Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
August 27, 2018

Hacking: It Isn’t Just for Thrillers Anymore

Piper Bayard

It’s a simple fact. Any electronic item that transmits a signal can be intercepted and/or hacked. That means cybersecurity is an issue for each of us; therefore, unless we are writing historical fiction, cybersecurity is a potential issue for each of our characters.

Volumes can be written on cybersecurity issues, so rather than offer a comprehensive treatise on the subject, which would no doubt be obsolete before dinner time, today we’ll focus on common objects in the modern world that can be hacked to spice up our story lines.

The most obvious story lines involving cybersecurity are thrillers. So we’ll cut to the chase, so to speak, and look at the big picture first.

If our character is using electronics to find someone, that character’s capabilities will depend on their nationality and the power of their government or underworld contacts to assist them. Every ally from the NSA to Anonymous could be at their disposal. There are far too many variations to address in an article, or even a treatise, but suffice to say more than one government has the capability of scooping up every electronic transmission in a given area, and more than one hacker can access everything from a home router to the Pentagon. That means your character can discover as much or as little as your plot line needs.

To flip the coin and try to hide from government surveillance on the part of any country in the West, Russia, or China, a character’s best bet is to hide in plain site with a new identity. If that isn’t possible, they must go to an all-cash existence, never carry any electronics of any kind on their person, and avoid all cameras in businesses and on streets. Since this is pretty close to impossible in First World countries at this point, it’s also best if the character stays on the move in Third World countries. However, human intelligence will still be a threat, and they will most likely be found eventually.

But what about a smaller, more intimate picture? Most of us can look around our workspace and find items that can be hacked.

Computers and phones are the most obvious. My writing partner is a senior member of the Intelligence Community. He and I recommend that everyone put a sticky note over their computer camera, because entities from corporations to any number of governments to hackers can and will observe you without it being obvious to you. . . . I’ll pause a minute for you to cover that camera . . .

Thank you. I feel better talking to you now that strangers can’t see you in your pajamas. If you want to be particularly cautious, cover camera on your phone, as well.

Speaking of cameras . . . Nanny cams, doorbell cameras, security cameras of all kinds, and children’s toys are also regularly hacked by unscrupulous individuals and used by governments foreign and domestic to record information on private citizens.

I know what you’re thinking. . . . Why on earth would foreign governments want to digitally molest my nanny cam? I’m just not that interesting.

Not to promote paranoia, but you actually are that interesting. These are only a few reasons foreign governments want to spy on you:

  • To spy on expatriates
  • To monitor trends in society
  • To improve training of deep-cover operatives
  • To better design propaganda efforts in foreign countries
  • To gather information on possible targets for covert action
  • To identify blackmail targets
  • To build files on important foreigners

Yes, foreign governments use Internet devices to collect information on regular citizens to tailor their enormous propaganda efforts, but that is an article for another day.

Most of us are aware that our computers are open books for governments—both domestic and foreign—as well as hackers. A hacker can get into a computer and do anything that the computer’s owner can do. They can destroy everything on the device, pilfer through everything on the device, or plant spyware that will record every keystroke. Computers are most vulnerable when connected to unsecured Internet networks, such as at coffee shops or in hotels, and hackers know this. . . . Great material for plot lines, right? . . . There are numerous companies that sell cybersecurity programs to help detect and protect from such attacks. Also, if a computer is turned off, it is safe from hacking.

Phones are also common targets of governments, local police departments, and hackers.

For example, everyone in the DC area can assume that all of their phone calls are being intercepted by the Russians and the Chinese. That’s true of several large cities in the US and Europe. In addition to stationary devices, foreign agents, DHS, and local police departments literally drive around the city with “cell site simulators,” or “Stingrays” in their vehicles that simulate cell phone towers and intercept phone signals.

There are two easy ways a character can protect the information on their phone. First, they can put their phone in a faraday bag, which is a bag made of a shielding material that blocks transmissions. Another way is cheaper and faster than shopping—tin foil. Yes. There is something to the tin foil hat, or in this case, tin foil envelope.

To protect a phone, a character needs three layers of tin foil. The first layer is smooth. They must be careful to wrap the phone thoroughly, leaving no open seams. The second layer is crumpled. They crunch up the tin foil, unfold it enough to make it useful, and wrap it around the phone. Again, the character needs to pay attention to seams. The third layer is another smooth layer over the crunched layer. Once the phone is wrapped, anything a hacker could get off of it would be so distorted that it would render the information useless. This tin foil trick works for computers and key fobs, as well.

Yes, key fobs. Vehicles with keyless ignition systems, such as pretty much all rental cars these days, can be hacked from outside a building.

This is called a “relay attack,” and it can be accomplished with cheap equipment found online or at an electronics store. One character holds a key fob relay box close to the outside of a building. The box picks up the signal from an unprotected key fob inside and relays it to a second device that a second character holds near the car. This fools the car, and the vehicle can be unlocked and/or started. Great for car theft, planting surveillance devices, or hiding in a back seat or trunk.

