House of Cards is a remarkable example of art imitating real life. One way they maintained that praise last season was hiring a consultant that lead the way as they explored the hacking world. Housh was over qualified with his knowledge about programming and coding, but also had the life experience of persecution by the FBI like the character. He consulted on House of Cards as his experiences as a hacktivist fueled consultation on the actor’s portrayal, the setting, the characters traits and flaws, and discussed the writers direction on plot, which was often followed.
The show’s producer, Beau Willimon, aimed for a realistic depiction that would not show hacking as “cartoonish” and wanted help creating that character. He watched We Are Legion, and documentary about Anonymous and found Gregg Housh. Currently a 37 year old computer engineer, he has earned his reputation. He remains one of few to publicly admit being behind the metaphorical Guy Fawkes masks of Anonymous, and in 2008 he helped organize one of their earlier protests which took on the Church of Scientology.
The show had a lot of work to do with their hacker, Gavin Orsay. The media has relied on familiar portrayals of this group, usually the unattractive loner who appears nerdy without the intelligence. They were paving new ground exploring the activist part of a hacktivist. This meant House of Cards had to appeal to both demographics. The knowledgeable hackers who would know what was realistic, and the consumers that have been told, incorrectly, what a computer expert is supposed to look like. The character was given a modern, city apartment and a job running an ethical, or “white hat,” cybersecurity firm. With these redeeming details to explore and Housh’s help, Orsay developed into a well rounded character who was struggling to balance freedom with his morals.
“When I was first introduced to Gavin Orsay, a hacker activist forced to work for the FBI, he already had his wine collection and pet guinea pig, but he hadn’t found his moral backbone.” Gregg Housh said. “Now, I’m not going to go out there and say the final result is a good guy, but initially, he’d committed a cardinal sin of the hacking community: he had betrayed his friends who were fighting the good fight.”
Jimmi Simpson was the actor behind Gavin Orsay, the hacktivist on the show who is caught between the FBI and his conscience. He assists the FBI while facing a prison sentence of more years than he could live to serve so he is not left with much of a choice. The show often portrays the theme of money versus political influence, Housh recognized, but his concerns were else where. “…Through Gavin Orsay’s story you can also see the power struggles between journalism, hacktivism, and law enforcement. It’s a space I’ve spent a lot of time in.”
The plot unfolds without even meeting the character. But his personality is clear before introduction. Viewers first witness his paranoia, something the real hacking community is well acquainted with, and bizarre habits demonstrated in his way of reaching out. A journalist, Lucas Goodwin, is delivered a jailbroken tablet which holds a conversation with him, using an animated bird wearing a cauldron for a hat. Housh explained the process of developing such an app would be “unbelievably easy. What was in that scene was not complex for a hacker. That’s a day’s work.” Not only does this show the eccentricities and abilities of the hacker, who goes by Heronymous Bot, but also demonstrate his intelligence. Hieronymus Bosch is the artist who painted the original depiction of this cauldron wearing bird, called Prince of Hell, around the year 1510.
Once the hacktivist character was introduced, Housh’s consultation on House of Cards is evident and he discusses the community and how he kept the show realistic. Further fighting the stereotype, Gavin Orsay is stylish and attractive with a minimalist’s taste for decoration. Housh verified that for hackers as talented as Orsay, such an established lifestyle and presentable appearance is the norm. He helped Jimmi Simpson in many ways as the actor developed the character. Simpson said their work together helped him with “putting a face on hacktivism.” They also covered pronunciation with hacker jargon like “white hat” and correct posture like sitting straight and not slouching, both were habits drawn from everyone in the community.
“Gregg impressed upon me that this is not just a hacker.” He said. “This is a movement. That was really clarifying for me.” It is a movement that has good reason for their cultivated paranoia. That was a lesson that Simpson learned when Housh coached him about interacting with a hostile agent from the FBI. Simpson originally had Orsay handling the confrontation without the needed “distrust of authority” as Housh said. “Jimmi went into it playing it less standoffish than he should have been.”
When helping run a software piracy group in his 20’s Housh was arrested and spent three months in prison and much more time with FBI agents. “I went through a lot of what Gavin goes through on the show. I was under the FBI’s thumb for seven years.” They pushed for the names of his friends, but Housh never handed anyone over.
House of Cards involved similar trials. In one scene, Orsay exclaims that his friends, once hacktivists looking to make a difference, are mostly in jail “rotting away” because one too many times they were on the wrong side of the arguments against what politicians believe. He lists their actions of exposing everything from government surveillance and embezzlement to abuse and torture. “We’re soldiers!” Orsay expresses these concerns but stands by his morals, refusing to be a “snitch” to avoid serving his prison sentence. That was not always how the show was written, but Housh was adamant about hackers’ despise for people who did betray their friends and community.
In the final version his morals are more intact and Orsay even makes a demand of the FBI to withdraw charges on Barrett Brown. Except this is not a fictional name created for the scene, it is the show imitating real life again. Housh used to work with him and has remained close friends with Brown who is currently serving the time that Orsay is threatened with, over 100 years. One alleged crime was posting a link to stolen credit card data from a private intelligence firm online.
Another involved allegedly concealing evidence when his apartment was raided by the FBI which lead to an agent being threatened. He still faces 70 years, however the real prosecutors have recently filed a motion to drop a number of the charges against him. The show’s producer, Willimon, explained this brief inclusion of Brown was one more way to create an authentic character.
Kevin Gallagher was thrilled for the layer of realism as he runs Free Barrett Brown network. “The series is acknowledging the political reality of hacktivists who weld information technology, and a threat to the establishment as represented by Frank Underwood.”
When the producer, Willimon, reflected on the show’s artful representation of real life, he added that if anyone “Googled” Brown, they would quickly find that those were the pressures that Gavin Orsay was dealing with. “He is Gavin’s greatest fear.” Turns out, people did get on Google after the show premiered. Not only did Barrett Brown’s name make a jump on popularity according to Google Trends, so did “Tor” the privacy software, and “Deep Web.” Gregg Housh’s consultation on House of Cards clearly made an impact for hackers in a positive sense, or at least started the discussion of what hacktivism has become.
By: Whitney Hudson