing FBI smartphones to connect to it. Angela sets up the device under a desk by plugging its battery backup into a power strip and then connecting the femtocell itself to a network switch. This has the benefit of giving fsociety an FBI network access point. Femtocells are readily available as tools for extending cell signal range to dead zones, but they can definitely be used maliciously to gain access to smartphones as well.
4. Every IP Address Shown On-Screen Leads Somewhere
The Mr. Robot team is clearly dedicated to realism, but it is also set on extending the world of the show through plants and easter eggs throughout the episodes. URLs, QR codes, and IP addresses that come up on screen always lead somewhere on the real web. One on-screen 220.127.116.11 (and at least two other IPs) takes you to a laughing image of the fsociety mask while 18.104.22.168 goes to a chat program where you take on Darlene’s identity. You can watch Elliot and Darlene’s favorite film from their childhood, The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie, visit E Corp’s website (currently down because of “temporary maintenance,” of course), or start deciphering clues from Elliot’s notebook. Usually in movies and television we can tell that phone numbers and websites aren’t real, but Mr. Robot makes sure that everything leads somewhere.
3. Real Hacking Tools
As if that wasn’t enough, even the hacking tools used on the show are largely actual programs and devices. When Angela is going to infiltrate the FBI, Mobley gives her a device called a Rubber Ducky that can act as a remote keyboard for typing on a computer from afar. This is a real tool, as is the magnetic strip scannerDarlene uses to copy the master key card in a hotel. This maneuver is also an example of Mr. Robot taking the time to show its characters scrubbing clues of their presence. Darlene needs to use a hotel room for proximity so she can remotely access the femtocell Angela planted at the FBI, but if she buys a room and checks in she is easier to track. Spoofing the hotel’s master key card and surreptitiously taking over a room is safer. While there Darlene sets up a wifi Yagi antenna or “cantenna.” In a later episode, Elliot makes an improvised version of this device using a Pringles can, a well-known shortcut in a pinch.
2. The Uninterruptible Power Sources Hack
The Season 2 finale finally reveals what “Stage 2” is all about. Tyrell and Elliot/Mr. Robot have been working to plan an attack on the E Corp storage facility where the company has been bringing all of its paper records. E Corp wants to use them to rebuild its financial databases, but if all the paper is destroyed it won’t be able to do that. See where this is going? We don’t get to watch the hack play out in the finale, but Tyrell and Elliot’s plan is to create an explosion that burns all the paper up. In addition to all the old physical files, the E Corp building also has servers that are hooked up to Uninterruptible Power Sources (UPSs) to keep them running in case of power failures—like the brownouts that have become more frequent thanks to fsociety’s 5/9 attack. UPSs utilize lead acid batteries because of their longevity and reliability. But these batteries emit hydrogen gas, especially when they’re over-charged. So the plan is to get access to the network devices that control the UPSs, shut off the fans, and start overclocking the system until a circuit starts to spark. These types of explosions have happened by accident, and are also used in attacks, as in the pre-Stuxnet operation that took out 50 Iranian centrifuges.
1. The Most Dangerous Bug Is Often a Post-it
After fsociety hides out at E Corp counsel Susan Jacobs’s house for awhile, she eventually comes home. Somehow the group didn’t think to keep tabs on her location—sometimes hackers do have a little trouble seeing the opsec forest for the technical trees—but they tie her up next to her pool. Then they go to work trying to find something to blackmail her with so she won’t tell the FBI or anyone who they are. They hack into her laptop and cell phone and gain more and more control of her digital presence. The one account they are struggling to get into is a stealthy Yahoo email she set up. As they brainstorm increasingly complex possibilities for accessing the account, Trenton appears holding a Post-it note. Jacobs had written down the username and password. In this case, the real “hack” happened when fsociety broke into the house, and the moment is a perfect reminder that the most devastating attacks can often be the simplest ones.