by Reece Hirsch
Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Dark Tomorrow, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
When I wrote my thriller Dark Tomorrow, I thought I had imagined a true worst-case scenario, one in which the entire East Coast was crippled by a massive cyber attack launched by an unknown enemy. In my book, the electrical grid is shut down, supply chains grind to a halt, our national defense system is hacked, and industrial plants are turned into terrorist weapons.
Then COVID-19 came along and I realized the limits of my own imagination. But I’ll leave it to other thriller writers to write the next Andromeda Strain. When I’m not writing thrillers, I’m a privacy and cybersecurity attorney, so I will stick to the scary things that I know – the ways that technology can go haywire and disrupt our lives.
So let’s review a few of the many tech dangers that I examine in the book and examine whether they are fact or fiction:
In the opening chapter of Dark Tomorrow, FBI Special Agent Lisa Tanchik is called to a murder scene in Columbia, Maryland, where an analyst for the U.S. Cyber Command, the agency that defends the nation against cyber attacks, has been killed by an email. How, you might ask, can an email be a murder weapon? The victim suffered from epilepsy and was sent an email that contained a powerful strobe attachment. When the victim clicked it, the strobe caused a fatal epileptic seizure.
So, are emails with deadly strobe lights fact or fiction?
Journalist Kurt Eichenwald, among others, was victimized using that technique. While Mr. Eichenwald did not die from the attack, it was a genuine threat. A light flashing between five and thirty times per second, combined with rapid movement and heavy contrasts between light and dark, can overstimulate the primary visual cortex and then spread to other parts of the brain, creating a potentially deadly seizure. The illness first came to the attention of the medical community in the 1990s when an episode of the animated TV series Pokemon caused a wave of seizures among children in Japan.
Can a medical device be hacked?
For me, there is nothing more frightening than a threat that comes from inside your own body. That’s what happens when an implanted medical device is hacked. It’s a little like the horror movie trope when the protagonist realizes that the call from the killer is coming from inside the house. One brand of pacemaker was recalled a few years ago by the FDA because the agency determined that hackers could endanger lives remotely by causing the batteries to go flat or forcing the devices to run at potentially deadly speeds. Former Vice President Dick Cheney publicly stated in 2013 that he had the manufacturer of his pacemaker disable its wireless connectivity in order to address that threat.
Can a hacker take control of my car?
Answer: Yes, if it’s a model built since 2005.
Any device or system that is connected to the Internet is potentially hackable, and that includes cars. Cars typically have between 50 and 100 electronic control units – small computers – which control many of the car’s functions, from the locking system to the power steering to the brakes. Connected navigation systems are often a point of entry for hackers. In 2015, the makers of the Jeep Cherokee were forced to recall 1.4 million vehicles after US researchers demonstrated that they could remotely hijack the car’s system over the internet.
These sorts of technological threats are scary enough by themselves, but in a cyberwarfare scenario, a sophisticated and unidentified enemy could orchestrate a wave of attacks, using these weapons and more. My protagonist, FBI Special Agent Lisa Tanchik, is tasked with pursuing a hacker to find out who is behind a wave of such attacks, plunging her into a country in chaos.
It’s a frightening and, I believe, plausible scenario. But I still feel like reality has just upped the ante with COVID-19.
To enter to win a copy of Dark Tomorrow, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “tomorrow,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen May 16, 2020. US only, and must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email be sure to include your mailing address in case you win-emails will be deleted when the contest is over. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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