Cyber Security Satire?

I am a science fiction fan. In particular, I am a fan of movies featuring Those Lonesome Nerds who are capable of controlling this planet’s critical infrastructure – from their gloomy basements.

But is it science fiction? In the year Die Hard 4.0 has been released a classified video – showing an electrical generator dying from a cyber attack. Fortunately, “Aurora” was just a test attack against a replica of a power plant.

Now some of you know that the Subversive El(k)ement calls herself a Dilettante Science Blogger on Twitter.

But here is an epic story to be unearthed, and it would take a novelist to do that. I can imagine the long-winded narrative unfolding – of people who cannot use their showers or toilets any more after the blackout. Of sinister hackers sending their evil commands into the command centers of the intricate blood circulation of our society we call The Power Grid. Of course they use smart meters to start their attack.

Unfortunately my feeble attempts of tipping my toes into novel writing have been crashed before I even got started: This novel does exist already – in German. I will inform you if is has been translated – either to a novel or directly into a Hollywood movie script.

As I am probably not capable of writing a serious thriller anyway I would rather go for dark satire.

Douglas Adams did cover so many technologies in The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy – existing and imagined ones – but he did not elaborate much on intergalactic power transmission. So here is room for satire.

What if our Most Critical Infrastructure would not be attacked by sinister hacker nerds but by our smart systems’ smartness dumbness? (Or their operators’ ?)

To all you silent readers and idea grabbers out there: Don’t underestimate the cyber technology I had built into that mostly harmless blog: I know all of you who are reading this and if you are going to exploit this idea on behalf of me I will time-travel back and forth and ruin your online reputation.

That being said I start crafting the plot:

As Adams probably drew his inspiration from encounters with corporations and bureaucracy when describing the Vogons and InfiniDim enterprises I will extrapolate my cyber security nightmare from an anecdote – one that actually happenend!

Consider a programmer – a geek – trying to test his code. Sorry for the gender stereotype. As a geekess I am allowed to do this. It could be female geek also!

The geek’s code should send messages to other computers in a Windows domain. “Domain” is a technical term, not some geeky reference to Dominion or the like.  He is using net send. Info for Generation Y-ers and other tablet and smartphone freak: This is like social media status message junk lacking images.

But our geek protagonist makes a small mistake: He does not send the test command to his test computer only – but to “EUROPE”. This does nearly refer to the whole continent, actually it addresses all computers in all European subsidiaries of a true Virtual Cyber Empire.

Fortunately modern IT networks are built on nearly AI powered devices called switches which make the cyber attack petering out at the borders of That Large City.

How could we turn this into a story about an attack on the power grid, adding your typical ignorant non-tech sensationalist writer’s cliched ideas:

  1. A humanoid life-form (or flawed android that tests his emotions chip) is tinkering with sort of a Hello World! command – sent to The Whole World literally.
  2. The attack that is just a glitch, an unfortunate concatenation of events, that is been launched in an unrelated part of the cyber space. E.g. by a command displayed on a hacker’s screen in a Youtube video. Or it was launched from the gas grid.
  3. The Command of Death spreads pandemically over the continent, replicating itself more efficiently than cute cat videos on social networks.

I contacted my agent immediately.

Shattering my enthusiasm she told me:

This is not science-fiction – this is simply boring. Something like that happened recently in a small country in the middle of Europe.

According to this country’s news a major power blackout had barely been avoided in May 2013. Engineers needed to control the delicate balance of power supply and demand manually as the power grid’s control system has been flooded with gibberish – data that could not be interpreted.

The alleged originator of these commands was a gas transmission system operator in the neighboring country. This company tested a new control system and tried to poll all of its meters for a status update.  Somehow the command found its way from the gas grid to the European power grid and has been replicated.


Update –  Bonus material – making of: For the first time I felt the need to tell this story twice – in German and in English. This is not a translation, rather different versions in parallel universes. German-speaking readers – this is the German instance of the post.

29 Comments Add yours

  1. Just found the blog and love it. I also like to write about “cyber activities”. I have worked in / around these areas for the better part of a decade and have combined this with my enjoyment of off-tilt humour to write a cyber-series – Cyber Nightmares. The first short story, Cyber Nightmares: For the sake of 9 million, was released in Q4 2012 with a follow up novella, Cyber Nightmares: Autonomous Chaos, due out in Q3 2013.

