Mr. Robot is back, and the C Y B E R is back, too. The show takes a special interest in showing off the details that usually get glossed over, often drawing on real hacks and real cybersecurity problems. So after every episode, I’ll be breaking down who got hacked, how, and with what. It turns out, there’s a lot more to each one than you can see on-screen.
So that happened! After weeks and weeks of thinking Stage Two was just about blowing up a single building, the Dark Army pulled a fast one and blew up 71 other buildings in completely different parts of the country. Seeing everyone’s phone light up with alerts at the same time was actually kind of traumatic. If the end of the world happens anytime soon, I will definitely hear about it by push notification.
In the meantime, we got to see the second half of the big Stage Two hack — or at least the New York wing of it. The big drama was Elliot going full All of Me with Robot, trashing a few terminals and generally beating the crap out of himself. It’s probably the only action sequence I’ve ever seen set in a corporate data center, so there’s that, too. Patch management can be thrilling and dramatic, too!
PLAYING WITH FIRE
The biggest hack here was the same as last week: The Dark Army wants to blow up the batteries, and Elliot wants to stop them. Elliot had patched the software to protect it, but now the Dark Army rolled back the patch. Last week was all about the keys for signing the unpatched software — that’s what Angela was stealing — but now the keys are in, the software is signed, and they’re just going back and forth over who can deploy the fastest.
Normally we’d get some fancy moves from Elliot in this department, but he spends most of the episode going back and forth with Mr. Robot, eventually trashing the terminal and beating himself up so bad he can barely make it down the hallway. With no more time to deploy the patched software, Elliot moves to plan B: physically preventing the battery room from blowing up. Even if the software is bad and the batteries end up venting hydrogen, the fire safety system will prevent anything from actually exploding. And after a heart-to-heart notepad conversation with Robot, that’s exactly what ends up happening. Elliot saves the day and walks out clean to the soothing sounds of Brian Eno. No problem, right?
BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE
Then, of course, everything goes wrong. It turns out, the Dark Army was planning the same hack in 72 buildings across the country, and Elliot only saved one of them. And since we know there were no paper records in the building Elliot saved, it seems likely that every last trace of the debt really is gone. In theory, this is just what F-Society wanted — the jubilee is here at last! — but by now Elliot and Darlene have come around to this perhaps not being a good idea.
It’s a little tricky to talk about the mechanics of this, just because there’s no real analogue for E Corp in the real world. It’s kind of like a major bank, but it’s also a cryptocurrency company and a debt clearinghouse. Most importantly for us, it’s also kind of like Google. Even with their digital operations irretrievably encrypted, E Corp still ends up building something that looks an awful lot like modern web infrastructure. The paper records are distributed, probably even duplicated in many respects, across dozens of different storage centers throughout the country. The whole point is to create as many different points of failure as possible. What are the odds of someone taking down 71 buildings at once?
And yet… the odds may be better than you think. Modern infrastructure genuinely is vulnerable, as yesterday’s Google Docs outage reminded us. That’s nothing like the terrorism we saw in last night’s episode, but it’s a reminder that this infrastructure is more fragile than you think. We think of the internet as separate from the physical world, but the information fueling everything you see online (including this webpage, right now) exists in a physical location somewhere in the world. If it seems cloudy and ephemeral, that’s only because it’s in more than one place at a time.