Deliciously creepy, right? If written well, though, this hack could be used in a romance, and a lover could leave a gift on their beloved’s dashboard. Or perhaps a comedic situation could arise where a character stashed something in a rental car, and they need to get it back on the sly.

Another source for plots comes from voice-controlled speakers such as Alexa or a Smart TV.

Yes. Numerous governments and corporations really are collecting everything said within range of these devices. Hackers can do the same. Everything said within range of these devices is collected and transmitted to servers to be analyzed for “search words.” Sorry. This article is too short to discuss what can happen to all of the conversations collected that do not include “search words.”

However, such devices sometimes make mistakes. Voice-controlled speakers have been known to transmit conversations to random individuals on a contact list. For example, a couple can be having a conversation in range of their Alexa or Alexa-equivalent, and it can accidentally be transmitted to some random individual on their contact list. Cross my heart and hope to die, this has actually happened in real life. The possibilities in fiction are endless!

Another type of personal digital violation is also becoming more common all the time. I’ll be as delicate as possible when describing this . . .

It’s called “screwdriving.” When couples fall in love and become intimate, or they just want a hook up or whatever, sometimes they like to involve certain electronic implements . . . Oh, never mind. Sex toys. I’m talking about sex toys.

Actual photo of screwdriving victim.

Sex toys often now connect to the Internet. The Internet connection allows couples to express their passions, even when they are at a distance, whether across town or across the planet. Screwdriving is when hackers drive around and seek out these devices in the buildings around them. Hackers then hack the devices in the hopes of delivering a tingly surprise—a digital threesome of sorts. The romantic and comedic possibilities are endless!

These are only a few of the devices that can be hacked in real life and in fiction. Others are pacemakers, cars, fitbits, and any other electronic device that connects to the Internet or emits an electronic signal. Apply imagination, and any of these can be a source of comedy, romance, crime, or thrills.

Have you used hacking in one of your plots? What genre was it?

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials, is designed for writers. It addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. It is available in digital format and print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Please visit Piper and Holmes at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.



28 comments on “Hacking: It Isn’t Just for Thrillers Anymore”

  1. Awesome information Piper & Jay. I finally covered my camera - even though I still think those poor hackers would be so bored watching me work and play Bejeweled and do Sudokos. I write military themed romantic suspense, so my Spec Ops guys might do a little hacking - purely legal (*cough*) - so I'm saving link to this post. Sex toys that connect to the internet and can be hacked. Wowsa - didn't know that.

  2. Wow, Piper, we know all these things and yet don't *know* them! And I've always been on the "I'm boring and clean so why worry" side of things. So thank you, now I have a pink sticky note over my computer camera. If I ever write a love interest that's a hacker and he wants to do fun things with his knowledge, I'll drop you a note for further ideas. In the meantime, I'm sending this to a mystery writer friend. Thanks for a great read and lots of ideas!

  3. Wow, Piper, you've given me more to think about than I want to. I'm with Jennifer and Tracy...boring. I'd add sipping water and eating Tootsie midgies to the list...B-O-R-I-N-G. Definitely bookmarking this post! And, covering my camera!

  4. Just covered my camera with a butterfly sticker even though I too fall into the category of boring. Creepy how open our lives potentially are. That screwdriving guy gave me a laugh. Fortunately, my writing is set before internet connections, but thanks for all the great information.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article. Love the butterfly sticker. . . . When my KIDS told me about screwdriving (they are in their 20s) it cracked me up. Who'd have thought?

  5. Not sure of what the camera hackers can see. On my previous computer, the camera was mounted at the top which gave a great view of my bookshelf. On my new one, it's on the bottom, but I haven't checked it out yet. Looks like they'll see my neck. Unless there's a way the hacker can "pan" I'm not sure I'm worried about it yet.

  6. I would recommend not using the bluetooth connection in a car rental--too easy to forget to delete information before turning it in.

    Remember to delete your information and disconnect the bluetooth before selling or trading in a vehicle.

    Don't trade in cell phones when it's time to upgrade--nothing can be completely removed from a device. Destroy it instead.


    I already had my camera covered on my camera. 🙂

  7. This is an interesting article, not only due to the details, but also because it brings up the necessity for a fiction writer to be really thinking through the time period her characters are in, the culture the characters are in, and what technologies would and wouldn't be available.

  8. Anything connected to the IOT (Internet of Things) is vulnerable, but really, a hacker would have to be able to process all that data. Most of it is useless junk. People worry about the camera, but hacking and activating the microphone of a target computer is more a threat. (Google how to do this). Basically, there's no such thing as privacy any more! One thing I wished you had mentioned, however, is the fact that the U.S. and allies operate under strict laws governing such activity. Not so our adversaries.

  9. Wow. Thanks, Piper! When I was studying such things one defense was the sheer amount of information recorded, making finding your stuff at best very hard to find. Now information processing is so good (good? Is that the right word?) that mountains of data can be searched very quickly. One client of mine had a single db table with a billion rows. They accessed it hourly and updated it daily. This was in 1985. And now . . .

    1. Well, the good news is that at least China can't sort through it all very well. I'd love to see an episode of Digital Hoarders that features the NSA, GCHQ, and other First World surveillance agencies.

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved