Episode 8 of Mr. Robot’s third season was moving and raw, with a heavy dose of pop culture and nostalgia. We discussed steganography, secure deletion, the possibility of time travel, and more. (The chat transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.) This week’s team of experts include:
- Bill Budington: a long time activist, programmer, and cryptography enthusiast, and a security engineer and technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
- Harlo Holmes: a digital security trainer at Freedom of the Press Foundation.
- Micah Lee: a technologist with a focus on operational security, source protection, privacy and cryptography, as well as a journalist at The Intercept.
- Freddy Martinez: a technologist working on whistle blowing technologies. He serves as a Director for the Chicago-based Lucy Parsons Labs.
Freddy: So just to be clear It was implied that Elliot was going to try to OD on morphine right?
Bill: Yeah, that much is clear. They were setting it up; the drug dealer called it "option 3."
Freddy: Yeah. Option 2 “drop your pants so I know you’re not a cop” is such a TV display of drug deals. Usually, a cop will make a few small transactions (three or so, so it’s harder to claim entrapment) and then ask for a huge amount (like Elliot was buying) to catch a dealer with a larger amount and send them to jail for longer.
Yael: Do the cops drop their pants, though? LOL let me rephrase that. Would cops respond the same way Elliot did in that situation? I mean, people believe cops even when they're lying a lot of the time, so it seems implausible that they'd need to be bugged or whatever.
Freddy: Yeah I mean they probably would, they go off court testimony and not hard evidence. 94% of all cases result in plea bargains so cops won’t have to ever go on the stand anyways. (It’s a massive injustice)
Bill: Yeah I think of bugging happening more when they're going after big fish. Mafia types, or white collar crime.
Yael: So in season 1, I researched what Elliot was using for storing data on CDs, and it was actually DeepSound, an audio converter tool. It hides files within WAV and FLAC audio files, and everything’s encrypted and password protection. Steganography FTW.
Harlo: I <3 stego.
Yael: Especially when it's real stego instead of fake stego used as a marketing technique.
Harlo: Stego is hiding things in plain sight. There's deep stego and shallow stego. Shallow stego is when you do something like appending data to the front or end of a file, like you can do in mp3s. But deep stego is usually when you can use the compression algo to embed stuff in the data itself.
Freddy: Wouldn’t you have to remember a passphrase to retrieve the encrypted data?
Harlo: Stego doesn't care about crypto. The best thing is to do stego + crypto. Usually they're independent.
Micah: Also notice that Elliot was running DeepSound in Linux Mint, instead of Kali. Linux Mint is more secure than Kali -- designed for doing all sorts of work instead of just hacking, so you don't run everything as root. But I'm not sure it's the distro I'd choose… remember when their website was hacked and the ISO was replaced with one that included a backdoor?
Harlo: LOL EXACTLY. Supply chain attack!
Yael: What's a scenario where that could affect Elliot? In the future, since this happened in 2015.
Freddy: Back to the future.
Harlo: Later on at the end of the episode, when he gets some new stuff, some "TAO'ed stuff." Totally An Ordinary hard drive.
Micah: He destroys all his hardware, gets new stuff, downloads a new ISO, but this time he's hacked from the beginning. Of course, random people who exploit WordPress bugs in linuxmint.com aren't really his threat model, the Dark Army is. So maybe they'd just use his computer to send spam or something, and he'd be fine.
Freddy: Drilling through a hard drive like they showed on screen is actually harder than the TV makes it out to be. An easier way to secure delete is to take the HDD apart and just break the physical platters. (Doesn’t work on SSDs).
Yael: Is microwaving memory chips really the best way to wipe down? I think I’ve talked about Zoz’s “And That’s How I Lost My Other Eye” DefCon talk before.
Freddy: Note: the platter chips go EVERYWHERE and it’s very fine, almost glass-like, but sharp and small chips. Do this in a well-ventilated area or outside. Alternatively: use a .45. 9mm is cheaper, though. :)
Yael: Can't you just overwrite it with 1s and 0s?
Bill: Secure deletion also doesn't wipe the files already deleted. For that, you can use a utility called scrub…. you can use the -X flag to fill up empty space.
Freddy: I have used DBAN before to wipe, but I prefer the physical.
Harlo: The most paranoid don't trust software implementations of deletion anyway.
Freddy: Yeah microwaving I think just damages the microwave.
Yael: lol. Need to get Elliot an Instant Pot for Christmas.
Freddy: Take a hammer or axle grinder or drill to it.
Yael: I went to a smashing room for fun over Thanksgiving break, and the electronics were the hardest to smash. Breaking plates and bottles and things is so much easier.
Micah: Remember when the GCHQ compelled Guardian to destroy the laptop that contained Snowden documents, and they filmed it? They destroyed specific chips on the motherboard that contain firmware, just like Elliot.
Freddy: Does that mean GCHQ knew about specific exploits that could have gotten exploited in that firmware though?
Micah: Yes. Someone did a CCC talk on it.
