Laura Griffin interviewed hackers and cyber crime investigators while researching her latest novel, Deep Dark. Learn what she discovered and how to protect yourself from dangers that are all too real.
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Before writing Deep Dark I shared many people’s approach to online security. That is to say, I didn’t have one. My laptop and my phone were password protected, yes, but any kindergartener could have cracked the code. (Turns out “123456” is the second most common password, second only to—can you guess it?—“password.”)
Researching this novel opened my eyes. I learned that cyber crime is everywhere, and the victims are very real. I learned that cell phones can be used to eavesdrop and that web cams can be used to spy. I knew this already, I suppose, but what I didn’t understand is that it happens all the time.
While writing Deep Dark I interviewed investigators who look for predators in the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet, and they were remarkably forthcoming with their stories. As a woman, I listened to their tales and felt creeped out. As a parent, I felt terrified. Some of the worst criminals out there aren’t after credit card info and social security numbers. They are after people, and they create elaborate webs designed to ensnare children.
What schemes are most common? Sexploitation tops the list. Someone posing as a fourteen-year-old boy smoothly convinces a fourteen-year-old girl to share revealing photos. When enough potentially embarrassing images are collected, he threatens to go public unless the teen provides more. The worst cases are “traveler” cases in which the predator arranges to meet the victim for a real encounter.
“So, where do these guys hang out?” I asked an FBI agent whose job it is to find and apprehend these people.
“Anywhere a child is, the predators are there,” he told me. “And they are masters at pretending to be kids.”
We put an astonishing amount of personal information out there. A savvy criminal can learn all about you through social media alone. Casual conversations and geotagged photos can reveal your location, your birthday, the kind of car you drive, and your plans for the evening. People constantly share what they are doing and where, without realizing that someone with nefarious intentions might be watching and waiting to strike.
Deep Dark is the story of Laney Knox, a white-hat hacker who works in a cybercrime unit to locate the most elusive predators. Laney teams up with an Austin homicide detective to track down a killer who is using an online dating site to target women. As opposed to researching pimps and pedophiles, researching Laney was fun. Like her hacker peers, she is witty and irreverent, and has a penchant for pranks. She ignores No Trespassing signs and never backs down from a challenge. Early in the story the detective asks Laney why seemingly smart people put their freedom at risk by hacking.
“I don’t know. Boredom. Entertainment,” she tells him. “Because they can. Nothing is unhackable. The challenge is to figure out how.”
Like many real-life investigators I’ve interviewed, Laney is a paradox—both jaded and idealistic because of what she sees in her work. She is a ray of light in a shadowy underworld that many people don’t even know exists.
Cyber investigators offer plenty of tips for avoiding this underworld: Change your passwords. Be careful about the personal info you reveal on social media. Use an app that strips geotags from pictures. Keep track of what your kids are doing.
When I was growing up, “stranger danger” came in the form of a shady-looking man in a slow-moving car, but now it comes in the form of a sleek-looking device in a decorative case. Investigators get frustrated with parents who give their kids cell phones and then don’t pay attention to how they use them.
“It’s negligent,” one agent told me. “It’s like giving them a loaded gun.”
It can be disconcerting to talk to people who constantly see the worst that can happen in society. Book research is disturbing at times, but fascinating, too. The investigators I meet inspire characters such as Laney Knox, people who fight crime for a living and seek justice for perfect strangers.
With all the darkness out there, I like to write about people who find a way to shine a light.
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