The Mr. Robot Hack Report: Lighting Up the Dark Web
Mr. Robot is a show built on hacks. The mother of all hacks serves as the big cliffhanger at the end of the show's first season, and nearly every plot development leading up to it was nudged along by some kind of exploit. It’s rare to get through an episode without at least one digital intrusion, often drawn from real life. Each week, we'll be running through Mr. Robot's C Y B E R activities — who got hacked, why, and how much magic would be required to make them actually work.
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So…that was a twist. Nothing is the same! In fact, most of the hacking we’ve talked about so far this season has to be reconsidered now that we know (seriously, last call for spoilers) that Elliot was in prison the whole time! He hacked the FBI from inside the prison that the FBI quite possibly put him in!
Of course, this column is more interested in hacking than the SUBJECTIVE NATURE OF REALITY so I’m leaving most of the twist talk for the Digital After Show, which is embedded below. For now, I’m going to focus on exactly how sites like Midland City get taken down — and how Elliott’s impromtu takedown compares with its real-life counterparts.
We ended last episode with Elliot beaten nearly to death and dumped in a basement, all punishment for looking at the horror that takes place on Ray’s Midland City marketplace. The site is a more explicitly evil version of the dark web marketplaces that have popped up in the past few years. The most famous one is Silk Road, but there have been dozens, from immediate sequels like Silk Road 2.0 and 3.0 to lesser-known spinoffs like Agora, Hydra, and Evolution. Many of them have been taken down by federal law enforcement agencies, so it’s a good bet that the feds would be very prepared to take down the latest hitmen-and-heroin marketplace.
So how does Elliot tip off the feds? Let’s take it one point at a time:
Opening the site to non-Tor traffic
First, he opens makes the site accessible to plain-old web-goers. This is more complex than it sounds! The whole point of Tor hidden services is that they can’t be accessed through the conventional web. You need a special browser to get there and you need to know where you’re going in advance. If Elliot’s undoing that, it means he has to build a separate site that’s not on Tor at all. But as long as we’re migrating, why not? Of course, that might not call down the feds all on its own, so you’d also want to…
Index the site on the top search engines
Sure! It can take months for Google’s crawlers to find a new site, but we have to assume Elliot’s up on the latest SEO tricks. It still might take you a little while to hit the first page of results for "Thai girls for sale," as Midland City has apparently done, but you can get close enough.
Easiest way to get the word out, online or off.
Literally email the FBI to tell them what you’re doing
That will do it! They might not believe you, but all it takes is a quick Google to see you’re telling them the truth.
The biggest threat to dark web sites is the owners themselves
Going through that checklist really would bring down the feds, and you could even do it from a computer in prison, although it might take more than a few hours to call in the assault team. I’m also assuming Elliot tipped off Ray’s exact location so the feds didn’t have to go through the hassle of pulling the server records.
Of course, the real Silk Road investigation was a lot messier. As luck would have it, there’s a great Ars Technica piece today about how difficult it was to suss out the two investigators extorting their target behind the scenes.
But the biggest threat to most dark web sites isn’t the IT guys or even the feds, but the owners themselves. When the Evolution marketplace went offline in March of 2015, it took with it all the bitcoin stored in escrow on the site — potentially millions of dollars in a single swoop. No one knows for sure what happened, but conventional wisdom is that the site’s operators had pulled off an Exit Scam, building up enough trust to hold user’s money in escrow and then heading for the hills. Since anonymity and escrow accounts are the two constants of dark web marketplaces, that scenario has proven to be an even bigger problem than feds for Silk Road dreamers.
Which is to say… if Ray’s really tired of the moral weight of Midland City, maybe he can just take the money and run?
Of course, none of that gets us into the big questions, like why Elliot was in prison in the first place, why he’s now getting out, and when Leon became a ninja. But that’s what the Digital Aftershow is for! As always, let me know if there’s any other hackery you’d like to see explained. In the meantime, make sure to question the VERY NATURE OF REALITY AS YOU KNOW IT.
Disclosure: NBC Universal, owner of USA Network, is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company. Additionally, we are an independent editorial partner in the Mr. Robot Digital After Show hosted by The Verge.