Micah: After he wipes down, where does Elliot keep his stash of exploits, codes, and other persistent data? Does he have a VPS somewhere that he doesn't wipe down?
Bill: There are lots of chips that can be used for persistent storage on a motherboard. There’s a CCC talk on the theme of reasonably trustworthy computing. But otherwise, destroying shit is fun.
Freddy: Most hackers use a staging server that isn’t physically co-located to their position. Also: don’t put your criminally incriminating stuff in the trash by your house!
Yael: Let’s talk about Back to the Future.
Harlo: I love that movie. Why would you want to off yourself on back to the future day?!
Like, come on.
Yael: Elliot is actually a really good unwitting surrogate older brother.
Freddy: I love Back to the Future. It has the very anarchist slogan: “Where we are going we don’t need roads.”
Bill: I don't think that was about rewilding though :( I dunno, I liked The Martian, too. Why does Elliot have to hate on Mark Watney? THEY JUST WANT TO BRING HIM HOME. Though the book was much better.
Micah: The Martian is like up there in my favorite movies.
Yael: The book is… stunning in its detail.
Bill: I had to listen to it on audiobook; otherwise I'd be Wikipediaing chemistry on every page.
Micah: But to be fair, Elliot agreed to go see it with the kid later on instead of killing himself, so maybe he'll like it in the end after all.
Yael: The movie was kinda funny but made me happy that movies are visual and not olfactory.
Harlo: I kind of didn't like the Martian. Too isolated. I usually don't like movies that are blocked like plays. But the new book by the guy sounds awesome.
Micah: Artemis: A Novel, by Andy Weir. I'm reading it right now. It's about a woman who lives on the only city in the moon, who's like a smuggler, with lots of interesting science and geopolitics.
Harlo: Yeah, I can't wait to read Artemis.
Yael: Okay, so should we segue to the final email? Was this the killswitch email from Trenton? What is happening? And how come Elliot doesn't check his email? Is it because he has a bunch of email addresses and nobody uses ProtonMail?
Harlo: lol I barely check my ProtonMail account, either.
Yael: I got one when I was researching them for an article, but I don't use it. And lately people have been sending me "encrypted" emails to my regular email using Protonmail with hints for passwords that I'm supposed to guess, which is the most annoying thing ever.
Harlo: I have huge problems with this. That type of workflow is just training people to get phished.
Micah: The Oct 31, 2015 version of ProtonMail still had a separate decryption passphrase.
Yael: I think the email said that Romero installed some kind of program that might have saved a backup of all the data the hack wiped out, which…would be helpful maybe but wouldn't hit the rewind button, Angela style.
Freddy: Trenton had to physically disable the email going out every 24 hours, and since Trenton didn't, that's why Elliot got it.
Yael: That seems like a weird killswitch email. Is it because she wants someone to finish the undoing the hack effort that she started?
Micah: The email said that Romero installed a hardware keylogger that the FBI couldn't get into on all the computers in the arcade.
Harlo: If only we could find the seed….
Bill: Maybe she just wanted it as revenge if anything were to happen to her, say she got taken by the FBI. Turns out it was the Dark Army, but yeah.
Micah: One of those computers generated the encryption key that was used to forever-encrypt all the E-Corp debt data. But what I don't understand is how will restoring everyone's debt help things? Won't it just basically give more to E-Corp again?
Yael: How would that be revenge against the FBI? I think the feds want the data decrypted? Or the ones not working with Dark Army do?
Bill: The whole email is about stealing data from them, or managing to steal that hardware. Breaking into the FBI episode upcoming. :) 1971-style. ;) But probably a lot lot harder.
Harlo: "We did it before, and we could do it again."
Freddy: It's a meta Back to the Future reference. He and Angela are going to put everything back again.
Yael: Heh, good luck with that.
Micah: Did you know in 1971 when the Committee to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office, they got all the COINTELPRO docs from the filing cabinets. But the office also had a safe, and one of the burglars was really curious what was in it and ended up actually stealing the safe to break it open later. It was guns. Everyone else was like, the safe is too heavy and locked, we have to get out. But one of them came back for it.
Yael: Many of the kids these days don't even know what COINTELPRO is anymore. Any final thoughts, anyone? I'm glad they did this episode even though I bawled my eyes out.
Micah: I love the atmospheric dystopia. The 9 pm curfew, soldiers standing guard everywhere, crumbling infrastructure.
Bill: Yeah, they've really changed the outside scenes from chaotic cyberwar to police state.
Freddy: Trash everywhere and poor sanitation.
Harlo: Also, the surgical masks? What is that hinting at?
Bill: I thought it was the air quality after all those E-corp buildings went up in smoke
Harlo: But it didn't happen in NYC!
Bill: Maybe it did in nearby locations. Trenton? Danbury? Or just outside the metro area perhaps. I dunno, 71 is a huge number.
Freddy: There was a map last episode.
Yael: I hope I get an invitation to Mobley's funeral.