I'd like to make a write up about the USA Network TV series Mr. Robot for this site, but I'm not ready to do it yet. At this point the series isn't quite two full seasons into what promises to be a strong arc of at least 4-6 seasons, and I'm not necessarily the ideal person to be writing about the content. I don't follow the after-show fan stuff, I don't play the ARG game which has been developed to promote the show, and at some point I'm going to have to re-watch big chunks of the series because for several episodes I was half-distracted by games of online chess or similar.
The series is about computer/network security, about the skills and mindset required to attack that security, and about the implications that a complex mesh of vulnerable trust systems has on the lives of everyone around us. I work in an IT job in a security-conscious sector of the profession, I read Bruce Schneier; to some extent I'm exactly the target audience for the show. The show has won favorable recognition for its relatively realistic depictions of various hacking techniques, from social engineering to the use of tools like TOR and digital steganography, to more sophisticated things like the use of femtocell technology to create false cell towers. Tech skill is not treated like a super-power, but the implications of our society's universal dependency on technology is shown--quite accurately--to have a troubling side to it.
The show is also a fierce political statement, orienting itself on anti-oligarchic anarchist grounds similar to those that inspired the Anonymous movement, and adopting similar imagery to depict the equivalent in-canon group, 'fsociety'. This is partly about giving the show its frequent uncanny valley flourishes, such as using real footage of Barack Obama from real press conferences but over-dubbing his audio with speech of a fairly credible impressionist instead speaking about events from the series. But the viewer should make no mistake: there's also an earnest worldview on display here, and it's one which displays a profound distrust of the influence that the outer edges of our moneyed elite have on all of human civilization. As the series progresses, it has begun to make the case that these wealthy interests have throughly compromised the orderly progression of our politics, our workplace lives, and in some cases even our physical health--all in much the same manner that the individual hackers in pursuit of their own in-show goals are depicted as thoroughly compromising the personal lives of various people around them. (The show spends more time on the outcomes the hacker achieves by perpetrating these exploits than it spends on the personal impacts to the victims of the hacks, but this is fair; the show's narrative eye is largely third-person subjective, and the point-of-view rests far more often on a hacker than on the victim of a hack.)
The show is further heavily influenced by unreliable-narrator fiction such as David Fincher's film adaptation of Fight Club, Mary Harron's film adaptation of American Psycho, and the Showtime television adaptation of Dexter. The protagonist is a psychologically disturbed individual, breaking the fourth wall as he narrates to you, the viewer, in voiceover on scenes from his own life. He fantasizes about being stalked and harassed by men in black suits, and lives a secret life as a vigilante black-hat hacker.
The protagonist is also a profoundly alienated individual. His primary love interest at the outset of the series is a childhood friend. They've both suffered tragic family losses at the hands of the same corporation; by day, they both work together at the same security company; by night, he uses the same blackhat skills which have enabled him to blow whistles on criminals of many stripes to stalk his friend and manipulate her relationships with various boyfriends to a supposedly protective end. He's doing the same thing to his female psychiatrist.
The show is a work of cypherpunk art--but it also opens by depicting cyber-security tradecraft in tones which are alternately pathetic and menacing. I walked away from those initial episodes worried that the show would either lose its audience in the details or leave them holding greater fear toward the people who possess these skills than they hold toward the manner all our lives could be so thoroughly upended by the almost-invisible dependencies we all have on internetworked technology.
Our protagonist Elliot Alderson is deeply confused, personally tortured--and also almost supernaturally competent. I walked away from the first season convinced that I could not remain on-board with the show if his personal interference in the lives of the people around him never wrought personal consequences on him. Without spoiling too much, the show partially rewarded my concerns by giving him some of those consequences--and much of this second season has focused on the fears that successful hackers have of being forced to live with the consequences of their actions. But his season 1 love interest is back in his life and at the end of the most recent episode, she--now fully aware of who he is and what he can do--shares a kiss with him before they part ways with no expectation of ever resuming a life together. Ugh.
This stuff is airing in 2016, in an environment which is gradually turning Edward Snowden into the hero of a tense, paranoid Hollywood techno-thriller.
I have complicated feelings about Snowden. As an IT professional who believes strongly in the SAGE Code of Ethics and who has spent many hours reading about what Snowden did, one part of me believes that he should never again be trusted with privileged access to anyone else's computer systems. He should be totally unemployable in that sector, because of the inherently cost-prohibitive audit controls any company would need to implement to hire him without misgivings.
There's one part of me that read Greenwald's publications in the aftermath of the initial security leaks--and went on to watch the season of The Newsroom discussing the journalistic ethics of a similar leak, as well as the film Citizenfour and other interviews with Snowden himself about what he did, why he did it, and why he came forward. That part of me admires the man that I have come to think of as "Citizen Snowden" for having professionally encountered a situation which horrified him on a deeply personal level, having made a decision to devote his life to doing something about it, and having changed the world for the better in the process. I firmly believe that Snowden deserves a safe return home to this nation with zero fear either for his personal safety or for any form of legal retaliation from our government. Podcaster Dan Carlin recently related modern current events to the Gulf of Tonkin incident to talk about how the government uses secrecy to advance an agenda that its own citizens would never accept. The Snowden revelations are absolutely a valid example of that; regardless of the national strategic advantages we've gotten by having our infosec spooks conduct themselves in this manner, the American public would never--not even in a referendum conducted 15 years ago today--have permitted those professionals to do everything Snowden and Greenwald told the world about.
