Tuesday, 15 October 2002

Jeffrey Deaver: The Blue Nowhere (2001)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001
Review number: 1124

Jeffrey Deaver may usually be a writer of traditional thrillers, but with The Blue Nowhere he joins the small group of authors who can convincingly depict the world of the computer hacker (Neal Stephenson and William Gibson being the best known of the others).

The basic plot of The Blue Nowhere is a computerised version of the Eddie Murphy film 48 Hours; a hacker is let out of prison to help the LAPD Computer Crimes Unit track down another hacker, who has the screen name Phate, who has turned serial killer. The actual crime plot is pretty hackneyed, but the computing background means that the novel is more than just a run of the mill police procedural. (The style, by the way, is similar to Michael Connelly.)

The one part of the plot which seems unlikely, if not impossible, is the program used by Phate to target the victims, which is named Trapdoor. (Deaver admids in the acknowledgements that the experts he consulted were dubious about the way it is supposed to work.) Phate has cracked one of the major Internet routers, and uses a steganographic (and the proof reader of the novel should note the spelling of the word) method to infect the target machine, sending small sections of the Trapdoor program in individual IP packets which are part of the normal online communication. (Steganographic means "hidden writing" , and is the process of writing a secret message as part of an innocent one, say be using every twentieth character, or altering specified bits of an image file.) To put the information into IP packets, given control of a router, would not be particularly difficult. The problem is that once the data reaches the target computer, it needs to be separated out from the genuine information, re-assembled and then executed, and I can't see any way that this could be done barring serious bugs in the IP stack and operating system of the computer being attacked. This is essentially the same reason that a virus spread as an email attachment is not activated unless the user or operating system is conned into executing (opening) the attachment - computers need a reason to run a piece of software. The reasons that systems are vulnerable to cracking are generally attributable to human carelessness, such things as users writing down passwords or using obvious words, or bugs in software which can be exploited.

Since the Trapdoor program is important to the plot, this is something of a problem; yet the convincing nature of the rest of the setting makes it easy enough to suspend disbelief and enjoy the novel.

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