In my three decades as a criminal prosecutor, I have seen the world of crime evolve and morph and now almost every type of crime has at least a digital aspect. Most criminals, particularly the violent kind, are young and male. They are now of a generation who grew up during the digital revolution and have never known a world without the internet. Uptake by the older generations has also been strong. People use their technology every minute of every day and don’t stop when they are doing something illegal. Technology is used to commit many crimes, and almost always forms part of the evidence left behind. Traditional police tools such as fingerprints, blood spatter and DNA are now joined by ubiquitous security video, mobile phone dumps, GPS tracking, saved text and web searches, left as criminals “research” their crimes. Now, much of the sophisticated planning and money-laundering has moved to the Dark Web and cryptocurrency. Where offenders have led, the police must follow. If the world of crime fiction is to mirror reality, I think to some degree it must follow the current real world and this is the world that underpins The Hacker.
Many criminals are completely unsophisticated in their use of technology. The trails they leave are easy pickings for police. I wanted Dantalion, the avatar for my principal villain, to be something different, not someone who is dumb enough to throw the murder weapon into the river while his mobile phone is recording where he is (it has happened). Rather, I wanted my character to be the kind of criminal I’ve always suspected exists, but who is rarely seen, someone who is too good at what he does to be caught. He needed to be a highly intelligent psychopath using cutting edge technology and use it both to commit his offences and conceal himself from attention. Someone capable of reaching into the physical world from the virtual but whose offending hops between jurisdictions to avoid leaving a pattern noticeable to police. A savage man who is ruthless, manipulative and narcissistic. Then I wanted to turn him loose on the virtual world, the dark web, and have him do his worst.
The tools available to such a person are mindboggling. He can be anywhere in the world lurking behind an array of encryption and shifting private networks. His talents allow him to easily penetrate the darkest secrets of the net’s ordinary denizens, making them vulnerable to him. He can groom them, pay them and when necessary, extort their help through fear of exposure. Such a villain directs and enjoys the crimes that sate his needs, leaving his hapless followers to take the heat while he moves onto the next crime a continent away and undetected. Controlling people gives him the basis to easily penetrate hard targets, using “social engineering” to have someone on the inside. In reality, there is almost no defense against the inside man as everyone from the king of Troy onwards has found out to their chagrin.
Then there is the hard hacking, the all-new way in or what’s referred to as the “zero-hour exploit”, something no one has thought of before, leaving data and systems wide open to attack while the security industry races the plug the holes. Many times, a well-planned attack is long over before anyone is even aware it has happened. Military cyber-weapons find their way into the wrong hands. The infamous “Stuxnet” virus and its generations of progeny are perhaps the best-known example. Its initial use allowed an attack on Iran, destroying part of that nation’s nuclear program. Once deployed, such weapons are essentially “in the wild” and their technology may be recovered, duplicated and modified for any use.
All these ways of breaking through defenses lead to the same state of affairs. An attacker may reach out from the virtual world where his grasp now reaches the physical realm. This is the new reality of everything being “web capable”. Attackers are not just stealing or destroying data, they can cause things to malfunction, overheat, go off course, or take safety backups offline. To be sure, the most common motivation is to steal and extort for money, but what if a criminal with these skills doesn’t want those things? What if he wants something else? As a fictional billionaire’s butler once accurately noted, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” And if that’s what he wants, what would he do with this array of tools and toys?
The current reality of the Dark Web and hacking tools opens a new world to technological and psychological thrillers, allowing writers to give readers a glimpse into this world, building on police procedurals and investigation techniques from the pre-digital era. People remain what people always were, but now there is a new environment for their darker impulses to manifest. I do not mean a movement to the “Bond” type of villain who types on laptop for a few seconds, presses enter, and the world blows up. Using this newer technology in a thriller should be every bit as gripping and filled with tension as any other literary mechanism. Finding a perpetrator should require clever, dedicated slogging on the part of police, taking the kind of toll all investigative work does. That is what I have tried to do in The Hacker.