My samplesunday contribution this week is the opening chapter from Beat the Hackers, the next of my books to hit Kindle in the very near future.

Currently revising this cover

Monday 13 May 2013

Heather Mayhew strode briskly up the steep hill towards home. She’d just got off the school bus. It was running late today, so that was why she wasn’t hanging about. Her father would be watching the clock, and if she was more than a few minutes later than normal, he’d be out looking for her. He was a worrier.

Ray Mayhew ran a computer programming business from home. And what a home it was. He and Heather lived in a large, rambling house surrounded by several acres of garden and orchards. Ray was extremely successful these days. He’d had a big breakthrough a few years ago when he’d developed an app that made it really quick and easy for people to monitor their emails, Tweets and Facebook messages. It quickly emerged as the best by far on the market, and he’d made an awful lot of money from it. So Heather had everything she could possibly need – and a few more things besides. She didn’t think of herself as particularly lucky, though. She simply took it for granted.

“Hi Dad!” Heather called as she opened the front door. “It’s me!”

“Hello!” Ray replied, shouting from his office at the top of the stairs. “I’ll be down in a mo. Pop the kettle on, please.”

Heather and her father always had a cup of tea together when she got back from school. It was one of their little rituals. Then she would get on with her homework, and Ray would go back upstairs to work, apart from Tuesdays when he drove Heather to town for swimming club and Fridays when it was Scouts. But today was Monday so Heather had the evening to herself. She decided she’d get her inline skates out later since it was warm and bright. And then maybe she’d read and catch up with her friends on Facebook. She hummed happily as she filled the kettle. She was very content with her ordered, steady life.

A clumping on the stairs signalled that her father was coming down. She pulled the biscuit tin out of the cupboard. It contained a mixture of digestives for Ray and ginger nuts for her.

“So what did you learn today, princess?” smield Ray, as he came into the kitchen. He was small and wiry, with unfashionable thick, black-framed glasses, a bushy beard and a lot of ginger hair. He was usually scruffy, except for when he met clients. Today hadn’t been a day of meeting so he was dressed in baggy jogging pants, a shabby checked shirt and odd slippers. But Heather wasn’t surprised at his appearance. Ray always looked something like that.

“Oh, we did loads of stuff,” she replied vaguely. “Mainly pretty boring. How’s your new program coming along?”

“Fine, fine,” smiled Ray. “Not too much more to do on it now.”

“It’s an anti-hacking program, right?” Heather asked conversationally, dunking two ginger nuts at once into her sweet, milky tea.

“It certainly is,” her father nodded, adding a fourth spoonful of sugar to his mug of black tea. Neither passed a comment on the other’s greediness. They were too used to each other to even notice.

“So you’ll stop all those wretched hackers messing up other people’s computers just for fun then? Cool.” She munched her biscuits thoughtfully. “But why do hackers, you know, hack? It’s so nasty.”

Ray shrugged. “Because they can mainly. And because they’re mean. Well, most are. Some hackers are harmless enough.”

“They don’t sound harmless,” protested Heather.

“What I mean,” Ray went on, “is that some hackers break into systems just to prove a point. They leave a message describing what they’ve done so the person at the other end can tighten up on security before a malicious hacker, or cracker, gets in the same way.”

“Still sneaky,” observed Heather. “But why is there so much hacking these days? A few years ago there didn’t seem to be so much going on. It’s all the time these days.”

Heather was right. In the last two days alone a thirteen-year-old girl in America had crippled three huge corporations by hacking into their websites. And in Strasbourg the computer systems of the European Parliament had been sabotaged by some as yet unknown hacker.

“It’s easier these days, Heth,” her father sighed, “because of WiFi. Most people connect to the Internet wirelessly now. The days of cables and modems are over. But it does mean that unless you physically disconnect from the WiFi network, or turn your livebox off, your computer has a static address that’s there all day, every day.”

“Twenty-four seven, you mean,” Heather corrected her father. “That’s the cool way to say it.”

“OK. Twenty-four seven it is,” agreed Ray, helping himself to a third digestive. “So it’s easier for a hacker browsing around to find an address to attack.”

“When you say address,” frowned Heather, “do you mean the website name?”

“No, the IP – Internet Protocol – address. Each computer on the Internet has a unique IP address, which is a series of numbers in groups of three. These numbers are the way information finds its way from the source to where it’s going. The website or domain names aren’t what the computers are using. They’re just there for the humans. People are better at remembering names than numbers, although that might change in a few thousand years’ time.” Ray smiled. “I read an article the other day saying that our brains are evolving to be better with numbers since they are becoming such an important part of our lives. You know, telephone numbers, car registrations, PIN numbers – that sort of thing.”

“Well, I wish mine would evolve extra fast,” sighed Heather. “I’d do better at maths then. You know how much I it! But about hackers, Dad. How will your new program keep them out?”

“That’s top secret,” her father winked.

“You mean I wouldn’t understand,” laughed Heather.

“We-ell, it is a bit technical,” admitted Ray. “Basically my program makes personal firewalls stronger.”

“I’ve heard of them, but I don’t really know what they are,” confessed Heather.

“A firewall is just a pair of mechanisms,” Ray told her. “One blocks unwanted traffic while the other permits authorised traffic through. In a nutshell, it keeps the idiots out of your computer and lets you get on with what you’re doing. And what’s more, the firewall can act as a tracing tool. My program sends an alert any time someone comes sniffing round, trying to crack the system. I may even install an automatic shutdown at that point as extra defence. But that might annoy the user too much. I’m including a virus detector too, to pick up viruses coming from the Internet and email. People are still so sloppy about computer security. They seem to think they’ll never get a virus.”

He trailed off and looked thoughtful.

“But your progam will beat the hackers, right?”

“I certainly hope so, Heth,” shrugged Ray. “I’m pinning a log on this program of mine. Talking of which, I’d better get back to work. And you’d better get your homework done, young lady.”

Heather pulled a face, but Dad was right. Time to tackle maths.

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