While travelling through India this last December with my wife, I carried a notebook in my day bag. I found it in the gift-shop of Gandhi’s historical home in Ahmedabad. The pages are yellow just like a legal pad. Yellow pages are said to stimulate the intellect and contrast well with black ink while avoiding glare, but that may just be hogwash. Regardless, I was feeling inspired. While travelling by car, I jotted down at least a dozen story concepts about cyber security. To begin with, the story concepts were all related to questions I had recently fielded from conversations with non-technical people. Mostly young people in their twenties, they wanted to know all about how Facebook accounts are stolen, how celebrity photo leaks occur, and how they can secure their phones. I found myself repeating my answers, and repeatedly describing the distinctions between hacking someone’s phone, hacking someone’s iCloud account, and hacking iCloud itself.
Why should I tackle this with a comic? There are many books about computer security but no one seems to be reading them. An oft-cited statistic, “One third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives”, is from a 2003 survey by The Jenkins Group. They also say “42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college”. These stats might not be accurate, but we already know which way the wind is blowing. Making a comic sounded like fun and people might actually read it too!
People learn from stories. Our TV, movies, and games have for the most part been filled with cyber security falsehoods. Cyber security plot devices are popular, but without technically accurate portrayal, people are left confused and unable to navigate technology securely. Stories help people form mental models, and almost all the stories about cyber security have been wrong.
There are some exceptions. Mr. Robot is a popular TV series, where producers collaborated with industry experts to ensure technical accuracy. This led to a show that both normal people and security experts could enjoy. While the technical details were accurate, this accuracy does not extend to the fanciful storyline or character psychology. These elements reflect more the socio-technical nightmares of our collective subconscious more than the equally terrifying but banal insecure reality we inhabit. Mr. Robot may be holding up a mirror to our reality, but it’s a cracked mirror showing a distorted view.
My primary goal is to imbue the reader with security concepts. Although the reader may not come away having waded in any technical depth, they may come away with a security mindset. If they look a little more critically at the world around them then I will have succeeded. I haven’t restricted myself to purely technical security applied to computers, networks, and phones. Cyber security bleeds further into our physical reality every year, and so I have decided to set the majority of this story in the offline world.
Episode one introduces our anti-hero and he immediately begins to plan a museum heist. The use of this well-trodden trope relies on associated concepts that make the story writing simpler, enabling me to focus on security education. This episode introduces the user to infrared light, as used for night vision. The concept of rekeying locks is also mentioned, but I am leaving a further explanation of how locks work for later.
Our protagonist is an anti-hero and a cyber criminal. He is named “Cyber-baddie” as an homage to the two-dimensional duality of comic book heroes and villains. He wears a mask at all times, both as a visual gag and as a reference to stock photos of cyber criminals. However, with a mask, he is unable to express the full range of emotion. This was unintentional and I’m as yet undecided on whether this was a mistake.
I want to keep readers entertained while avoiding technical jargon or too many numbers. Stephen Hawkings, was once told by his publisher that sales would halve for each equation included in ‘A Brief History of Time’, the book that made physics accessible to everyone. I kept this in mind when deciding that the size of the waves of different colours of light didn’t need to be included in the electromagnetic spectrum graphic. Knowing that 550 nanometers is green doesn’t mean anything tangible to the reader. In fact, the term “Electromagentic Spectrum” is exactly the kind of jargon I want to avoid.
Although I rally against over-simplification at the end of the first episode, I had to work hard to decide what to simplify, and how to simplify without losing important details. I had more difficulties with what to leave out than finding content to include. The history of infrared and night vision includes Nazis with heavy night vision backpacks code-named “Vampir”. This is very cool but I couldn’t easily include it in this story, at least not in this episode.
Check back later for the next episode which will introduce the Nikon Coolpix P900. I haven’t committed to any schedule for this project, I’m just having some fun. By the way, this comic was made using Pixton. It’s one of those great platforms that gives 80% of the result for 20% of the effort. The graphic of the surveillance camera is from Aha-Soft.com and gratefully used with permission.