One of the things which bothered me the most was the way individuals within the NSA's pervasive wiretapping culture were using the same pervasive-monitoring infrastructure we had established to avert acts of domestic terrorism to spy on partners, exes, and crushes. This was so commonplace that Snowden reported it had been given a tongue-in-cheek codename of LOVEINT within the intelligence community. This directly echoes the thing which made me so itchy about the first-season plot threads in Mr. Robot. A similar observation passes almost without remark in the HBO series Silicon Valley when the head IT guy at the protagonist's tech startup announces that he has inadvertently discovered enterprise-ending corporate malfeasance while misusing GPS data the company collects about its beta users to confirm his suspicions that his girlfriend has been cheating on him. In that series, the corporate malfeasance--which the audience already knew about--is a critical plot point. The LOVEINT-esque abuses to which the IT guy confesses pass entirely without remark--as do the impacts of this revelation on the IT guy's relationship and personal well-being. The indifference to the IT guy's life and state of mind are just sitcom logic. The indifference within the sitcom to the IT guy having abused his trusted access to computer system in a way which doesn't just violate his employer's trust in him, but also violates the trust a third party has placed in his employer? That isn't bad writing. It goes unaddressed as subtle commentary about the real corporate culture which exists in social media companies and anywhere else where ordinary people are trusted as employees to be responsible stewards of data which touches their own personal lives. The temptation to put work second is so natural that in a highly-praised HBO sitcom about the complex intersection between passion, hubris and genius with money, cynicism and mediocrity, abuse of power in the name of romantic love is only introduced as the set-up to another joke's punchline. Double ugh.
I digress. Where was I?
I think that Snowden is one of our nation's best examples to its citizens, and one of my profession's worst examples to my peers. I contain both of these beliefs at the same time, with zero cognitive dissonance. I believe that root access administrators like Snowden should be granted the same kind of privilege-not-to-testify that we extend to attorneys, doctors, and priests--and that those administrators should be given the same kind of grave professional consequences that our nation creates when any of those professionals chooses to breach a professional duty by testifying anyway. Professional duty and civic duty will not always perfectly align, and anyone who breaches the former by cleaving toward the latter deserves to be fired amid near-universal applause. If I found myself in Snowden's shoes, I would hope to find myself brave enough to do the same thing he did--and, having done it, I would begin studying up on some alternate profession under the expectation that I was going to need to be qualified for one very soon.
I also think that if Snowden and I had the same job, I wouldn't have encountered his conflict. Apparently most of the information he accessed was not stuff he needed to read in the course of his duties, it was stuff he was supposed to replicate to a backup site in the course of his duties as a Sharepoint administrator, and he had no professional reason to actually be reading any of it. If this is true, it means that before he found out that his country's SIGINT community was operating in excess of its authority in a way which would appall most voters, he engaged in the same flavor of petty crime as an office secretary glancing through the content of the CEO's outbound correspondence instead of simply mailing out the letters. This temptation to actually access data instead of passively handling it is a difficult part of any profession where trust comes to rest in a person whose duties rest primarily in the execution of rote administrative tasks rather than in the application of professional discretion, but regardless of whether I can empathize with his temptation to stray, Snowden reportedly had to breach his duties in a way which falls on the far side of an ethical boundary for me before he was ever confronted with the dilemma of needing to give up life as he knew it in order to do the right thing. A more ethical contractor-administrator could have kept the data on the NSA's backup site online without ever being confronted by any ethical dilemmas about whether the NSA's rules of engagement constituted a breach of American values.
Great citizen, bad employee. That's Snowden. Great citizen, awful friend, deeply sick man. That's Mr. Robot's hero Elliot. I share a profession--and probably some flaws, and hopefully a couple of virtues---with those two figures. It follows that these should be unusually easy distinctions for me to process. I find this to be so.
I keep getting in arguments with people who think that because I contain these two conflicting feelings about Snowden I disapprove of what he did and think that it harmed our society. This is not so. Great citizen, bad employee. I'm grateful to him for putting his duties as a citizen first, and I would discourage my boss from hiring him if my boss asked for my opinion of him. Snowden and my boss and I all owe more to our nation than we do to our employers, but my boss needs to hire on a different set of criteria. That's okay.
I worry that Mr. Robot is going to reach the same people who seem perplexed by these conflicting feelings, and make that audience feel dangerously uncomplicated things with respect to the show's subject matter. It honestly doesn't matter to me whether those feelings are positive or negative; either outcome is dangerous. Snowden isn't only a hero, neither is Elliot.
I haven't seen the new movie about Snowden, just trailers which have him solving a Rubix cube with one hand from a fixed perspective as he walks through an airport. Part of our culture is turning this guy into a kind of dashing, dorky genius--and that we can decide to see him in this manner simply by watching what he did, without looking at his face or trying to understand what he felt when he got started. The reality is something different. Something less compelling, and more complicated.