    The first Cyber Nightmares is available free , just follow the links on my blog.

    As writing is a hobby for me, I also currently typing away on a Zombie novel for a writers comp. Needs to be finished by the end of July – fingers crossed

    I look forward to following this blog closely and maybe we can help fuel our collective fires for Cyber someday…

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for commenting! I am currently finalizing a master thesis on something cyber security related – that’s one of the reasons of my blogging hiatus (see latest post). I can’t pull off blogging and scientific writing in my spare time ;-) But I’ll be back in September – I will get back to your books!

  2. M. Hatzel says:

    If I had a time machine, I’d go back a year or two ago and mark the link to an article on an American university e-mail frenzy that happened when some glitch caused all e-mail sent to be distributed to all users on the campus server. It was a free-for-all student bonanza of “hi world!” messaging. Give some kids a toy… I imagine we’ll see more and more stories like this over time, much like we saw more and more car accidents as automobiles became more common, more people were driving, and roads were extended everywhere.

    1. elkement says:

      I can relate to the bonanza of “hi world!” messaging! I can remember corporate e-mail threads, started by an e-mail sent accidentally to a large discussion list instead of a support e-mail address. Then members of the discussion group replied all. Many other people replied all, saying: “Do not reply all!” ;-)

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        When I was a kid, I’d have nightmares about showing up at school still wearing my sleepwear instead of school clothes. Now I have nightmares about ‘reply all’ and premature ‘publish’ buttons!

        1. elkement says:

          I see the plot of a modern horror story here – Stephen-King-style… today’s information workers thinking about their deepest fears ;-)

  3. I’ve always tossed around the idea of writing science fiction. I too am a big fan. What makes it hard is that so much of my writing seems tied to open spaces and the wild. Your post is giving me ideas on how to merge the two! I will let you know if anything comes of it, and if (when) it is written, and if (when) I am famous for it, there will be a note explaining the heritage of the idea!

    1. elkement says:

      I am honored if a real writer would be inspired like this! ;-)
      I believe science fiction and open spaces & the wild are very compatible – in particular in “cyber paranoia science fiction”. The movie Eagle Eye starring Shia Laboef springs to my mind: where he fighting an omnipotent surveillance / defence system that has gone nuts. It kills one of its victims somewhere in the wild – the man runs along a track of utility poles – by letting a power cable swing to an fro.
      The power grid and telecom lines are probably that part of human technology that’s really ubiquitous in “the wild” – I like this contrast.
      But probably this is too clichéd already? …he lonely hero trying to hide somewhere in the desert / on an island etc – but the evil cyber empire is always there to get him – due to electrical power and communications technology.

  4. danielmullin81 says:

    If your novel is ever adapted into a screenplay, be prepared for the usual Hollywood computer cliches, i.e. a progress bar that says ‘uploading virus’ and several references to ‘the mainframe.’
    https:// www.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dan :-) I believe if would write a novel it would consist only of the most over-used clichés. When I see movies like these I suspect there is some sort of Sci-Fi movie making software that allows you to pick from well-known clichés. Or probably you could reuse what has been tossed into the dustbin at Paramount or Universal pictures.
      I believe you can buy packaged clichés for every genre – such as climate running wild (father searching for brave children in arctic USA) or monster rampaging Big City (King Kong, Gozilla, tyrannosaurus)
      (BTW – great comments on Youtube: “Makes me wonder if they really know what a mainframe is?” “They now say cloud”)

  5. bert0001 says:

    In 1993 I sent an email from Belgium to California, surpassing the then existing (huge) 5MB limit. So it bounced back, with attachment, and kept bouncing back and forth until they manually removed it, changed their POP servers to only send back the headers, and asking me never to do this again …
    Technology is amazing. Do you have a raspberry Pi?

