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The Mr. Robot Hack Report: Unhacking the world

How do you undo the biggest cyberattack in history?

Michael Parmelee/USA Network

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.

It’s all coming together! Like a lot of penultimate episodes, this week was mostly about putting pieces on the board for next week’s finale. Darlene is in FBI custody after trying to hack into the evidence system, Dom is finally catching onto the Dark Army’s FBI mole, and Elliot seems to have hacked into the Dark Army itself — all to advance a counter-hack that could undo 5/9 and restore global capitalism to its former glory. Whiterose’s lackey / boyfriend Grant is also starting to become a player in his own right, although it remains to be seen how well it will work out for him.

The important thing is, we’ve got another big hack! After playing defense to stop Stage Two, Elliot and Darlene have a new caper to pull off, with a posthumous assist from Trenton and Romero. The immediate target is the FBI’s Sentinel system (which is a real thing, by the way). It holds the key to cracking it all. So we’re going to start by figuring out exactly how the 5/9 reversal works, and what it means for Elliot.


To figure out Elliot’s new plan, it’s useful to remember how all this started. 5/9 was modeled on a ransomware attack, destroying E-Corp’s debt records by encrypting them. Crucially, the records weren’t actually deleted. (That would run into the usual deletion issues we went over last week.) They were just overwritten with an encrypted version, which is impossible to recover without the private key.

That key was supposed to be erased forever, rendering the whole thing unrecoverable, but now it seems like a trace of that private key survived. While 5/9 was happening, Romero was running a keylogger, a program that records every keystroke typed on a given machine. Keyloggers are usually part of a malware payload, used as a way to steal passwords and two-factor codes once a machine is compromised. In Romero’s case, it was intentional — he was key-logging himself — but the end result is more or less the same: a quietly exported text file with every password he typed.

The details are still tricky. That file is on Romero’s computer, which is currently in FBI custody, so just getting to it is a significant issue. Even once they get it, it’s tricky to say what the keylogger will actually show. Did Romero type in the entire private key or a smaller passphrase? Even once they get the key, does anyone have a copy of the encrypted data handy? It’s hard to say if any of these will come up next week, but there’s definitely room for a few more twists before 5/9 gets completely unwound.


The other big hack this week was Elliot’s spyware infiltration of the Dark Army. It didn’t get as much exposition as the reverse 5/9, but it was probably the biggest single plot point of the week, giving Elliot a peek into the Dark Army’s global infrastructure. By the end of the episode, he’s looking at a map of all Dark Army operations, with untold other sensitive information still to come.

We don’t know exactly what malware Elliot used (there weren’t any code screens to suss out, sadly), but this one’s pretty easy to figure out if you keep your eye on the ball. The general rule of spyware is that if you can get someone to open a file — particularly a PDF or executable — then you basically own them. We only see the broad strokes of what Elliot’s doing, aside from a suspicious Ecoin pop-up, but the basic logic is simple enough: he gives the Dark Army a file off his laptop; they put it on a USB drive and open it up; the file was not what it seemed; and now he’s got an implant.

It’s worth asking if this is all a little too easy. The Dark Army knows about spyware, and White Rose seems to assume Elliot is trying to hack them. So maybe his new spyware implant is too good to be true? It’s hard to say who has the upper hand here, but I strongly suspect that all is not as it seems.

That’s all the hacks for this week, but join us next week for the thrilling finale! Nilay will be back, and we’ll have BD Wong and Michael Cristofer stopping by to help us piece through whatever the episode brings. As always, we’re at #robotaftershow on Twitter if you’ve got any questions. This week, we’ve also got a contest running: send us your best Zhang / Price fan art, and you could end up with some Mr. Robot swag. See you next time!