What 'House of Cards' Got Right About Hackers

The show's hacktivist FBI informant subplot has real-world parallels.

Feb 21 2014, 5:30pm
Image: House of Cards

If you haven’t watched all of House of Cards yet and plan on it, I suggest you stop reading now as this piece is nothing but spoilers upon spoilers and the real world inspiration for said spoilers regarding the hacker subplot.

Of all the things that should be celebrated about House of Cards, the accuracy of its hacker story arc should be high among them. This Netflix original series is one of those rare Hollywood-esque projects that bothers to portray the so-called hacker with some authenticity, even going as far as hiring the hacktivist Gregg Housh to consult on the show for months and changing the script based on his suggestions. The show’s hacker subplot is not perfect, but it’s better than most anything else out there right now. More importantly, the hacker character in the show, Gavin Orsay, could have easily been a despicable and scary villain, as the media is wont to portray them. But he’s none of these things.

This is a big deal when you consider how mainstream House of Cards as a show has become, and the impact the series will likely have on the public’s perception of hackers going forward. It could be a coincidence people in the United States searched for the hacktivist-related terms mentioned and explained on the show, like the privacy software “Tor,” imprisoned journalist Barrett Brown, and dark “Deep Web” more this month than last according to Google Trends data, but since everyone and their mother watches House of Cards it’s probably not just a coincidence.  

Whether academia likes it or not, people learn a great deal about all kinds of stuff from TV shows and movies. In this case, it is hackers and their struggles with government, which includes prosecutorial overcharging and intimidation from the FBI.

There’s a strong parallel between Orsay setting up Goodwin and Sabu setting up Jeremy Hammond (and Barrett Brown as fall-out).

Before we are even introduced to Orsay, played by actor Jimmi Simpson, the public’s been schooled in the Deep Web and Tor as well as the eccentricities and paranoia that exists in the hacktivist scene. Orsay sending investigative journalist Lucas Goodwin a tablet just to communicate with him securely as a birdman wearing a metal cauldron for a helmet (i.e, as the Prince of Hell from Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights) falls right in line with what a hacker would do to preserve his identity while also displaying his counterculture personality.  

When Orsay finally appears on screen in episode three, he is not a stereotypical pimple-cheeked neckbeard living in his mother’s basement but a stylish, attractive youngish man with an eye for simple and elegant home decor. He also has finer tastes, as evident by his black silk pajama bottoms.

Yes, Hollywood and Co tend to glamorize and make pretty their actors and film sets, but House of Cards didn’t have to go this way. They could have made Orsay overweight and less attractive and had him dress in a more alienating style like grunge, punk rock or pleather goth like a dude from the Matrix. He could have worn a fedora as he sat at his computer screens surrounded by empty Mountain Dew bottles and junk food wrappers.

Hackers that are at Orsay’s portrayed skill level do tend to look and act as put together in real life though, said Housh in an phone interview when I brought this up.

As for Orsay’s personality, beyond the paranoia, isolation and smug attitude that permeates anyone in that scene, he is a highly sympathetic character. We learn early on he cares very much about protecting his friends and not selling them out. Or as the hacktivists call it, Orsay ain’t no “snitch.” This was not the original storyline, explained Housh on the phone (and in his Guardian article on the subject). Housh actually convinced the House of Cards writers to change this aspect of Orsay because if he was portrayed as selling out his friends, it would effectively “torch the character” and no one would care if the character tried to “redeem himself later on.”  

This vehemence towards snitches has a real-world counterpart in the former LulzSec hacker Hector Xavier Monsegur aka “Sabu,” who became an informant, ratted out members of his group to the Feds and became the most hated man ever among hacktivists. Beyond making hurtful memes, angry open letters on defaced websites and videos about him, fellow hacktivists are convinced Sabu is still working for the FBI right now citing his court date perpetually being postponed as proof. Some even think he helped the FBI nab the mastermind of the Silk Road, the Dread Pirate Roberts, last October.

Whether or not the FBI threatened to take Sabu’s young adopted sons away (the children of his incarcerated aunt) when they turned him into an informant, as well as any pleas for sympathy, fall on deaf ears in the hacker community. I’ve been personally trolled on Twitter for suggesting as much. Housh wouldn’t have it either, declaring Sabu “went way further than I think he needed to, to work with them to save your kids I get that argument, but he helped them on every single case, he continues to help and help … Sabu is unredeemable.”  

Orsay set up and sold out the journalist Lucas Goodwin early in the season, a parallel to Jeremy Hammond’s undoing (among others) at the hands of Sabu, because the FBI agent in his apartment threatened to crush Orsay’s beloved pet guinea pig under his shoe if Orsay didn’t comply. The guinea pig is no small male child, but Goodwin wasn’t actually Orsay’s friend, so I guess this justifies the community’s dissonance towards snitches and informants and their approval of the Orsay character.

As for whether or not an FBI agent would actually threaten to kill a pet, Housh said he’d “never see that level of cruelty in an agent and that would probably be an anomaly… but that pressure [to get someone to comply] has definitely been that strong in certain cases.” But, he added, “the people they’ve been doing that to don’t deserve it.” Like the late Aaron Swartz for instance.  

There’s another strong parallel between Orsay setting up Goodwin and Sabu setting up Hammond (and Barrett Brown as fall-out), explained Housh, because the FBI “wanted two people specifically and they used Sabu in real life” to also go after a journalist, who was originally Julian Assange on behalf of “Stratfor but ended up getting Barrett Brown instead.” (The journalist in House of Cards, Goodwin, was set up by Orsay working unwillingly under the FBI at Underwood’s urging.)

In another touch of realism, Brown was name-dropped a few times near the end of House of Cards when Orsay demanded leniency for him. Brown is currently facing more than 100 years in prison, so the fictitious FBI agent threatening Orsay with 100 years as well is in keeping with the trend of prosecutorial overcharging. Housh, who calls himself a good friend of Brown’s, is also responsible for this addition in the House of Cards storyline.

Kevin Gallagher, who runs the Free Barrett Brown network and whom Housh said he is “eternally grateful” for, called it the “coolest thing” to see Brown mentioned in the award-winning show, because “it leads to national recognition.” He continued, “the series is acknowledging the political reality of hacktivists who weld information technology, and a threat to the establishment as represented by Frank Underwood.” There’s currently a motion filed to dismiss Brown’s first indictment, and the renewed press interest in Brown following the House of Cards mentions couldn’t hurt.

House of Cards didn’t get everything right, however. Besides tinkering with Orsay’s computer screen set up (the Guardian), House of Cards failed to accurately portray how mass phone surveillance works (outlined by Al Jazeera), explain all aspects of the Deep Web (according to Slate), but most erroneously of all in my opinion, portrayed AT&T as having this insanely difficult to hack into security that required Goodwin to actually visit the servers and physically use a thumb drive.

We know this is just not a true representation of AT&T’s security, as Andrew “weev” Auernheimer is still serving a 41-month-long prison sentence for notifying Gawker of AT&T’s failures at protecting their user data. “Weak” is not an understatement; weev was able to access AT&T user data just by going to a public hyperlink, he didn’t actually have to hack anything. “I realize that the AT&T security was a little further from reality” than most, but it was “more for the story arc than reality at that point,” explained Housh.

But then that's typical Hollywood, playing fast and loose with reality when it suits the plot.

Read more about Jeremy Hammond and Weev.