    1. elkement says:

      I had similar encounters with bouncing mail some years ago: My mail server tried to download a fat e-mail via POP3, but the upstream server at the hoster cut the connection after some minutes right before the mail was downloaded as it considered that idle time. My server retried every 15 minutes until my – at that time limited – data volume was exceeded. I could track that down to my hoster’s server nearly violating the POP3 RFC and/or it was a MAY condition in the RFC :-) (I was on vacation not checking logs every day – so finally it was my fault ;-))

      I don’t have a Raspberry PI yet but I am seriously considering to use one when polling measurement devices at customers’ sites over the internet. On principle you could use a 3G / UMTS… router as well – but in that case you need to be sure that your mobile network operator will provide you (your card) with a public IP address forever. Just had a frustrating experience with an operator changing that silently – and putting the router behind another firewall obviously after having used public IPs before – without informing customers about it. So I think about a device making outbound connections only.

  6. maybe this will be the modern version of the Babylon tower

    1. elkement says:

      If you refer to all those communication protocols involved in smart metering / smart grid control – I couldn’t agree more!
      (If you refer to the cryptic nature of this post – it is of course true as well. As with most of my posts ;-))
      Thanks for commenting – I enjoy on cross-connecting the conversations in the social media multiverse :-)

  7. if I bribed you – i.e. promised you royalties, would you abstain from ruining my Reputation if I developed your idea?

    1. elkement says:

      :-D Unfortunately I believe: If I would do more research on cyber security novels I would need to conclude that all “my” ideas have been exploited already, and I live in fear of being accused of plagiarism myself :-)
      I have become pessimistic after “rediscovering” the 10 years old idea of spam poetry.

      1. Just think: If there is nothing original, say, because according to Plato’s philosophy of ideas everything we do is a modification of an original idea embedded in the weave of the cosmos, then there is also no plagiarism, because nobody can claim intellectual ownership. For. Anything. At. All.

        1. elkement says:

          Thanks for adding some philosophy to the geeky stuff!
          I am now plagiarizing a fellow WP blogger (and spam poet BTW) Alex Brown who once told me in a comment on my blog: Mark Twain once said that “the bulk of human utterances plagiarism”.

  8. David Yerle says:

    I wrote a post about cyber-war quite a while ago, but it had a completely different angle. I like the idea of a glitch, especially if it’s due to just plain incompetence. I think the odds of the world ending with an “oops” are getting higher every day.

    1. elkement says:

      I might be biased, but this is really based on my experience. I worked as an IT security consultant for 10 years – but any “issue”, “incident” etc. I was ever concerned with were not those evil hackers but people who locked themselves out by making the systems much too hacker-proof, that is: complex.
      It’s usually the so-called simple, organizational things that go terribly wrong – such as keeping records of where all the secure stuff is actually stored (virtually or physically) and How to Run That Secret Procedures every 5-10 years despite employees leaving the company.
      I don’t want to downplay the cyber security risks at all – but they need to me mitigated together with the risk of systems running wild because they have become too complex

  9. Forget asking an agent. Outline your plot. Create a character whose decisions are based on something within her which are then physically represented by her actions in the geek world. Fiction writing for an audience is artless (though there has been much profit made doing it). Write what you want to write and see where it goes. Adams would be among the first to agree (recall Dirk Gently’s detecting process of following any random car until it takes him to a clue).

    You have reminded me of Daniel Suarez’s page-turner novels on cyber intelligence overtaking the world, Daemon and Freedom TM. They are not much for character development but are fast reads opening wonderful techno security breech portals and consequences.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for the pointer to Daniel Suarez – this comes in handy as I need something to read right now – after having finished The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy of Five.
      Mentioning the agent and the contemplated novel was as satirical and rhetorical as it can get ;-) I believe I can’t develop characters at all!

  10. marksackler says:

    Your BLAHS just became “Subversive Geek of the Year.” ;)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Mark! So the BLAHS is subject to dynamic updates? This is very innovative, but very dangerous as well from a cyber security perspective.

      1. marksackler says:

        No pain, no gain. No risk, no reward.

      2. marksackler says:

        And it’s subject to anything and everything I want. :P

        1. elkement says:

          I will find a way to hack it nonetheless!

          1. marksackler says:

            You’ve already hacked into my neurons, anything else would be redundant. ;)

            1. elkement says:

              Reader who are bewildered / confused / shocked / repelled by this kind of geeky dialogue – please go elsewhere (and read the comments over here):

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