So, I think that I'm the right kind of person to be reading The Intercept, and to be watching Mr. Robot, and to be posting long screeds on phpBB message forums (and last-tech-standing successors like this site) expressing skepticism about cryptocurrency and Democracy Now-approved net neutrality activism and the rest. All of it means something to me. But I'm also the wrong person to be an advocate for any of those things. I'm the wrong person to be making posts about that content on a site like this one, and I'm the wrong person to be attaching opinions about that TV show or that real-world figure to either the name of the show or the name of the person.
Because this isn't a post about that show or that person or about what either one did. This is a post about how relating those things has made me feel.
Some time ago, I made a post online which said:
"The last Bitcoin is projected to be mined over a hundred years from now. Human beings have not yet invented a cryptographic hash function that has stood intact for a quarter of that time."
The tradecraft which Mr. Robot incorporates for authenticity is all about recognition of this sort of impermanence, this essential conflict between the things which seem hard to you and the things which seem hard to your adversary, and between the things which seem hard right now and the things which will still seem hard after another decade or more of progress. Mr. Robot is an articulate expression of those concerns, but around the edges it has introduced themes which I worry will distract you from that most important point--not just as you think about the show, but as you're confronted in your own life by the kind of invisible adversaries that the science of cryptography encourages you to consider.
(Hmm. I suddenly wonder if these men-in-black types that Elliot imagines in the first season are just his visualization of the figures who keep generically trying to get between all the Alices and Bobs of the world. But I digress again.)
Maybe my favorite thing about that show is something I've only really mentioned around the edges: Its uses of anachronism to remind us of that essentially Long Now conflict. Much like the film Drive, the TV series drenches itself in the pop music and related imagery of a previous decade in order to throw its own story into a sharp contrast. Mr. Robot also contains frequent references to dead and outmoded technology, to dead or dying media. Even the overtly on-the-nose homages to American Psycho and its conspicuous consumption narrator (itself in turn a reference to an earlier Hitchcock film) are intended to remind you of the inherently impermanent and inherently cyclical nature of these conflicts.
One of the show's most inherently menacing figures is a time-obsessed gender-fluid compulsive figure, sometimes appearing as a figure of overtly male authority in Chinese government, sometimes appearing as a subversively female figure in private/underground/counterculture settings. Throughout, this individual is rigorously focused on time, ending contact with other characters abruptly after some time limit expires, or encountering them in rooms full of time-pieces and then stalling until the dramatic tension itself has drained out of a scene.
The genius anarchist hackers in the series are ruled by a similar dichotomy: sometimes their actions are governed by a need for absolute, coordinated precision; other times they are waiting impatiently for some person under monitoring to slip up. Sometimes the vectors of an attack depend on small moments of opportunity such as some undiscovered zero day exploit. Just as often they depend on general complacency within a community.
Throughout all this: Mr. Robot, its protagonists, these contrasts in pace and urgency which pervade its writing, the way the cabalist hacker conspiracy revealed in the first season echoes the globalist one-percenter conspiracy alluded to in the second season, even through my own conflicting feelings about Ed Snowden and the way he changed our world... There's a single through-line, a yin and a yang, a hodge and a podge. At a sufficiently low resolution, our heroes and our monsters become just as indistinguishable as our doom and our salvation, or as a good citizen and a bad systems administrator. The seeds of the one bear the fruit of the other, endlessly.
Sometimes the protectors who guard us while we sleep are peeping at their ex-girlfriends while they dress. No duty remains solemn 100% of the time.
Fiction can be one of the clearest lights we can shine on this sort of complexity. I need the new Snowden film to have that kind of clarity, and I need Mr. Robot to have that kind of clarity. I'm not sure either one of them has it.
I'm not sure how to reconcile my uncertainty. I'm not sure how to tie up any of my writing on the topic into an article worthy of its own title, either here or elsewhere. And all of these are feelings I've been trying to articulate for a good, long while now. Maybe posting what I'm thinking about today is the best I'll ever be able to manage on this subject. But maybe that's okay. My feeling is that writing on a subject like this one has an even lower time-to-live than the average cryptographic hash algorithm gets.
Cyberpunk was our term for speculative fiction about the emerging technology of cybernetics. Cypherpunk, by extension, is our term for speculative fiction about the emerging technology of cryptography. I think I need different words here, because this stuff isn't speculation, it's allegory. The world we're worrying about is already here. Elliot looks like Dexter and Tyler and Patrick not because he _is_ like them, but because we know who those other guys are and this show is incorporating all of them by reference. (#include "dirtyrealism.h", I guess.)
If we use (foo)punk to indicate speculative fiction about the near-term some discipline, maybe we need a second term to indicate ruminative, brooding fiction about the immediate-term, still-nearly-invisible impacts of that discipline on our actual world.
What's the word I'm grasping for here? Ciphercore?
Yeah, see? Triple ugh. I'm not ready to be posting for real about any of this yet. Daylog it is.