If you have a laptop or PC with a built in webcam I’d like you to get a piece of sticky tape, gaffer tape is best, and stick it over your webcam. If you have a PC with a plug-in webcam then I’d like you to unplug it.
Done that? Good. Now I’ll continue with this review of “Malicious” by James Raven. It is a detective story with three plots intertwining to make a more than satisfactory whole. I thought at first that it was a bit fanciful in some of what it claimed was possible, until I did some research, but I’ll return to that later.
Charlotte Slater, an apparently happily married woman, is found murdered in a park in Houston, Texas. Detective Ryan Tate and her partner Riley are assigned to the case. It soon emerges that Charlotte Slater is not all that she seems and is given to hooking up with men she meets on the internet in order to have casual sex.
During the course of the investigation it is revealed that a computer hacker, going by the name of the Slave Master, has hacked Charlotte’s laptop and has been spying on her through her webcam. He uses what he records to blackmail his victims, of which Charlotte is just one amongst many.
Detective Tate, a divorced woman with self-image issues, is astounded to find that her laptop has also been hacked and she, too, is then blackmailed by the Slave Master. Her addiction to watching on-line porn while, this is a family blog so I shall just say amusing herself, threatens her reputation as a police officer and her already shaky relationships with her family.
If this sounds like a flimsy excuse for some of Tate’s later behaviour then imagine if your work colleagues ever found out about your deepest, darkest secret. How would you feel about that? Of course if you don’t have any deep, dark secrets then that doesn’t apply, but use your imagination anyway. Pretty much everyone is naked in their bedroom at some point and I doubt that most people would want photos of that being posted on Facebook!
So there we have the basic plot. The big question, of course, is whether the murderer and the Slave Master are one and the same person and of course the next question is, who is the Slave Master?
The book moves along at a steady pace, mainly focusing on Tate, her insecurities and her fear at being exposed as a viewer of pornography. It leads her into some pretty unprofessional behaviour, but what would a detective story be if it didn’t have a cop with personal problems who then behaves unprofessionally? TV would have no plots for their shows!
Some of the scenes are little graphic in terms of their sexual content but that isn’t a major feature of the book, so if you think things are getting a bit steamy you can always skip to the next paragraph. I sense that the last sentence alone may just have increased sales of this book quite dramatically.
The real fun of detective novels is trying to spot the murderer before the author reveals his or her identity. Did I succeed in that? I’m afraid I can’t answer without giving too much away, so all I will say is that the clues are there if you are paying close enough attention. The author doesn’t cheat by bringing in new characters at the end or revealing information that he hasn’t already shared with the reader.
As a detective story I enjoyed Malicious, but what it revealed about the vulnerability of the technology we use is truly scary.
We are advised against taking our laptops to bed with us, but that is because we may spend too much time updating our Facebook status, or Tweeting, when we should really be sleeping. However, after reading Malicious you may conclude, as I did, that the real reason for not taking technology into the bedroom with you is to prevent people spying on you and whatever it is that you are doing in there.
I found it unbelievable that a hacker could place malware on a laptop or PC that would allow him to take control of the webcam and, unknown to the user, record what they were doing – until I did some research on the internet. This is just one item I found on the subject.
Could such technology be used to gather information that could then be used for blackmail? Well The Daily Telegraph provides a report of the conviction of someone acting as a “Peeping Tom” by using just such technology. This report from America describes a more serious offence. From either of those relatively minor crimes it is a very small step up to blackmail.
As blackmail victims will often be loathe to come forward it is quite possible that it is happening just as Raven describes. Blackmail demands don’t have to be for large sums of money. Some blackmailers may settle for much smaller sums.
The problem with malware, rather than a virus, is that it generally goes undetected by anti-virus software. There are even highly publicised, commercially available software packages such as "Go To My PC" and "Team Viewer" that will allow you to do many of the things that the renmote access technology (RAT) programmes do, not that I am suggesting that these commercial packages can be used in a malicious manner. What they do demonstrate, however, is that RAT is real.
What you get up to in the privacy of your own home is your own private business. If you want it to stay your own private business then I strongly suggest that you cover up any built in webcams and unplug any external ones. Just switching them off using the system controls isn’t good enough, as the power of the RAT allows them to be switched back on again without you even knowing.
However, this sort of malware isn't just used for spying thorough your webcam. The spy can root through the files stored on your hard drive for personal information, such as bank details. They can read your e-mails, they can send e-mails in your name. They can even track your key strokes and gain knowledge of your passwords by that method.
The most important security message, however, is don’t click on links in e-mails if you don’t know who they are from. That is the way that Trojans and malware are introduced into your PC or laptop! Even if you do know who the link is from be suspicious. Just because the e-mail address is that of someone you know it doesn’t mean they sent the message. Hackers can hack e-mail accounts with relative ease. I have received many e-mails from the accounts of people I know, but which I quickly identified, correctly, as not being sent by them. Had I clicked on the link that was present I would undoubtedly have paid a high price.