Miskatonic University Press

Going Zero

literature privacy reviews

A blurb about Going Zero, a new thriller by Anthony McCarten, caught my eye: a librarian is competing to stay hidden for thirty days from a massive surveillance system run by a huge Facebook-like company that wants an enormous contract with US security agencies and has set up a contest to show how good the system is.

It starts off well but turns into a pretty standard high-tech cyberthriller, and I’m afraid I don’t recommend it.

It was not copy edited well. For example: “Three minutes later, the night-vision images start to come in from a pursuit helicopter crossing Lake Michigan from Buffalo.” That should be Lake Ontario. Later, in a meeting, someone says something memorable, and a page or two later the line is quoted but misattributed.

The Zuckerberg-like head of the Facebook-like company reads like Roddie Ho from Mick Herron’s Slough House series, but without the irony or humour.

What especially caught my eye are lines like this:

Although never a hacker per se, he knows about digital back doors, about security patches, about anonymity and self-destruct safeguards, about how to turn lines of code such as exploit/admin/smb/ into a crucial key to unlock a trove, a library, a universe.

exploit/admin/smb is not a line of code, though it could be a file path to an executable. I think this is a mangled reference to Metasploit.

But then, while typing scp-r /path/to/local/data/—the actual command to steal/move data—a new thought strikes.

scp -r /path/to/local/data server:/remote/path/ would work as an example of how to use scp to recursively copy files from this machine to a remote one, with placeholder file paths. But you need a space before the -r switch and a location to copy the files to.

That file copy exfiltrates exabytes of data in under an hour. One exabyte is 1,000 petabytes, one petabyte is 1,000 terabytes, and one terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes. Let’s say 2 EB are copied in one hour. That is a lot of data … at about 550 TB per second. That’s just not possible. (The Internet Archive’s collection is about 100 PB, so that’s like copying the entire Internet Archive in two seconds.) Plus, this guy is copying from Utah to Manila.

Later, someone else “[wipes] the hard drives of all the megadata until, in under ten minutes” they are wiped. Maybe rm could delete exabytes of files in ten minutes, but that’s not good enough. Using shred to securely wipe (by overwriting each byte on the disk multiple times) would take days.

There isn’t a single mention of either Signal or Tor. The closest is this:

On the edge of town, where there’s still a decent signal, she fires up the phone. Two bars. Anonymizes the browser, then enters [a URL] into the bar.

“Anonymizes the browser”?

It may seem petty to cavil about technical points like this, but those “commands” should have been caught in copy editing. If you’re going to put them in, they should be right. Or use the trick Cory Doctorow learned about guns and say something about how the computer or disk or system had been “modified” to wave it all away.

Beyond all that, and worse, the denouement doesn’t ring true.