Making it up in cyberspace

Far, far spookier than Halloween this week was the Chancellor, Philip Hammond. In a speech, that could have come from a Star Wars movie, he launched the £1.9 billion government fund and new five-year cybersecurity strategy to turn Britain’s cyberwarfare capabilities against “hostile actors” –  “Our new strategy . . . will allow us to take even greater steps to defend ourselves in cyberspace and to strike back when we are attacked.”

“The country must take an aggressive approach to protect the economy, infrastructure and individuals’ privacy from hostile forces. The risk of hackers targeting air traffic control and power grid networks is one of the biggest concerns”

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We are under threat from ageing commercial IT systems, a shortage of computer security experts and the rise of “user-friendly” hacking tools, apparently.

“No longer the stuff of spy thrillers and action movies, cyber-attacks are a reality and they are happening now… Our adversaries are varied – organised criminal groups, ‘hacktivists’, untrained teenagers and foreign states… The first duty of the Government is to keep the nation safe. Any modern state cannot remain secure and prosperous without securing itself in cyberspace.” Ben Gummer, Cabinet Office Minister.

A day rarely passes without a computer hacking story coming into our view – usually accompanied by a picture of a (likely male) youth in a hoodie, hunched over laptop in an algorithmic trance.  Increasingly we are being warned that our “Smart” household items; wi-fi-enabled devices like cameras, coffee makers and baby monitors, can be accessed by “baddies” for surveillance, burglary and blackout.

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And if our handy electronic devices weren’t enough to worry about;  there’s always  Cyber-attacks and hacking and the many routes to Cyber Crime, in an Evolution of Hacking.

“Hacker” has become a pejorative term, denoting a malicious or power-greedy individual.  But this is too limited a definition ;  it all depends on the hat.   Black hatted hackers are the baddies – the ones who violate computer security for personal gain (such as stealing credit card numbers or harvesting personal data for sale to identity thieves) or for pure maliciousness (such as creating a botnet to perform attacks). White hatters are the “ethical hackers”, experts in compromising computer security systems who use their abilities for good, ethical, and legal purposes.  Then there are the grey hatters too who fall between the two camps – maybe depending on the job that comes their way.

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So how can you spot a hacker? Well, contrary to media mythology, they come in all shapes and sizes (and some wear suits, like that nice man from IT who always helps you find your unsaved documents on a Friday afternoon) with looks and likes equally diverse.  But one thing common to them all – they live and breathe computers, know everything to know about computers and can (usually) get a computer to do anything. Equally important is the hacker’s attitude. Computer programming is their lifeblood not just a money feed. They are social and gregarious, (not remotely glum and insular) they attend hackathons – 24 hour marathon hacking events and hacking conferences and connect daily by video chat – all colour of hats together. They likely eat a lot of pizza too…

A lot less well known but definitely part of the picture are the high-profile ethical women hackers and the organizations supporting them.  And just as interesting are the “genius’ child hackers – were they born hackers, or did they have hackness thrust upon them?

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Our cultural imaginings of hacking/cyber crime are dominated by sci-fi story-tellers and can be very male in the telling. On screen clichéd representations of a “type” are often preferred. So we have hackers as superhero  – mysterious and powerful wizards (Sneakers, Robert Redford 1992) or the demonic geek  – the hackers who uses intimidation and power computer tactics to take over the world (Black Hat, Chris Hemsworth 2015 – see trailer below – and increasingly also part of the James Bond franchise).


Entertaining some of these films maybe but the main trouble with watching hacking is it’s not just that interesting, all that frantic tapping at screen or keyboard, and rather masterbatory; just too solitary and private, viewers can’t join the fun.

Instead we find more imagination-grabbing scenarios in the written and spoken stories of hacking, without screen graphics and gizmos to stir interest, these authors often work much harder to get our attention.

In books we find more rounded characters in absorbing dystopian-like narratives that shake us and make us think a whole lot more about the battles for cyberspace – in fiction and in fact.


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And then there’s the (awesome) power of radio. Responsible for once creating the “first great mass panics of the modern media age”(now debunked as urban myth); the historic Halloween broadcast of H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds, starring Orson Welles, in 1938.  An interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” spooked a million people and convinced them, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.


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Source: BBC Radio 4

Would we be so fooled nearly 80 years on? Perhaps not but this timely offering from BBC Radio 4, The Good Listener, Carte Blanche, is still worth a listen.  Here the Wells story gets a modern update as GCHQ spy agents monitoring delegates of the G20 summit uncover a sophisticated cyber-attack targeting the UK National Grid – what will/should they do next?

Mostly though our fiction is lagging behind what’s really happening in our ever superfast technologically proficient world. Here’s what University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity (CLTC) predicts for 2020:

  • Internet users assume their data will be stolen and their personal information broadcast.
  • Law enforcement struggles to keep pace as large-scale cyberattacks continue, with small-scale cyberattacks becoming commonplace.
  • Governments are hamstrung by a lack of clarity regarding jurisdiction in digital-crime cases.
  • Hackers prove adept at collaborating across geographies, while law enforcement agencies are not.
  • Individuals and institutions respond in diverse ways: a few choose to go offline, some make their data public before it can be stolen, and others fight back.

That’s just over 3 years away… Spooked? We will be.



Mr Robot (2015) Amazon Prime.  Lauded as the most realistic “hacker” story on screen,  this TV series has also been causing a stir thanks to it’s star Rami Malek. He plays Elliot, a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. “Mr. Robot understands the powerful psychological lure that hacking has for people who feel disconnected from, and excessively smarter than, the world around them. It also understands how such intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into emotional stability or maturity. Elliot may have the skills to take down a powerful corporation, but at his core he’s just a boy pining for a girl; just a son mourning his dead dad” (

Algorithm – (2014). A freelance computer hacker discovers a mysterious government computer program. He breaks into the program and is thrust into a revolution.

Unsprung –  Filmmaker Oscar Sharp and technologist Ross Goodwin fed a machine learning algorithm with a bunch of Sci-Fi movie scripts to see what new script it would spit out. A script for Sunspring is the result, and this is the film, starring Thomas Middleditch. Riveting.

Recommended Movie lists – and



Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker (2011) Kevin Mitnick.  The story of a man who forces the authorities to change the way people and companies protect their most sensitive information. Intrigue, suspense, and unbelievable escape – all of it true.

MicroSerfs (1995)  Douglas Coupland –  Funny, illuminating and ultimately touching, the story of one generation’s very strange and claustrophobic coming of age.

Little Brother (2008) Cory Doctorow –  Big Brother is watching you. Who’s watching back?The ultimate tale of teen rebellion and one seventeen-year-old up against the surveillance state. Youth fiction.

Snow Crash (2011) – Neal Stephenson. Exploring linguistics, religion, computer science, politics, philosophy, cryptography and the future of pizza delivery, Snow Crash is a riveting, brake-neck adventure into the fast-approaching future.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2008)  Steig Larson. More of a detective thriller than there rest but Lisbeth Salander, is the most intriguing female hacker in fiction.

and the classics

1984 (1948)- ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’ George Orwell’s classic dystopian vision of a modern world under surveillance, worth reading again.

And whilst you are it revisit Brave New World (1932) Aldous Huxley’s utopian world in which humans have mastered the necessarily technology to play God, and this technology is used to achieve happiness at the expense of freedom, individuality, and several other basic human rights. Absolutely chilling in it’s perspicuity…



War of the Worlds, H.G.Wells – full broadcast

Hacking – BBC Radio 5 newsy podcast gives a tour of the murky world of computer hacking with US investigative reporter Kevin Poulson.


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