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A Crime Writer’s Dream

Jun 04, 2015

Sometimes a character jumps out of nowhere: he or she wasn’t in the outline and didn’t have a key part in the plot – but they arrive and are so alive, so compelling that they take over every scene and muscle their way up to the top of the character tree.  Patrice LaCroix is like that.  He was a voice on the phone to begin with, but inside a couple of chapters of Into the Fire, he’d become one of my favourite characters of all time… He’s young, wild, free and he let me step into the world of geekdom more fully than anyone else I’ve ever written. With his crazy kingfisher-coloured hair, his motorbikes and skateboards, and his constant tendency to forget where the boundaries are, he is the ultimate Black Hat hacker turned good – and a perfect foil for Inès Picaut, the Orléans police inspector who still lives in the world most of the rest of us inhabit, where phones, email and Facebook are useful, but carry dangers that we don’t know about, let alone understand.

I spent three years as a Director of a computer games company and of course, Patrice is based in part on some of the people I worked with: computer geniuses with brains the size of planets, who lived and breathed technology, but didn’t set themselves apart from the world the rest of us knew. It’s not hard to imagine them young again, snow boarding, climbing rocks, kite surfing: all the high adrenaline, fearless things we do when we live on top of the world.

Long ago, when I wrote No Good Deed, I created an undercover Special Branch officer called Murdo who was at the time, at the forefront of technology, a man who could do a bit of hacking, gain access to accounts when useful, tweak things as necessary. He was as much as we needed in the late twentieth century, but technology has moved on and halfway through the teens of the twenty first century, we need someone far more able to step into the flow of data and immerse in it: we need a swimmer in the Dark Net.

Patrice, obviously, is that swimmer. His father’s in military intelligence and Patrice started out on DiabloII, moved to World of Warcraft in its vanilla incarnation and from there it was a short step into the world of Black Hat hacking  – until his S1liverfishNinjaKollectiv (his hacker group) was infiltrated by the authorities and Patrice was made an offer he couldn’t refuse: come to the good side, or spend a long time behind bars.  So he did what any sane hacker would do: he set up his own company and when he’s not working for the police, he’s making mega-bucks hacking into company servers and then telling them how to plug the gaps. He’s the best kind of cyberwarrior – he can do the bits and bytes, but he can do human too: we can love him as Ines loves him, and trust him to keep us safe.

Cyber Warriors: the gods of the future

Knowledge is power, we all know this, but we in the world outside the Dark Net have little concept of the extent of the power we have given away, or who, is using it, and why. When the attacks come – and they will, personally and nationally – how are we ever going to know if the worm that introduces a key logger onto our machine came from a lad in his mother’s back bedroom, or a Mexican drug cartel that’s branching out into the big time, or the NSA, running beneath the radar of the new Freedom Act?  Each of these could help us – Patrice is a hacker who protects us – as much as they could destroy us: the point is that unless we’re aware of what’s happening, we won’t be able to differentiate.

Computer-hacker

There was a time within living memory when domestic theft required that a bloke in a ski mask with a bag marked Swag needed to shin up a drainpipe into your house and rifle through your smalls drawer to relieve you of your valuables. The alternative was the Great Train Robbery or the old style drill-into-the-strong-room techniques of the Hatton Garden jewelry heist. They might have been big in the scope of their hauls, but they required individuals of nerve and skill and not a little courage, and those ranged against them required not much more than a good working knowledge of human behaviour, decent forensic technicians and the occasional supergrass.

And then the internet came along. And now the bank robbers are the guys who run the dark pools so vividly described by Michael Lewis in Flash Boys (if you haven’t read it, put it on your list. If you have stocks/shares, read it as a matter of urgency, then ask your broker what s/he knows about dark pools and how exactly your trades take place. It’s a fascinating exercise).

