Q&A: Meet Kor Adana, the guy that makes Mr. Robot’s hacks legit.
On breaking into Hollywood, making the show’s hacks authentic, and teaching the crew about two-factor authentication.
The critically-acclaimed hacktivist drama, Mr. Robot, has earned rare loyalty from a crowd that shares the concerns of its brilliant, damaged protagonist, Elliot Alderson — privacy, security, a distrust of Big Anything — and quite likely, his social anxieties as well. Hackers were won over by the show’s near priest-like devotion to the authenticity of the hacks themselves.
A team of world-class computer security experts designs these cyber-riddles, but their leader is Kor Adana — the Mr. Robot of Mr. Robot. Adana started off as a technical consultant to the show but worked his way up to being a staff writer. Nowadays, when he’s not trying to track down a Windows 95 computer still running Netscape Navigator for one of Elliot’s childhood flashbacks, he’s busy supplying the nihilistic poetry for the character’s famous inner monologues.
We recently met up at DefCon, the oldest and largest hacker conference in the world, to discuss daddy issues, breaking into Hollywood, and keeping Mr. Robot safe from hackers.
[This interview has been heavily edited for length and clarity.]
I know this is your first DefCon (where hacking friends and strangers is the sport of the day). Did you throw away your laptop? Fly with cash only, no credit cards? Blow up your SIM card in the microwave, just like Elliot does on Mr. Robot?
I brought credit cards, but I did pay for things with cash only. I kept my phone in airplane mode, turned off Wi-Fi, turned off Bluetooth. When I needed to get access to email on my phone, I would go through a VPN and tether my laptop to my phone via cell carrier network.
I also have to download large files and view cuts that are in progress. For that I took a cab to a really far away Starbucks, and worked from there for a couple of hours and came back. I did that a couple of times this weekend.
Hard core! Did you get that special wallet that stops people from scanning your credit card through your pants? I’ve heard that’s happened here.
I didn’t, but I know what you’re talking about. I do have alerts on all of my credit cards so whenever a charge hits it, I’m immediately notified, so I’m not too worried about that.
Nice. So did you consider yourself a “hacker” before you started writing for Mr. Robot?
I considered myself a white hat hacker only because I was working in cyber security for a major automotive corporation. I was designing security policies. I was doing penetration testing. And eventually, my role there evolved into that of a technology manager overseeing electronic discovery and supporting the legal dept. So I did forensics, hardware forensics and e-discovery.
When I was doing that work, I didn’t really consider myself up-to-speed with hacker culture, per se, and I really tried to stay away from it, oddly enough. I tried to separate my day job from my passion, which was writing and directing for film and television. So I put in my nine hours at my day job, and then I’d leave and work on a script or go to a seminar. Or read a book on the industry. So I was really trying to focus all my free time and energy on writing. It’s weird how those two worlds kind of collided for me on the show. It’s just the perfect show for me — the best of both worlds.
It’s funny how day jobs for artists have changed over the decades…
Well I knew my plan was just to do it for long enough that I could save some money up, quit and make a huge change. And I did that, saved up enough money where I could live comfortably for three years. I was like: if I can’t make a living for myself and get a job within three years, then there’s something wrong with me. Luckily, I took an unpaid internship at a production company. Within three months I was able to get hired on as an assistant. And then I just worked my way up the assistant track and eventually made a lot of contacts — which was my main goal, because I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I had a lot of content. I had a lot of scripts, but no one to share them with. So I made some really good contacts at the studio, and the network, and eventually met with Sam [Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot]. He and I hit it off right away because we both shared the same vision: how cool it would be to make a hacking show that’s realistic. That was my goal from that moment. To help out in any way I could and consult. And eventually pitch story ideas and eventually get hired on as a writer and technology producer.
You were always set on writing. Were you a writing major or a computer science major?
I had this huge argument with my father after graduating high school, because I wanted to go to NYU’s Tisch [School of the Arts] to study screenwriting —
Like Sam Esmail!
Like Sam. My father comes from a very conservative background. He said, “I’m not going to help pay for college if you’re going to go to film school. You’re going to get a real degree. You’re good with computers. You should pursue computers. And I’ll help pay for college that way.” So that was the deal. And it created a rift between my father and me for the longest time. I ended up getting a bachelors degree in Network Information Technology, so I was able to land a job right away. The whole time I was doing it I hated him for it. And it was so weird, once I made the jump I thought he wouldn’t be supportive of my decision, and he was 100% behind it. He was like: Alright, you have a degree, you have something to fall back on, go ahead — try it. And now he’s over-the-moon happy for me because of the success of the show. I couldn’t go to film school like I wanted to, but in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise.
Plus now you can bring your daddy issues into the writing room.
Which I have! I bring a lot of my daddy and mommy issues into the writer’s room, as do the other writers, which is part of the reason why Elliot is so messed up.
Another major theme of the show is loneliness and isolation. Once you get into Season 2 you’ll see that a major conceit is characters alone and with their devices. We show what that disconnection looks like. It’s unlike anything else on television because normally you’ll have talking head scenes with two people in a room arguing; there’s a lot of interaction. On Mr. Robot, there’s a lot of Elliot by himself thinking and talking to us. Even when Elliot is with Robot, he’s really by himself.
Well, most shows don’t use voice-overs. It’s seen as a sort of a bad thing, right?
