Hacker-Turned-Consultant Helps 'House Of Cards'

Apr 9, 2014
Originally published on April 8, 2014 3:46 pm

The Netflix hit series “House of Cards” is a rollercoaster ride for its binge-watching fans. If haven’t yet finished watching the 13-episode run of Season 2, here’s a spoiler alert: We’re going to spend time talking about one of the best subplots in House of Cards.

This subplot has to do with a hacker, Gavin Orsay, played by Jimmy Simpson, who’s been compelled to work for the FBI in order to avoid a prison sentence.

In order to get all the tech-talk right, producers brought in consultant Greg Housch. He’s a hacker who’s been involved with the online group Anonymous since its inception, and in 2007 he spent seven months in federal prison for his illegal online activities.

Housch says he’s now a “reformed” hacker and he joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss helping out with “House of Cards,” kicking back with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Sebastian Arcelus.

Guest

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MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. Netflix' hit series "House of Cards" is a roller-coaster ride for its binge-watching fans, and if you're not sure what I'm talking about because you haven't yet finished watching the 13-episode run of season two, well here is a huge spoiler alert. We're going to spend some time talking about one of the best subplots in "House of Cards," and that has to do with a hacker, Gavin Orsay, played by Jimmi Simpson, who's been compelled to work for the FBI in order to avoid a prison sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

JIMMI SIMPSON: (As Gavin Orsay) Most of my friends are locked up and rotting away because they poked the bear one too many times. Why? They wanted to expose government surveillance, the Prism program, embezzlement, abuse, torture, lies. We're soldiers.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in order to get all that tech talk right, producers brought in consultant Gregg Housh. He's a hacker who's been involved with the online group Anonymous since its inception. And in 2007, he spent seven months in federal prison for his illegal online activities. Housh says he's now a reformed hacker, and he joins us in the studio. Gregg, welcome, and I'm curious. How did the show's producers first find you?

GREGG HOUSH: They reached out to me online. I didn't believe it was them. I thought someone was messing with me, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

HOUSH: But then we just kept talking, and it was really them, and they wanted me to help out on the show and wanted to send me some scripts to look at, and it was amazing.

CHAKRABARTI: I love that they reached out to you online, first and foremost.

HOUSH: Right.

CHAKRABARTI: It's not just the technology and the technique, for example, that you had a lot of familiarity with but the relationship with law enforcement and the lifestyle and the circumstances that a lot of hackers get themselves into that you're also familiar with.

HOUSH: A lot of how we kind of reworked the Gavin character after I got a hold of the scripts was based on things I went through. I was caught for being a bad little kid in the '90s, and, you know, was under their control for a good seven years trying to get me to do things like they try to get him to do in the show.

CHAKRABARTI: This is a moment that reflects some of what you just said, essentially. And in this scene, FBI agent Green, played by Jeremy Holm, tells hacker Gavin Orsay, played by Jimmi Simpson, that his relationship with the Feds is far from over.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) How much longer?

JEREMY HOLM: (As Nathan Green) Until what?

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) Until I can stop?

HOLM: (As Green) You prefer prison?

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) I've given you eight child pornographers, three botnet masters...

HOLM: (As Green) But you still haven't given us AVNet(ph).

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) I told Carter I don't know where he is.

HOLM: (As Green) Yes, you do.

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) I don't. Nobody does.

HOLM: (As Green) Then what about your friends in DecSec(ph)?

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) I'm not giving you my friends.

HOLM: (As Green) Then you can keep doing this. You're a productive asset, Gavin, but the moment you stop being productive, no lawyer can help you.

CHAKRABARTI: Gregg, were the conversations that you had with federal authorities, were they so tense and power-laden?

(LAUGHTER)

HOUSH: They weren't as tense as that. I mean, you definitely have to play it up a little for TV. But from my end, they definitely felt that tense because I never knew if that was the day they were going to decide to even stop working with me and just say you know what, since you're not helping, and you're not being cooperative, we're just going to throw you in front of a judge, it's over.

CHAKRABARTI: Now what about what we actually see for the people who are, like, really obsessed and try to zoom in on what's on the screens for Gavin's character, on his computer screens? Is that accurate, the data that we see scrolling by?

HOUSH: So we had to tell them what we wanted on the screens, and we wanted IRC, we wanted a bitcoin miner, we wanted Tor. We wanted all these things that people would be able to recognize. When you zoom in, you can really recognize them, but you can also see that they were still drawn a little prettier than they normally look.