We can take it as read that the days of the bad guys driving off with sacks of fivers are over. Nowadays, theft takes place in the fractions of a penny shaved off every trade, which, when multiplied by many, many orders of magnitude, make far more than any possible train/bank/bedroom robbery. This is possible because we live in a digital world. Our money exists only as an idea. So does our driving license, our tax return, our health record, our social identity. Each of these is saved online and if, heaven forfend, there were to be a clash between your paper/plastic version of, say, your driving license, and the one online, I’m not sure I’d put much money on the actual physical version you have in your filing cabinet to win. We are what the bits and bytes say we are. Which is to say, we are what anyone who has access to them, can make them say.

hackerstreaming

Thus we have the growing industry of identity theft. According to Marc Goodman in his new book, Future Crime (put that on your list, too), the bad guys are stealing the identities of newborn infants because that gives them 18 years or so to rack up a really excruciating credit history before the owner of the identity actually needs to use it (those with kids, take note. Those who are kids, try opening a bank account now. At least you’ll notice if/when it happens). Goodman opens his book with the example of a fairly techno-savvy individual who, in less than twenty minutes, lost his Facebook, Twitter and Apple passwords, and whose laptop, phone and tablet were erased more or less in front of his eyes.

You are reading this on a digital device. How much of your life is shared there? How much of your basic functionality would you lose if it were all wiped clean? And the backups? How much would we all lose if some bright spark/government employee were to hack into, say, the NHS database? Or the Treasury? Or the Trident submarines everyone was so desperately worried about at the last election, but which are now, essentially slow moving hack-bait? What if they shut down the electrical grid of Manhattan. Or Coventry. Or the entire UK? Food stocks would run out, transport would grind to a halt, governance would become impossible.  In conditions like that you could  launch a jihad without anyone noticing.

Al Sheedakim, Hacker and Programmer, in his home office, Winchester, MA, 2004 image by Brian Katt, wikipedia.org

Al Sheedakim, Hacker and Programmer, in his home office, Winchester, MA, 2004 image by Brian Katt, wikipedia.org

And the reality is – this is our world and there are thousands, tens of thousands, of assaults on our digital infrastructure daily.  Those in the front line now, are not armed men in uniform with a fetish for short haircuts and an unfortunate tendency to rape their female colleagues (tho’ they still exist) – but the geeks and the nerds who know how to slide into the grey zone behind the screens and keep things going.  These are the cyberwarriors of our era.  Every nation has them, every nation is going to continue to invest in them – because there was a time when a terrorist needed at least a suitcase bomb, or a novel form of virus to cause widespread damage. Now, he – or she – doesn’t have to leave home.  And if one person can wreak havoc (which they can), how much more from a nation committed to undermining its enemies?

U.S. Military personnel assigned to the 4th Psychological Operations Group, 193rd Special Operations Wing, Pennsylvania Air Nation Guard (ANG) broadcast television and radio programming. (Wiki commons)

U.S. Military personnel assigned to the 4th Psychological Operations Group, 193rd Special Operations Wing, Pennsylvania Air Nation Guard (ANG) broadcast television and radio programming. (Wiki commons)

This is not an ‘if’, it’s a when. We live in the internet age, it’s just that our social institutions, while more or less keeping up with developments in consumer technology, have not remotely caught up with the implications of our digitization: with the veritable spume of digital data we exude daily as we walk down the road checking our Facebook walls, sending Tweets, texts, images; as our governments transfer mid nineteenth century ideas of data management into databases that are notable only for their vulnerability to attack – as we all spend more money on our cars, dogs, cats – and nuclear submarines – than we do on defense against the cyber attacks that are coming, whether we like it or not.

attacksahead

There’s a level, I’m sure, at which we all know this, but, in the way that we know about climate change, and turn away from it because it’s just too big to cope with, we’re not programmed to get our heads round the idea of a central intelligence which knows everything about everyone and plans to keep it forever, so we go ahead, sharing our locations, our movements, our expenditure, our likes and dislikes, our sexual proclivities in ways that future generations are going to find as incomprehensible as our grandparents would have done. We’ve barely scratched the surface and there’s a gold mine here for thriller writers and film producers – and that’s before we look at the elephant in our collective rooms, which is the amount of information we share daily which is being gathered and will be used at some point, either to sell us things, or control us or both.

One of the functions of fiction, it has always seemed to me, is the ability to take complex fact and render it human: to put faces to ideas, to give them heart and passion and meaning, and so find ways to make them comprehensible. Which means, that as we endeavour to get to grips with a world that is changing faster than we can comprehend, we need characters who can and yet also be complex, interesting, compelling in themselves.

Into the Fire comes out in a couple of weeks. Come and join Patrice and the team, the rare few who have the power to step into the world we choose not to look at, and use it.  More than anyone in the history of human evolution, those with the power to enter the dark net are god-like – omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent.  If we don’t find the ways to counteract them, we’re the sheep, waiting for slaughter.  All of which, when you think about it, is every crime writers’s dream.

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