This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Ellen Butler, whose new novel is Fatal Legislation. Here is the publisher’s description:
Lawmaking can be a murderous affair.
If any day calls for a soothing glass of wine, it’s today.
One moment, Capitol Hill lobbyist Karina Cardinal is having a heated discussion with Senator Harper, who just torpedoed her latest health care legislation initiative. The next, after a cryptic remark, the senator is dead at her feet. Hours later, she’s still so rattled she wakes to a freezing apartment because she forgot to close her back door. Or did she?
When her boyfriend, FBI cybercrimes expert Mike Finnegan, is suddenly reassigned to work a new case, he’s got bad news and worse news. The bad: the senator’s death was no heart attack — it was assassination by a hacker disabling his pacemaker. Worse: Karina’s a “person of interest.”
Certain that status could change to “suspect” at any moment, Karina begins her own back-channel investigation into who could have wanted the senator dead. Of course, in Washington, that means playing politics and following the money trail. A trail that leads to more murders…and possibly leaving the door open for a killer to change her status to “dead.”
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Ellen Butler:
Often when we think of scary things — especially when we’re talking mystery/thrillers — we expect serial killers that gruesomely torture their victims, or a psycho who kidnaps a child, or a radical religious faction getting ahold of a weapon of mass destruction that threatens the lives of millions. Well, in Fatal Legislation, the scariest part is much sneakier and more sinister due to manner in which it subtly affects not only the victims in the book, but also the way in which it can affect every American who is electronically plugged in to society. Spoiler Alert: Fatal Legislation begins with the death of a senator. We soon find out that what seems like your run-of-the-mill heart attack is, instead, a targeted murder, using the senator’s own pacemaker to kill him. Yes, you read correctly, someone hacks the senator’s pacemaker and speeds it up so fast the blood can’t pump properly through his body, and boom — dead senator.
Science fiction! You might cry. If only that were true. The idea to kill off someone in this manner for one of my Karina Cardinal Mysteries came from a recall ad that ran on television the summer of 2016. That wasn’t the first or last recall notice for pacemakers. According to CNET, in May of 2018, “Abbott (formerly St. Jude Medical) is recalling some 350,000 implantable defibrillators to help protect patients from any spy-movie style assassination attempts or other issues.”I reached out to a cybersecurity specialist to find out more about this phenomenon, and the answer I got was very unsettling. He basically said, “Anything with firmware can be hacked.” To counteract this, Abbott and other companies with pacemakers vulnerable to hacks have created firmware updates to forestall such a hack. Unfortunately, the fix is only good until another hacker finds a different weakness.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “I don’t have a pacemaker, so I’m safe.” Maybe you’re right. However, you might be vulnerable in a different manner — one that affects your right to privacy. Do you have a smart phone? Smart TV, smart refrigerator, maybe a smart HVAC system with a temperature that can be adjusted from afar. One of these items in your house may already have been hacked and been used for a nefarious purpose without your knowledge. Here’s a “for instance” that was explained to me, and the reason I’m not allowed to hook our smart appliances up to our wi-fi. Hackers that attack important systems and high visibility websites — such as government or financial institutions — will do something in the biz called D-DoS or a denial of service attack. Basically, making the site unavailable to users temporarily or indefinitely. In order to do this, a hacker will flood the intended victim’s server with a ridiculous amount of incoming traffic so legitimate users can’t get in. A hacker may have hacked your smart TV, or dishwasher, and is utilizing it to help with this D-DoS attack. . . and you’d never know it. These smart appliances are particularly vulnerable, because most manufacturers don’t continually renew the patches to keep out these types of hacks. If you have a computer or phone, you’ll notice the apps and software are being constantly updated. Not so with your fancy new air-conditioner.
Here’s another example of the insidious every day intrusion into your life. Perhaps you’re best friends with SIRI or an Alexa. Have you noticed that after talking about going on a trip to Bermuda with your friend, you suddenly start noticing ads for Bermuda hotels and travel packages popping up in your Facebook feed or Google search. Even better, did you hear about the couple in Oregon, who were debating which hardwood floors to put into their home? According to The Washington Post, the couple’s Amazon Echo recorded their private conversation and sent it to a person in their contacts list in Seattle. Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a staff technologist for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said that the intuitive nature of connected devices can mask their complexity and the possibility of malfunction. “The Amazon Echo, despite being small, is a computer — it’s a computer with microphones, speakers, and it’s connected to the network,” he said. “These are potential surveillance devices, and we have invited them further and further into our lives without examining how that could go wrong.”
We have welcomed these devices into our homes, purses and pockets. Yet, by doing so, we have made ourselves more vulnerable to cyber attacks and surveillance. The question is no longer if you’ll be hacked, it’s when. And what the fall out will be when you are.
Ellen Butler is a bestselling author writing critically acclaimed suspense and award-winning historical fiction. Her experiences working at a medical association in Washington, D.C. inspired the Karina Cardinal series. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the Office of Strategic Services Society.