CHAKRABARTI: So you mentioned Tor, and that actually gets us to a scene where journalist Lucas Goodwin, played by Sebastian Arcelus, is talking to a tech reporter about how to access a vast part of the Internet known as the deep Web. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

SEBASTIAN ARCELUS: (As Lucas Goodwin) Hold on, the deep Web, I've heard of that, but...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Oh, yeah, yeah, no, 96 percent of the Internet isn't accessible through standard search engines. Most of it's useless, but it's where you go to find anything and everything: child porn, bitcoin laundering, mail-order narcotics, hackers for hire.

ARCELUS: (As Goodwin) How do you access it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) It's actually pretty easy. I could show you if you want.

ARCELUS: (As Goodwin) Yeah, I'm curious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Mind if I...

ARCELUS: (As Goodwin) Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) OK, the first thing you need is Tor. Some people prefer I2P, but I think Tor is better.

ARCELUS: (As Goodwin) What is Tor?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) It protects you through proxy servers, keeps you anonymous.

CHAKRABARTI: Gregg, is it as easy as that, you just sort of, like, go online, go through a Tor service, and you're in the deep Web?

HOUSH: Pretty much. I mean, one of the problems with, you know, the so-called deep Web, which it's weird because some of love that term, and some of us hate that term. I'm kind of on the fence. But since it's not anything that's really linked to, and it's on this kind of other network, you know, you access through Tor, you have to know how to get somewhere first.

And so you'd have to load up a website. One of the better ones is called the Hidden Wiki. And it gives you links, once you're connected to the deep Web, how to find all the stuff on the deep Web.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, Gregg, so I want to move on because one of the primary subplots in the early part of season two, which I just found most compelling, is the fact that Gavin the hacker and the FBI are working to entrap, basically entrap Lucas the journalist. And so we have a scene here in which Lucas and Gavin are talking about what it would take to break into one of AT&T's data centers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) These are what servers look like. You're going to get inside one of these cages. You will have this. You slide it into the server, voila.

ARCELUS: (As Goodwin) It's that simple?

SIMPSON: (As Orsay) Yeah, well your part, not mine. (Unintelligible) extremely complex.

CHAKRABARTI: So Lucas and Gavin, they're talking about the fact that all Lucas has to do is, like, get inside the data center and slide a dongle into one of the servers, and then Gavin will have access to all of AT&T's 40 million customers.

HOUSH: Getting into the data center is actually surprisingly easy. Sure they've got biometric entry and guards and all this other fun stuff, but getting tours, paying a couple hundred dollars to get a server into one of the racks there will get you in. And one of the funnier things I found when I had servers there, and I had to go work on my own hardware was just how many huge companies had open doors on their racks because a tech had left them unlocked or something. And Yahoo!, Google, it was just, it was surprising to me.

CHAKRABARTI: We're talking with Gregg Housh, the reformed hacker who was a key tech consultant on the Netflix series "House of Cards." You're listening to HERE AND NOW. And Gregg, I've heard that you don't even have to physically enter a telecom company's data center. I think there was a hacker named Andrew Auernheimer who was able to access AT&T's user data by going to a public hyperlink.

HOUSH: Yeah, he found a public URL that was exposing customer data that shouldn't have been, attempted to bring it to people's attention, who ignored him. So he decided the only way to prove to these people that it's a problem is to actually have it give me all their data and then show the world. And now he's sitting in prison because he tried to expose that AT&T were bad.

CHAKRABARTI: In bringing you in as a consultant, it seemed that the producers of "House of Cards" really wanted to get as much accuracy about the hacker community into the show as they could. And that seemed kind of ironic to me, given the fact that the entire premise of the show, we hope, is so wildly fantastical, that, you know, the vice president of the United States kills two people, then deliberately undermines the president and becomes president himself. I mean, that's just like crazy fantasy. But they seem to really want to get realism regarding technology and the hacker community in there, and I was just wondering what you thought about that.

HOUSH: I did definitely think it was interesting because watching the show, you see things that you just - you can't believe. But at the same time, you know, minus those few actions you've said, a good chunk of what happens on that show, given the state of our current government, doesn't feel as far-fetched as it should.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Gregg Housh is a reformed hacker and a consultant for the Netflix series "House of Cards." Gregg, it was great to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.

HOUSH: Absolutely. Glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And Meghna, I'm thinking that nothing seems far-fetched after you read today's New York Times. They reported that hackers who were trying to get into a big oil company and couldn't instead infected the malware of the online menu of the Chinese restaurant the employees liked, and that's how they hacked...

CHAKRABARTI: Wow.

YOUNG: You know, they're going in through vending machines, heating ducts because they all have this software on them now.

CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. It seems like nothing's safe anymore from the prying hands of a smart group of hackers.

YOUNG: And nothing is too far-fetched for these TV shows.

CHAKRABARTI: No.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.