Warning: This post contains spoilers about “Mr. Robot” season 2.
For most of its two seasons, “Mr. Robot” has revolved around a plot to hack and destroy the global conglomerate E Corp. In last night’s episode, though, the plot flipped into a fight over currencies and power and a battle between bitcoin and a government-controlled alternative.
The scheme was dreamed up by Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), the malignant E Corp. CEO, to turn his company’s digital currency, eCoin, into the equivalent of the U.S. dollar, as a way to fight bitcoin. What’s absolutely great about this is that it plays on not one, but two dystopian fears: the fears among corporatists and government officials that bitcoin is going to take over the world, and the fear among bitcoiners that their beloved cryptocurrency will be perverted into a tool of the very institutions they sought to disintermediate in the first place.
Okay, very quickly, if you’re not familiar with bitcoin: it is a digital currency, maintained by a software program that is run on a decentralized network of computers by the so-called “miners” (for a variety of reasons, the largest miners today are all located in China). No one person or entity controls the currency. Every transaction is recorded in a publicly viewable ledger, although user accounts are encrypted. It was conceived as a digital equivalent of cash, and an alternative to the existing currency/banking system.
Back to Price. He’s pushing eCoin to a government official named Jack (who looks very much like Treasury Secretary Jack Lew). “Hard cash is fading, rapidly,” Price says. “And bitcoin is spreading, and if bitcoin takes over we are all in a world of hell.”
Okay, first off, the idea of bitcoin “taking over” the world is very 2013. These days, the bitcoin community is neck deep in an internal debate over what it even should be. Public adoption has significantly slowed down. The “transaction volume maximum” Price mentions is a problem, not a victory. However, the idea is generally correct. If a system like bitcoin were to become a dominant financial “rail,” it would represent a serious threat to established financial powers.
Price’s idea does nail the China thing. One of the biggest anxieties around bitcoin today, at least, in regulatory and financial circles, is the concentration of Chinese miners. No western bank is going to allow its every transaction to be run through a Chinese computer over which it has no control. What western powers have realized, though, is that they don’t have to do that. They can simply take bitcoin’s open-source protocol, and adapt it to their own needs and control. Which is exactly what Price offers “Jack.”
“With eCoin,” Price says, “we control the ledger, and the mining servers, we are the authority.”
If you’re not a bitcoiner or privacy advocate, you may have missed the significance of this. A cryptocurrency can be an extremely powerful tool, depending upon how it is structured. Imagine that, unlike cash, every single financial transaction you make can be effectively tracked. You think Amazon knows too much about you? You have no idea what we’re in store for if a sufficiently motivated government chose to use this tool that way.
Which is what Price offers Fictional Treasury Secretary. “I will make sure you have visibility into every single wallet that’s open. Every loan, every transaction. I’ll give you back doors, side doors, trace it, whatever you want.”
If you care about privacy, that is a concept that is as frightening as any hack, maybe more frightening. The fact that “Mr. Robot” hits upon something that is such a real concern, but which most people aren’t even yet aware of, is just one more example of the show’s brilliant prescience.