Thoughts on Linux, Mr. Robot, Infosec, and Hidden Reality

It all started long before Mr. Robot.

WarGames, maybe. By then, Atari and Space Invaders had taken over my world, saving quarters by playing video games on the family tv. A friend whose dad was a doctor had a portable computer in a briefcase, monochrome green text, circa 1981 or ’82. But WarGames in 1983 shined a bright light on the possibility of a curious smart kid connecting to, and changing, the whole world from home. You would need a computer, not just a video game console. And a 300 baud modem (faster, if you could get it). But as Matthew Broderick showed, once you had those, anything could happen.

Finding free, as opposed to pay by the time used, phone numbers to call and play text-based video games or search around for a backdoor to NORAD became an obsession, which led nowhere. I didn’t win the games, refusing to cheat with help from friends or spend the amount of time required to figure it all out myself (homework and chores and playing outdoors with friends and riding bikes to malls and sports were also required in order to live); I never found an unguarded entry into the national security complex of the U.S. (or any other nation for that matter). If I had, I would have been too terrified to go in. They might catch you, and if that happened, who knows what they were capable of? The “they” of course being “the government,” always the bad guy in these imagined scenarios. Which government? Soviet? U.S.? Federal? State or local? Something unknown, secret? Didn’t matter. The government was scary and bad; just ask E.T. Or Luke Skywalker.

Probably the closest I ever got to hacking into something I wasn’t necessarily supposed to be in was during freshman year at UT Austin. Almost no one had a computer in their dorm, but I did. Along with a dial-up modem. I noticed something when I was searching through the physical card catalog of one of the university libraries, cluing me in to the fact that an “online” card catalog existed. All I needed to do was find out how to access it. That I did, and once in, was free to look at library holdings from my dorm room.

Looking back, I am certain that anyone would have been allowed to do so, even though it wasn’t publicized as a student resource as far as I knew. But at the time, it felt like I had discovered something secret, something I wasn’t supposed to know, even though it was harmless. And I didn’t like that feeling. I thought, “hey, the library should try to keep people who aren’t supposed to be there OUT! What if somebody DID something?” I didn’t know it, but I was blue team long before the term likely existed.

The aversion to seeing things I’m not supposed to see has never ceased, but the thrill of making something do something other than its stated intention has always remained. Whether it was punching in a sequence of buttons on an early TiVo to display different menus and options, or installing a different OS on my computer, the feeling of doing something that most people would not attempt has an indescribable exhilaration that isn’t accessible on the well-worn path of doing what everyone does. That’s the only thing that explains someone who was attracted to the TRS-80, the Commodore 64, Macs at the time when the company was about to go under, BeOS, Sun Solaris, Windows Phone, and Linux. I wanted what other people didn’t; once Apple and iPhone became dominant in the social conscience, I was no longer interested. If you want me to run the other direction, all you need to do is catch on with the mainstream.

Two things that I’ve discovered over the past 2-3 years are Linux and Mr. Robot. These will NEVER catch on with the masses; they’re too strange, too out there. They require a LOT of open-mindedness and leavings of comfort zones. There are things in Mr. Robot that are just hard to watch, and I wouldn’t, if it were just to glorify them or for some other gratuitous motive. They are part of a reality that is hidden from me, but that nonetheless exists. It’s eye-opening, in the same way that seeking out what is actually happening in, say, Syria is. Americans will never see the full, tragic story, or really any of the story anymore, of what is going on in that part of the world unless they actively seek it out. Isn’t it strange how coverage of Middle East conflicts has completely ceased? Make no mistake, they continue to rage. We just aren’t being shown. It’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t sell. But we need to know, because if we don’t, then we can’t hold anyone accountable for the continuing government atrocities being committed by Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others (there we go with “government = bad” again) or demand change. Which is why eleven years in, nothing has really changed in their civil war, nor in Yemen.

If you’re looking to see how the other half (or 2%) lives, give Linux a try. Choose your fighter: I’ve gone with Ubuntu, the most mainstream of the distros. The one featured most heavily in Mr. Robot is Kali Linux, which comes with tools geared toward people who are accessing networks and systems that they may or may not have the rights to access, or “penetrate,” whether hired by companies as network security testers or for other, more nefarious purposes. If installing a second operating system is too much to ask, try watching Mr. Robot on Amazon Prime Video. And if all else fails, if you REALLY want to open your eyes, do a little online digging and take a look at what’s going on in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, wherever. You really have no idea, and that, dear reader, is completely by design.

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