A generation ago cybercrime was as esoteric a subject to write about as quantum mechanics or derivatives market fluctuations. Now it is a central feature of many novels.
Whether it’s the phishing of criminal gangs to steal sensitive data to sell on the dark web, or the creep of college catfishing people on Facebook, or the daily text messages asking us to click a link to claim a prize or verify a payment, we are under constant attack. Pension scams, identity theft, all those strangers following our kids on TikTok, everywhere we turn, someone is trying to turn the technology we rely on against us.
This new reality is at the heart of my novel The Box. After Ed Truman’s daughter, Ally, throws a milkshake at the leader of the popular new incel movement Men Together, she becomes a target for his followers. She is harassed, doxed (where private information is published online to scare her), and finally disappears. Ed teams up with his daughter’s friend Phoenix, a teenage hacker, to find her, but they quickly find themselves on the run and off the grid.
The microchip dominates many things in our life; the same is true of crime. From online stalking to billion dollar banking fraud, these days it’s mostly done by computer. Here are some of my favorite books on this shift in the zeitgeist.
1. The Art of Deception: Managing the Human Element of Security by Kevin MitnickIt is a maxim in cyber security that the weakest point in a computer network is the human. Whether it’s in relation to phishing emails or a phone call “from the bank” saying they’re calling for a fraudulent transaction, Kevin Mitnick wrote the book on exploiting such vulnerabilities. He has written many books on hacking, especially his fascinating memoir Ghost in the Wires, but my favorite remains this handy guide to social engineering. Think you couldn’t be tricked into handing over critical information? Read this and think again.
2. People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd In a decade social media stalking has become ubiquitous in psychological thrillers, but few have done as well as Ellery Lloyd, the reputation of married writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos. People Like Her tells the story of famous InstaMum Emmy and her brand new husband, who hates their newfound fame. Throw in a cyber predator, some brilliant writing, and a breathless run to the end and you have one great digital thriller.
3. The Blue Nowhere by Jeffery Deaver Crime-fiction doyen Deaver was writing about hackers and scammers online before most people had a home computer. Set in 1999 and featuring dial-up modems and floppy disks, it pits two hackers – one an evil psycho who lures his victims to their deaths, the other released from prison to assist the investigation – to a cat and ruthless blood-stained blood. mouse hunting. It’s dated, but it was ahead of its time, and few are better at keeping you silly than Deaver.
4. Impostor Syndrome by Kathy WangIf, like me, you read The Circle by Dave Eggers and think “great book, but where’s the story?” then Impostor Syndrome is for you. When Alice, a keyboard drone at the giant tech company Tangerine sees unusual activity on the company’s servers, the ensuing intrigue comes to a head. Part spy mystery, part spy thriller, part Silicon Valley satire about the role of minority women in the development community, few new novels feel as fresh and current as this.
5. Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon by Kim ZetterWith so many cybercriminals trying to fleece us with texts to pay for excessive posting it’s easy to forget that technology is also being used to carry out malicious acts at a level national. In 2010, centrifuges at Iran’s uranium enrichment plant were still failing. The reason? A new type of virus called Stuxnet developed by the United States and Israel caused them to spin too fast and break. This is a fascinating story of state-sanctioned sabotage, which presents the techno-babble machine code in simple terms that any reader can enjoy.
6. Handled: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth by Theresa Payton How do you police something you don’t know is a crime? Once the only way to rig an election was to steal enough votes from the recently deceased. Now you can drip feed influence directly into people’s eyeballs without them noticing. AI viruses, fake videos and cyber troll farms mark the battlefield in a war most people, including those who protect us, have no idea is going on. Can it be stopped before our political systems crumble?
7. Little Brother by Cory DoctorowDoctorow is famous for his digital activism, his role as an editor at the influential magazine Boing Boing, and his post-cyberpunk novels. At the center of this canon is his Little Brother trilogy, and 17-year-old Marcus, a street smart who, with his crew, creates a private “mesh network” to protect against a dystopian surveillance state. Suggest a stay with the Department of Homeland Security. All but one of them are released. As the country slips into totalitarian martial law, how can they prove their friend is still being held?
8. Digital Fortress by Dan Brown I haven’t read Dan Brown since I gave up on The Da Vinci Code halfway through, but in the late 90s Digital Fortress blew my mind. With kickass cryptographer Susan Fletcher – this at a time when most thin women were either scared, smiling, or both – it’s a cyclist racing against time to save a National Security Agency that gets held captive by a mysterious, malicious code.
9. DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia by Misha Genny Spend half an hour on the dark web and you’ll never look at the internet the same way again. Anything you want to buy – drugs, weapons, stolen passports – can be delivered to your door in days. Need a hacker? A hitman? It’s easy to find a .onion website to serve your needs. This is where your data ends up after it’s stolen in a ransomware attack. After reading this, you’ll think twice before entering your name and address online.
10. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes What better way to complete a cybercrime top 10 than with this subversive banger of a novel from South African genre maven Lauren Beukes. Set in an alternative Johannesburg where familiar animals are linked to criminals to be identified, it tells the story of Zinzi, a lost item psychic and 419 scammer (mind emails from alleged princes) who is sucked into a murder mystery with wide resonance.
The Box by Dan Malakin is published by Profile Books. To help the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.