Really Francis? Here's where 'House of Cards' could use IT help

Crave's Eric Mack has been binging on season 2 of the Netflix series for two weeks now, long enough to notice some of the hackiness of the hacker subplot. He's talking to you, USB dongle of destiny.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
3 min read
Vice President Underwood might know how to manipulate everyone from the president on down, but he doesn't seem to know that deleting a text message doesn't guarantee that it's gone forever. Netflix

The second season of "House of Cards" starring Kevin Spacey as ruthless politician Francis Underwood arrived in one big batch of 13 episodes exactly two weeks ago, and we've all been binge-watching since. By the way, if you haven't yet made it all the way through season 2, this is about as far as you should read without risking spoilers. I'll say that again in all caps for you skim-readers out there -- SPOILER ALERT!!! That's better.

The web of intertwined intrigue and drama this season also introduced a new plotline in which fictional Washington Herald deputy editor Lucas Goodwin becomes ensnared in a plot to gain access to an AT&T server farm with the assistance of shadowy hacker Gavin Orsay. Goodwin believes Orsay is assisting him in tracking down evidence of Underwood's murderous habits. Unbeknownst to Goodwin, however, Orsay is a grudging informant for the FBI, which is entrapping Goodwin to send him off to prison and out of Underwood's hair.

With so much tech and hacker content in the storyline, and "House of Cards" more or less a production of the Hollywood establishment (albeit Spacey and the awesome wing of said establishment), there were inevitably going to be some howlingly hilarious loopholes in how both are portrayed in the show. I've now completed my second viewing of season 2, and tracked down almost a dozen such faults that you can relive and cringe at again in the gallery below, including an IT pro's fatefully password-unprotected iPhone, the amazing iPad fingerprint cam, and the USB dongle of destiny.

Where 'House of Cards' gets tech wrong (pictures)

See all photos

On my first viewing, a lot of these problems jumped right out at me, but upon going through the episodes again, I gained more respect for the effort "House of Cards" puts forth in balancing realism with the visual appeal that seems to be a prerequisite for Hollywood hacker subplots.

Much of this was apparently thanks to Gregg Housh, a hacker of note in the 1990s who spent a little time in prison for those activities, and last year advised the show's producers on this season's hacker narrative.

"There are some concessions that had to be made for keeping things visually interesting, and some things where the story had to take precedence over what was most realistic from a tech standpoint, but nowhere near as many as I was fearing," Housh wrote in a Guardian piece about his feelings on the final product.

After reading about Housh's involvement in the show, other real-life parallels started to jump out at me. The fate of journalist Lucas Goodwin nearly mirrors that of real-life former Reuters social-media editor Matthew Keys. He was indicted last year on charges that he conspired with Anonymous hackers to break into the Web site of the Los Angeles Times.

Others, like Vice, have suggested that Orsay's character is similar to that of LulzSec hacker-turned-informant Hector Xavier Monsegur, aka "Sabu," whom I had a prolonged tweet war with back in 2011 when he was still believed to be an active hacktivist. However, while Sabu has come to be roundly detested among hackers for his role in assisting law enforcement, the Orsay character is clearly unhappy about being forced to inform, even going so far as to demand freedom for real-world friend-of-hackers Barrett Brown, who currently faces up to a century in prison.

All in all, I have to concur with Housh, and might go a bit further to declare that "House of Cards" has pulled off one of the better portrayals of tech in modern media. However, that's a really low bar, and I'm left with bated breath to see what will come out first: a third season of the show that does an even better job getting it right, or that awesome iPad camera that's also a fingerprint scanner.

You'll find the code on the iPhone of your head of IT, who fortunately doesn't password-protect the device. Video Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET