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Pwning Product Placement (with help from Mr. Robot)

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The protagonist of the TV show Mr. Robot is a dark hero whose superhuman ability to hack computer systems provides the backdrop for the show's clashes of  good versus evil. When the producers needed a realistic technology for a particular scene, they reached out to Boston-based company Pwnie Express with a special request: Could they feature their Pwn Phone in a scene about penetrating a network? The answer was an emphatic "yes," and the result, as explained by the company's Digital Marketing Lead Ken Savage, was like winning the product placement lottery.

“Pwnie express pwn phone. A phone loaded with 103 network monitoring and attack tools. A dream device for pentesters.” - Elliot,  Mr. Robot

alt="owning product placement"

This was the dream endorsement in a nutshell, and once immortalized on the air, Savage said it changed the company. "We basically got a twenty-five second ad for free. We could never have bought that." Product placement is big business, and the effect it has had on his company has been astonishing:  an exponential surge in demand for Pwnie Express services and, of course, for the Pwn Phone itself.

Savage tells me how much  impact the show had on his  digital marketing and how Pwnie Express  leveraged the phone's cameo into (techno) celebrity. "Before the show we had about two thousand organic visitors a day to the site. Now it's ten times that. We hosted a contest give-away and are still collecting leads."

He looks like a guy who would  buy a round of beers  at a ball game, and  not one of the few  people with the power to access almost anyone's computer network. He brought a Pwn Phone in his pocket to show me. "This is the actual one they featured on the show." He  puts it on the table. "It is basically a $200 Nexus 5 smart phone. With some added features." I get the feeling he is using understatement. "It's all open-source, but there are very specific instructions on how to build one, reboot it, et cetera." I don't touch it.

I wonder what his company did correctly; is there is any advice he could give to another company to position themselves in such a way to get "found" for product placement like Pwnie Express did? "They found us because we have a longstanding status of helping the community. Our scripts and software are all open-sourced, so maybe it was a little bit of karma."

When I ask if anyone should be afraid of the phone, he smiles.  "Fear comes when people don't know what they don't know. It's a good thing, to be able to test your network.  It's like fiddling with the doors and windows on a house to see where it's vulnerable." When I ask about the legality of this, he says, "It's never illegal to monitor; it's what you do with that information that can get you into trouble."

He describes how all around us, all the time, we've got information flying through the air. "The paranoia and the hacking, showing what's possible- that makes [Mr. Robot] great. Because it's not IF you get hacked, but when. Anything connected to a network can be hacked. Anything."

alt="owning product placement"

Something about the gravity of this last word makes me nervous. Then he gets  going about where people are the most blithely unaware.

"The Internet of Things is the biggest one  right now." I knew it! "Controls to a home's wifi, alarms, lights, sensors- it's all Bluetooth." He gestures through the air.  "It was never intended to be secure, just a quick and easy way to connect. That's the silliest one people don’t know about."

And don't even get him started on the ubiquitous Fitbit, and how wearable technology makes abductions and home invasions a cake walk for anyone into that sort of thing.  "You'd be extremely surprised what you can find out. Plus, you're phone is constantly chirping, even when it's off." He peers around at my computer while I type notes. And he smiles.

"You don't have tape over your camera." I thought I was safe. He tells me that's cool and that I'm like his girlfriend with a similarly Cavalier attitude about that kind of thing. "But the director of the FBI did just come out and say it's not a bad idea to put a piece of tape on the webcam. Because if you follow the instructions, hacking it can be very easy."

Just about the time I'm confused on the appropriate level of panic to feel, he steers the conversation expertly towards other kinds of hacking, towards tangential fields like social engineering and the power of suggestion.

"I use this for marketing. If I go to a conference, I don't want to sit and listen to some guy talk; I'll see what my competitors are doing. It's hacking, I guess, by using the data I get in an important way to do business and not just spin wheels.  Being in this industry, you start noticing things you hadn't seen before. You get to see what's possible."

I get up the courage to ask if I can check out the phone.

He warns me that it's almost out of batteries, then adds, "It's my nature to wonder why it's out of batteries." He tells me that it's push-button easy, with a limited number of keystrokes, yes/no, Python scripting. I understand half of what he says. I'm close to something powerful- I mean, Elliot from Mr. Robot held this phone. It powers up. The battery runs out. He chuckles.


Dave Gentry  is a fan of progress and recess. He believes in Olde English, new fortune cookies, and he answers to #davertido.


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