There’s a saying that no good deed goes unpunished, and surely something similar to that has to be top of mind when Ian Ayres walks into the San Francisco law firm of Chris Bruen. A so-called “ethical hacker,” someone who hacks into companies at their request to test their cybersecurity and show them where their weaknesses are, Ayres found far more than he bargained for on his last job.
While conducting what he thought was a routine security probe, he came across information that indicates the existence of a highly classified, top-secret government organization, one which has apparently developed a program called Skeleton Key that can break any form of encryption. Unclear whether the program is on the company’s servers intentionally or if they’re being hacked/surveilled, Ayres brings his discovery to their attention. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
When the company that hired Ayres not only cuts all ties with him but denies having hired him in the first place and accuses him of hacking their system, Ayres knows he’s stumbled onto something far out of his league and that he desperately needs help. Enter Chris Bruen. A former Department of Justice cybercrime prosecutor, Bruen is well known to those in the hacking community, and it’s him Ayres turns to for help. Along with his partner, Zoey Doucet, a former black-hat hacker turned ethical hacker, Bruen has literally just opened the doors of his new private practice for the first day of business when Ayres shows up on the doorstep with his problem, and a whole lot of trouble in tow.
Not wanting to talk in an enclosed space he’s not vetted, Ayres gets Bruen to take a walk with him, during which he relays his story. Initially skeptical, any doubts Bruen has about how serious a rabbit hole Ayres has uncovered are put into stark perspective when upon returning to his office they find two dead employees…and an ominous dark-suited man intent on adding Bruen and Ayres to the body count. And with that, Surveillance, the third entry in the Chris Bruen series, is off to the races.
Fortunately, Doucet was not in the office when the assassin showed up, but her and Bruen being in separate locations when the time arises for them to run, and run now without looking back, means they are scattered in different directions for the majority of the book, each dealing with their own set of problems. Of course, it’s a pretty big set of problems when staying alive means trying to stay one step ahead of a foe who has the ability to tap into every email, phone call, CCTV feed, bank card transaction, or Internet usage you engage in. Heading up the hunt for Bruen, Doucet and Ayres is Sam Reston, a longtime NSA vet now heading up a team at The Working Group, the deceptively innocuous name for the deeply under the radar government agency responsible for the Skeleton Key, and which is desperate to keep its existence secret.
Author Reece Hirsch, himself a partner in an international law firm and co-chair of its privacy and cybersecurity practice, is very familiar with cybersecurity and the lengths people will go to in order to keep secrets. Hirsch has put that practical knowledge, and some serious research, to good use in developing the character of Chris Bruen. By giving Bruen a background as both a teen hacker and former DoJ cybercrime prosecutor, Bruen comes to the table with a unique perspective, able to see things from both sides of the cybersecurity issue. It makes for a compelling lead, as Bruen is not always sure he’s doing the right thing, questioning whether he’s on the proper “moral high ground” as the complex issues of privacy, hacking, and leaking of information ill-gained but arguably crucial to the public’s well-being continually evolve.
And while Surveillance does not lack for a heaping helping of high-tech gadgets and information, as well as globetrotting action—by the time all’s said and done Bruen, Doucet and Reston have been as far-flung as California, Mexico, Ecuador and Russia—it’s the way Hirsch brings those moral questions in to play that elevate Surveillance, and the entire Chris Bruen series, above the run-of-the-mill thriller.
Surveillance is available from Thomas & Mercer (ISBN: 978-1503933231).