It doesn’t take serious writers long to learn that we need to be fanatical about quality with every element of our stories. So why, when we demand quality everywhere else, do we embrace Hollywood hacker stereotypes when it comes to technology?
We’ve all seen the tropes: bad guys breaking into important systems and holding the world for ransom, until good guys save the world by guessing the secret password in the nick of time. Hollywood hackers tend to be the smartest people in the story, but awkward in social settings; the world would be a better place if only they weren’t so misunderstood.
There are plenty of other ways storytellers opt for superficial technical solutions. Want to hold a secret meeting? Bring in a superhacker dwarf to disable the security cameras by glomming onto the building Wi-Fi from an SUV in the parking ramp—with no prior recon and no advance knowledge of the video system. That’s what Brad Thor did in Blacklist, in which U.S. government agents use Skype for secure communication. But it’s okay, because good secret agents do their Skyping from behind a TOR proxy.
Want to bring the United States to its knees? Find a smart 21-year-old to write a virus and introduce it to every internet service provider in America. Then watch the fun as the president of the U.S. guesses the secret password and saves the world. That’s pretty much the story in The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. I wonder if Hollywood will turn that book into a movie.
Maybe good guys need to see Evil Corp’s database, where bad guys keep their master plan to take over the world. To access it, the good guys need to breach several firewalls and face a gauntlet of cyberstalker programs, all designed to destroy their laptops and ruin their credit.
Why do we keep producing this stuff? I know, it’s fiction. We’re supposed to suspend disbelief. But come on—is this the best we writers can come up with? Our laziness has consequences. No wonder the public thinks they’re all just sitting ducks for any smart attacker looking to take over the world. The public deserves better. We can deliver better.
The real world offers plenty of sources of inspiration for technology-fueled tension. In 2015, two terrorists murdered 14 people at a San Bernardino Christmas party. They died in a shoot-out and left behind an encrypted iPhone. The FBI needed to get into that phone and threatened to bankrupt Apple unless the company built a software update to bypass the phone’s security safeguards. Think about being in the middle of that game of chicken.
Remember Stuxnet? Neither Israel nor the NSA will confirm that they introduced malicious software to Iran in 2008 to sabotage the country’s nuclear centrifuges. Kim Zetter chronicled it in Countdown to Zero Day. Imagine discovering an international software weapon. Tension? Drama? You betcha.
In my day job in the software industry, I encounter real-life situations that threaten to shut down the world all the time. I also routinely
see smaller cybervictim
scenarios that break my heart. Fiction writers should salivate at dramas like these. They all come with terrible trouble, layers of conflict, a deadline, and an unlikely hero at the grass roots. These stories smoke any cheap Hollywood hacker nonsense.
As a writer, you’re supposed to entertain, educate, inform, and inspire the world. Why not insert some realism around technology? Forget the dumb stereotypes. There’s gold in them thar technology scenes. Learn how to mine it. Your readers will thank you.
If you’re a writer who isn’t a technology professional, how do you build realistic technology scenes? It’s no different than any other writing challenge: you do your homework. If you want a character to hack into the DMV or disable a video surveillance system, plan a realistic attack. It should take about five minutes to figure out why using Skype for secure communications is a bad idea. And for the sake of audiences everywhere, research what firewalls do (and don’t do).
Instead of making up tech gibberish, engage a few real-world technology professionals. Ask questions. Use tech pros as beta readers. If you can’t find anyone near you, contact me via my website: dgregscott.com. I’ll help.
Show some respect to the professionals who keep the world running. You’ll end up with a better story for your trouble.
D. Greg Scott has 40 years of IT experience and has been a columnist at several tech magazines. His latest novel, Virus Bomb, was published in May by Morgan James.