A generation ago cybercrime was as esoteric a subject to write about as quantum mechanics or fluctuations in the derivatives market. Now it’s a central feature of many novels.
Whether it’s criminal gangs phishing to steal sensitive data to sell on the dark web, or that creep from college catfishing people on Facebook, or the daily texts asking us to click a link to claim a prize or verify a payment, we are under continuous attack . Pension scams, identity thefts, all those strangers following our children on TikTok, everywhere we turn, someone is trying to turn the technology on which we rely 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 (whereby private information is published online to intimidate), 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 grid.
The microchip dominates many things in our life; the same is true for crime. From online stalking to trillion-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: Controlling the Human Element of Security by Kevin Mitnick
It’s a maxim in cybersecurity that the weakest point in a computer network is the human. Whether in relation to phishing emails or a phone call “from the bank” saying they’re calling about a fraudulent transaction, Kevin Mitnick wrote the book on exploiting such vulnerability. He’s written many books on hacking, notably his fascinating memoir Ghost in the Wires, but my favorite is still this handy guide to social engineering. Think you couldn’t be fooled into handing over crucial information? Read this and think again.
2. People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd
In the space of a decade social media stalking has become ubiquitous in psychological thrillers, but few have done it as well as Ellery Lloyd, the nom de plume of married writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos. People Like Her tells the story of celebrity InstaMum Emmy and her washed-up novelist husband, who hates their newfound fame. Throw in a cyber predator, some sparky writing, and a breathless dash to the finish and you have one fantastic digital thriller.
3. The Blue Nowhere by Jeffery Deaver
Crime-fiction doyen Deaver was writing about hackers and online scammers before most people had a home computer. Set in 1999 and featuring dial-up modems and floppy disks, it pitches two hackers – one an evil psycho luring his victims to their deaths, the other released from prison to aid the investigation – into a relentless, blood-stained cat-and- mouse chase. It’s dated, but it was ahead of its time, and few are better than Deaver at keeping you hooked.
4. Impostor Syndrome by Kathy Wang
If, like me, you read Dave Eggers’ The Circle and thought “great book, but where’s the story?” then Impostor Syndrome is for you. When Alice, a keyboard drone at giant tech company Tangerine spots unusual activity on the company’s servers, the ensuing conspiracy leads to the top. Part spy mystery, part espionage thriller, part Silicon Valley satire about the role of minority women in the dev 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 Zetter
With so many cyber crooks trying to fleece us with texts to pay for excess postage it’s easy to forget that technology is also used to carry out malicious acts at a national level. In 2010, centrifuges at Iran’s uranium enrichment plant kept failing. The reason? A new type of virus called Stuxnet developed by the US and Israel that caused them to spin too fast and break. This is a fascinating story about state-sanctioned sabotage, which presents the machine code techno-babble in simple terms any reader can enjoy.
6. Manipulated: 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 upon a time 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, deepfake videos and cyber troll farms mark the battleground in a war most people, including those protecting us, have no idea is going on. Can it be stopped before our political systems crumble?
7. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Doctorow is famed for his digital activism, his role as editor at influential zine Boing Boing, and his post-cyberpunk novels. At the center of this canon is his Little Brother trilogy, and streetwise 17-year-old Marcus who, with his crew, creates a private “mesh network” to defend against a dystopian surveillance state. Cue 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 detained?
8. Digital Fortress by Dan Brown
I haven’t read Dan Brown since I gave up on The Da Vinci Code midway, but in the late 90s Digital Fortress blew my mind. Starring kickass cryptographer Susan Fletcher – this in a time when most female leads were either scared, simpering, or both – it’s a race-against-time riddler to save a National Security Agency held captive by mysterious, malicious code.
9. Dark Market: How Hackers Became the New Mafia by Misha Glenny
Spend half an hour in 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 site to service your needs. This is where your data ends up after it’s been 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 round off a cybercrime Top 10 than with this subversive banger of a novel by South African genre-smasher Lauren Beukes. Set in an alternative Johannesburg where animal familiars are attached to criminals to mark them, it tells the story Zinzi, a lost-item psychic and 419 scammer (think emails from purported princes) who gets sucked into a murder mystery with wide resonance.
The Box by Dan Malakin is published by Profile Books. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.