Was Original Hacker Phiber Optik The Inspiration for Mr Robot?

This is the story of a boy from New York who whose obsession with hacking began in the computer department of a store at the age of nine. He hacked a corporation and spent time in prison. His name is not Elliot Alderson, it is Mark Abene aka Phiber Optik and this is how he became one of the world’s first hackers and earned the epithet “The Robin Hood of cyberspace”

But did Sam Esmail borrow elements of his life when creating Elliot and Mr Robot? Let’s hack the hacker and find out…

Phiber Optik - Mark Abene

Growing up in Queens, Abene’s love of computers first reared its head while his parents left him alone in the electronics section of a department store while they shopped. His first computer was a TRS-80 MC-10 bought from Radio Shack; Tandy’s low-cost alternative to its own TRS-80 Color Computer. This beast came with a whopping 4 kilobytes of RAM, and just like the Commodore VIC-20 and Sinclair ZX81, its monitor was a television set which you loaded games on via a cassette tape recorder.

Mark Abene - TRS-80 MC-10

Millennials – you don’t know how good you got it!

So imagine his joy when his parents gifted him a RAM upgrade to 20k and a modem! Stalking libraries, he soaked up everything he could about programming and understanding the nationwide telephone network. Using dial-up BBSes he met like-minded teenagers through CompuServe’s “CB simulator”, the first nationwide online chat and it was downhill from there!

In the mid-80’s he became part of an “online” group of highly respected young hackers who shared his ambition to understand this new technology. They called themselves the Legion of Doom (LOD) and their prime directive was to explore telecommunication, minicomputer and mainframe operating systems and large-scale packet data networks.

Wargames it was not, but these kids were ushering in a brave new world and the beginnings of what we know today as cyber terrorism.

Phiber Optik - Wargames

By the late 80’s (and after the prosecution of a handful of Legion of Doom members) Phiber Optik aligned himself with a local group of up-and-coming hackers, with the less House of Pain-sounding name – the Masters of Deception (MOD) including his partners in crime Elias Ladopoulos aka “Acid Phreak”, Paul Stira (“Scorpion”) John Threat (“Corrupt”) and Julio Fernandez (“Outlaw”).

Phiber Optik - MOD

1980’s Camera tech was also around 100 years behind what it is now!

Fast forward a few years to January 1994 and, based on government suspicions of having caused a massive data crash at the AT&T Corporation, Phiber Optik and other MOD member’s homes were searched by the Secret Service. A month or so later, AT&T admitted the crash was the result of a flawed software update to the switching systems on their long distance network.

In February 1991, Phiber Optik was again arrested and charged with “computer tampering and computer trespass in the first degree” but being under 18 he pleaded “not guilty” to the first two offences, accepting a lesser misdemeanour so was sentenced to 35 hours of community service.

Phiber Optik - Abene

Later that year, Phiber Optik and four other members of the MOD were arrested for a third time and indicted by a Manhattan federal grand jury in July 1992 in the “first investigative use of court-authorized wiretaps to obtain conversations and data transmissions of computer hackers” in the United States. The defendants faced fines of $2.5 million ($4,500 million trillion in today’s money) and a maximum term of 50 years in prison (350 in dog years) if found guilty on all eleven counts.

Despite the fact that Abene was a minor at the time the “crimes” were allegedly committed, a plea arrangement resulted in the harshest sentence available: one year’s imprisonment, three years probation and 600 hours of community service.

Phiber Optik - jail

In this, his last interview before going to prison (but presumably while he was still a member of The New Kids on the Block) Phiber Optik repeats the words of the judge who wanted to make an example of him:

After serving the one-year sentence in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania, Phiber Optik was released in November 1994. The following January, a huge celebration called “Phiberphest ’95” was held in his honor in New York and journalist and author of Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace Joshua Quittner cited in Time Magazine that Abene was “the first underground hero of the Information Age, the Robin Hood of cyberspace.”

Around the one minute mark of this video, Phiber Optik says “To this day, I think it’s entertaining if not pathetic to read our indictment – to see how they formulated that MOD was some evil society whose plot was to control the computers of the world.”

While Mr Robot Hacks can’t say for sure that Mark Abene’s story influenced Sam Esmail, (on top of the similarities we’ve just mentioned) we notice he used the word “Society” for his group. An unusual word to choose for a group of hackers and… just like Elliot’s F_Society!

The Z80 microprocessor, dial-up modems and cyberspace manifestos are a far cry from today’s world where billions of people have continuous access to the Intenet at their fingertips, where corporations and governments spend billions on securing their digital information and where Elliot, Darlene, Mr Robot, Angela, Tyrell Wellick, Mobley, Trenton (not forgetting Flipper and Qwerty) try to save the world!

Phiber Optik - Kor

Sarah Ullman, Kor Adana, Christopher C. Rogers, Christopher Cantwell, Parisa Tabriz and Mark Abene.

Phiber Optik may not have been the very first hacker, but with his jail sentence sending a message across the world, Mark Abene became a folk-hero among some… and who knows – when a real-life F_Society really do wipe the financial records of everyone on the planet and send us back to the stone age, you can bet that the perpetrators will be Phiber Optik fans. Let’s just hope that they are better spellerz than wot he woz!

Nowadays, Mark can be found running his tech company, making keynote speeches and appearing on panels alongside Halt and Catch Fire showrunners and friend of Mr Robot Hacks and writer of the show, Kor Adana.

Mark is just visible as the last guy on the right in the glasses. Promise!

The question is, after hacking corporations and serving jail time, does the same Silicon Valley fate await Elliot?

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