Hello, gentle reader. With nearly 2 billion users around the world, the chances are pretty good that you and most of the other people reading this own a smartphone. And you probably use those natty little headphones that came with it, right? You may even make use of the phone’s voice-responsive software apps that talk back to you like they’re a real person. All of it is cool tech, designed to make life more frictionless for the user.
But is it secure? Perhaps you’re in a train carriage, on a bus or at a café. There’s a guy sitting across from you as you read, and he’s fiddling with a tablet or tapping at a laptop that’s kind of pointed roughly in your direction. How would you feel if I told you that he’s a got a device in his pocket capable of remotely hacking your phone from six feet away? It’s an ultrasonic transmitter that will talk to your phone on a frequency beyond the range of human hearing, and without you ever having been aware of it, he will order it to upload a virus and take full root control of your handset.
And from now every word you say, call you make, text you send, website you visit, photo you snap – it all belongs to him, along with your exact location every moment of the day. Did you check your bank balance? Pay a bill? If you did, he knows about it. Think for a second… How much of your life is on your phone?
I’m a novelist, and I’m currently writing a series of action thrillers featuring Marc Dane, a tech-savvy espionage agent and former MI6 operative – the latest of which, GHOST, is out at the end of May and sees Marc up against a cadre of mercenary hackers. But what I’m describing to you isn’t some fiction I’ve dreamed up for my book. This is technology that is not only freely available to anyone with access to online marketplaces and some bitcoin, it is old technology. It’s not even close to being at the cutting edge.
Which raises the question: What kind of security-breaking tech is out there right now?
When I was developing and researching my books, I wanted to create stories set in the digital age that is unfolding all around us. We’re living in a post-Wikileaks world. We’ve already seen Edward Snowden pull back the curtain on the secret digital spy programs of the NSA and GCHQ. We’ve seen hackers outing cheating spouses on the Ashley Madison affair-dating website, and social media systems giving away our personal data. China’s cyber-agents stealing the security files of thousands of American government workers. Russian troll-farms manipulating public opinion and alt-right activists weaponizing online discourse.
For a long and for the majority of us, the cyber conflict was happening at a far remove. At first sight, it seemed that the silent digital war that thundered unseen over our heads was all about nation-states and conglomerates. It was distant and ephemeral. It was ones and zeros, not bombs and bullets.
But the weapons being used in these fights aren’t like aircraft carriers or armoured divisions. You don’t need a lot of support structure to host a bot-net and crash a computer system. The software virus that one day is being used by a military power to sabotage a rogue nation’s nuclear enrichment labs comes back in new form to blow through the customer records of an unsuspecting telecommunications company. Think of that nice young lady calling from your service provider, who knows your name and address, who just wants to double-check your credit card number; the online troll who decides to make your digital life a misery because they took issue with your lifestyle choices or political affiliations; the black-hat hacker infecting a hospital’s operating system with ransomware. Each of them are using a kind of trickle-down digital arsenal that, like the phone invasion, is born out of repurposed military technology.
Thirty years ago, remote drones and micro cameras were the kind of thing that national governments kept hidden in their equivalent of Q-Branch. Today children can buy more advanced versions of the same hardware from a toy store. Digital technology is moving the same way – geolocation software was devised so intercontinental ballistic missiles could be sure of dropping their nuclear payloads in the right place. Now gamers use the same mechanism to chase virtual animals around real-world locations.
This new Cold War isn’t a matter of nations and armies. It isn’t being fought on battlefields, in dark secret places or deep in the oceans. It’s raging right now, in your pocket. On your desktop.
So do yourself a favour. Double-check your security settings. Clear the cache on your browser. And maybe go off-line for a while. You could always…read a book.
James Swallow’s Ghost is published by Bonnier Zaffre