All good stories flow from their characters and how their wants, desires and inner demons compel them to act in the worlds they live in. But what if they live in two realms and sometimes which one they are in blurs in the overlap between them? Perhaps one of those worlds is controlled by laws and jurisdictions, but the other is a completely lawless land, ruled by none, and governed only by the law of the jungle. Then add a predator, a technical genius, perfectly adapted to this new environment, restrained only by his own code, which is to say merely to fulfill his own desires. And what if he were a psychopathic sadist and narcissist, what would he do? Meet Dantalion, The Hacker’s villain. He comes up against an equally brilliant and driven investigator, Ericka Blackwood, but she too carries the burden of a secret motivation.
They do battle in a world very different from where most crime thrillers are set. While we are all very familiar with the web from our daily interaction with online news, shopping and social media, I wanted this story to drop down a few levels into the unseen reaches below. Hidden inside the internet’s surging global bloodstream are the pathogens that form the Dark Web. In an increasingly web-capable world, there now exists the ability to control the physical, not just stealing or destroying data, but the ability to cause things to malfunction, overheat, go off course, or take safety backups offline. Combine this with the adept criminal’s ability to completely hide his tracks and the cat and mouse game of police and criminal takes a new form.
My three decades as a criminal prosecutor left me with wealth of anecdotes, my own, colleagues’ and police, which are my source material. For my last fifteen years in that role, I specialized in cybercrime and digital evidence. My experience with psychological reports, interviews and wiretap gave me a pretty good feel for how different kinds of criminals think and what motivates them. Daily contact with police provided me with a clear view into their world. Learning the technology of digital crime both through research and from police experts gave me the basis to create the story. While The Hacker is not based on any actual cases, I wanted to try and immerse the reader in that world as much as I could. By modifying stories and incidents and fitting them together in a new composite story, I hoped to give the narrative a feeling of reality.
In deciding where I should position the technical level of The Hacker, I wanted the book to sit somewhere between the technically detailed textbook and the Hollywood universe where hackers press single buttons and nuclear power plants blow up. I concentrated on what the technology can do and what it will soon be able to do, while trying to stay out of the weeds and preserve the book’s narrative pace. I combined traditional police tools such as fingerprints and DNA with webcrawlers, facial recognition, mobile phone dumps, GPS tracking, and web traffic sniffing.
Hacking and cyber-attacks are not all about diabolical code-writing fiends. Often, the easiest way to breach digital ramparts between the hacker and his target is not to do it at all. Far better if someone lets you in. This is usually done through what is often referred to as social engineering. The weakest point in the defenses can be the flesh and blood part sitting in a chair behind the keyboard. They can be tricked, paid or extorted. This is something a villain like mine would readily exploit. As an apex hacker, his talents allow him to easily penetrate the darkest secrets of the net’s ordinary criminal denizens, making them vulnerable to his extortion. He then directs and enjoys the crimes that sate his needs, leaving his hapless followers to take the heat. These pawns give him a means to have someone on the inside of his target, and there is almost no defense against the inside man.
While the technology of our times races forward with blinding speed, human nature is little changed. I wanted the reader to consider just how much evolution we are all seeing. When you live in a time of great change it is often difficult to see it, but our society is undergoing a shift of similar magnitude to the Industrial Revolution, and it will have the same kind of far-reaching consequences. When I grew up, we used rotary dial phones, now I talk to my mobile when I want something, and it does it. Almost the sum total of human knowledge is available through a browser, but mired in thick layers of complete nonsense. This is altering the social and political fabric of our society and will continue to do so.
Against this backdrop is Dantalion, the psychopathic genius who exists without moral restraint in a world which imposes none on him. His nemesis, the equally brilliant Ericka Blackwood, seeks to ferret him out, bring him to the surface, back across the overlap and into the physical world, where he can be held to account. Whether she can do that and at what cost to her is the core struggle that plays out in The Hacker.