If you read any screenwriting books, go to film school or seminars, they tell you: Voiceover is a crutch and you don’t need to spoon feed the audience with exposition. If they can see what’s happening visually, that should be enough to tell the story. Some of my favorite films use voiceover in a very intriguing way. A Clockwork Orange uses voiceover and that’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
I think the way we use is it somewhat fresh and interactive in the sense that [Elliot] is addressing us directly as his friend. And it even adds to that loneliness factor that within the first 10 minutes of the show, you feel connected to this character who can’t connect to anyone else but for some reason he’s able to be vulnerable with you, confide in you, and maybe lose his trust in you later in the season. Just the dynamic between Elliot and us, as his friend, is something that we track very closely.
There’s also no summing-up, lesson-learning —
We want to be more subtle. We’ll use a computer or a hacking metaphor to thematically link what Elliot’s experiencing to something that’s in the culture or technically makes sense. In episode 7, when Elliot’s talking about being true to himself and honoring his honest self, he compares it to when he was a kid and he used to rip off the design of websites he liked. We show a quick clip of him using Netscape Navigator on Windows 95. He’s on the 2600 website and he views the source code, then pasted it and change it. That’s when he started getting into HTML coding. So we use the concept of “view source” as “what if we had that for people?” What if we could “view source” and skip through all the bullshit and actually see what this person is all about? So a lot of our episode titles, and a lot of the Elliot’s voiceover, connects to the metaphorical language of what the theme is and how it connects to technology. We’re operating on a bunch of different levels, which is why I think the show resonates with the tech audience that picks up on those things, as well as the layperson who doesn’t understand technology but can relate and empathize with Elliot.
Elliot says such scary things to himself, being that kind of guy. It’s almost like an anti-lessons-learned, this apocalyptic straight-talk we’re getting.
But what makes him so endearing is that, at his core, he wants to use his skills for good. He sees what’s wrong with the world, and he wants to save the world. It taps into something that I experienced when I was younger and dabbling in hacking. And I think a lot of people that are involved in hacktivism have this notion of using technology to right an injustice in the world. There’s something so strong about that. [Elliot] is so flawed, and he can do terrible things, and he can think terrible things, but at the same time you’re still rooting for him. It’s such a complex, juicy character to work with.
Speaking of complexity, what kind of planning went in to creating the [spoiler alert!] cyber 9/11 at the end of season 1? Did you guys talk to experts who have actually forecasted this scenario?
We spent a lot of time in Season 1 and 2 talking to economics professors, economics journalists, a couple of contacts in the government, just picking their brains about these “what if” scenarios. Experts talked to us about how serious it was in Greece and what it did to their economy. We compared it to the market crash in 1929. They used those experiences to inform their predictions of what would happen.
We really wanted to portray what the world would look like after a huge hack like this with 70% of the world’s consumer debt destroyed, 15 days after, 30 days after, 6 months after. What would it look like a year after? What happens to jobs? To the economy? The usage of credit? Is there going to be inflation or deflation? What would happen to crypto-currencies and the value of gold? Would there be a run on the banks? If so, when would that happen? What would the relationship with the government and the Federal Reserve look like? That really helped inform the way that we built out this post-5/9 world for Season 2.
After doing all this research, do you feel like a financial hacktastrophe like this could actually happen one day?
The original premise of Evil Corp is fantastical. A conglomerate in control of 70% of the world’s consumer debt, that has that much control over all these different industries — finance, entertainment, banking — that doesn’t exist. So the attack that fsociety had planned in season 1 is an authentic approach to taking down a major corporation, but I don’t believe all of those debt records would be stored with one company. There would be copies. It would be a much more intricate and complicated attack. And I think us adding to the realism of the actual hacks, and the aftermath of the hacks, helps sell that alternate reality of our story.
It seems like hacking Mr. Robot would be the ultimate hack. Has anyone tried to hack the show? What kind of security do you have around the site and your social media?
It’s a discussion we’ve had with NBC Universal’s IT team and USA’s marketing team. Everyone is paranoid about getting hacked. Nothing serious has happened as of this time. Then again, if it happens, there’s not much we can do about it. Everyone knows if you have a target in mind and you’re dedicated to it, odds are you’re going to find a way in. I know our actors have been targeted in some ways. Sam has been targeted. Nothing that extreme has happened yet, and hopefully it doesn’t.
As long as DefCon doesn’t offer a black badge to anyone who can hack Mr. Robot, hopefully you’re safe.
I think the hacking community has really embraced the show. And I have a feeling that as long as we keep doing what we’re doing and stay true to the realism — even the demons that Elliot has to deal with, which are very true to hacker culture as well — I think we’ll keep them on our side. We are taking precautions though. There’s more security for this show than I think other USA shows have. As the show blew up, and we got more and more awareness and press, we were like: Alright, let’s have these discussions about how to keep our information secure.
I’m sure you have a lot of writers in the room who aren’t code jockeys, but just great with story. Have any Mr. Robot plotlines raised their level of cyber-awareness? Like, “I didn’t know you could do that! I better get a password manager.”
Definitely! Every single writer on the show has pulled me into their office and talked about protecting their accounts, enabling two step verification, or asking how they should secure their mobile devices. They know that if I’m pitching an idea in the room, it’s a real attack vector. So I don’t really get the shock and surprise of, “Holy ****, I didn’t know that was possible!” It’s more, “Hey, can you make sure this never happens to me?” [I tell them] I can minimize the risk a little bit as long as they’re smart about their passwords and procedures. But it happens everywhere. It happens with members of the crew, actors.
So you’re like a one-man cyber-security awareness unit now.
When I was in security, I was always the guy who friends or family would come to for help fixing their computer and I really thought when I made the jump into entertainment that would stop. But it’s worse. A lot worse! I’mthat guy. I’m always going to be that guy.
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