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Q&A: Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner, the coauthor of the new novel Heat 2, recently joined Dennis Fisher on the Decipher podcast to talk about the development of the cybercrime and hacking subplot in the book. This is an edited and condensed transcript of that interview.

Dennis Fisher: There's a subplot in the book that revolves around information security, hacking, and the emerging world of international cyber crime that was coming into play right around the late ‘90s and early 2000s. So Chris Shiherlis gets involved with this after the events of Heat. He winds up down in this free trade zone in South America working with a Taiwanese crime family that has a rival down there and things go awry but they come upon this idea of selling these navigational and guidance systems to their rival crime family that include a malicious software update. How did the research for that come about?

Meg Gardiner: I love that subplot because it works on multiple levels. Just pure drama and um down to gunplay in the streets or transnational transactions. This is not too much of a spoiler, it brings back in one of the characters that plays in Heat, Kelso, who's the computer god who sits up in his house above Los Angeles and sells Macaulay the bank score in heat that he comes back in because he turns out he worked for DARPA before he went solo onto his own path and that he knows all about what's starting to brew out on the web. One of the big things that Michael particularly had recognized and knew was that the the end of the 90s the start of the new millennium was a moment when technology was reshaping. Not only all our lives aboveboard, but the the criminal landscape and that's done everything from having gangs in LA realize that they can make a lot more money by doing online scams then just robbing a 7-11 to having transnational groups figure out how to do things digitally and in cyber that have a tremendous impact. One of the things that Michael and I worked out, worked on a long time was what's the business plan? It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Chris Shiherlis escaped LA near the start of the book. He's almost dead from a gunshot. He's realized that if he's going to get out with Hannah chasing him, he's going to have to leave his family behind, perhaps never see them. He doesn't know what's going to happen to them, what's going to happen to him, but if any of them are going to stay out of prison, he has to get across the border. So that's what he does. And he is totally shocked to find himself exfiltrated to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, which is a free trade zone, the triple border with Brazil and Argentina. And it's someplace where anything goes and it's an extremely multicultural place: Paraguayans, indigenous people, Brazilians, Argentinians, a huge Arab population and a lot of families who had immigrated from China and Taiwan. And Chris finds himself working security for one of the stalwart families in the city who he quickly figures out are not just selling electronics at their mall, they are involved with all kinds of, as you said, navigational equipment, counter Intel, jamming equipment to sell to perhaps people who don't want the DEA to know where their helicopters are flying. So, Michael was always asking me, what's the business plan? What are they really doing? How can we make it real? What are they? What are they up to? And I finally got him in touch with with an expert, who had worked in global space and defense, and for Cisco Systems for many years, and knew a lot of people from NATO and naval intelligence, and, okay, it was my husband, but they talked about that the point was, you know, it was both dramatic and technical. How do we make something that really fit the era? What was changing, then? What was coming online?

How was the world evolving at that moment? How could you make it exciting, and make sure it doesn't turn into a cliche of every bad action movie where, you know, you open up the crate, and there's a missile sitting in the inside? How do you make it more interesting than that? So they talked, we all talked for a long time about, did you remember that GPS was coming online right about then? So that was how we put together the idea of, yeah, that's the Liu family who Chris works for is involved with selling all kinds of this equipment with their own special upgrades to whoever is interested in obtaining it.

That was definitely Michael's plan from the beginning. He said Kelso is back.

Dennis Fisher: I love that so much. Because the combination of all of that technology, sort of just, as you mentioned, coming online becoming commercially available, but not available to everyone. And there were obviously bad actors that wanted it for their own purposes. And they don't want the authorities knowing that they have it because that ignorance gives them an advantage for a while. And then the malicious software update that plays a big, big role in this is a very clever idea. And it's something that intelligence agencies have used in the past and also cybercrime groups have used in the last few years and it's a pretty effective mechanism and I think it plays really well in the story.

Meg Gardiner: Well, thank you. Clearly, in a story like this you have to have a dramatic reason why this comes into play. And so we find out that the Chris is working for one crime family, and they have rivals and then it becomes a story not just of industrial espionage and hacking and software but it's to how are all these attacks on each other going to play out in person and in a city and an arena where you screw with somebody and they're not just going to take you to federal court. No, there are real world consequences. And they’re immediate and permanent.

Dennis Fisher: I'm always skeptical when I see movies or books that touch on cybercrime or hacking in any way. Like, okay, did they talk to the right people? Or is this kind of like, they read a few headlines? Obviously, you talked to the right people, because the Kelso character who I always wanted, like a spin off of just him doing stuff up in that house on the hill, the aerial house. And he's such a perfect archetype of, I worked at DARPA in the early 80s, or late 70s and helped develop ARPANET. And now I'm up here, you know, pulling stuff out of the air, his character, I love the development of him in this book. It's such a great part of it.

Meg Gardiner: Well, thank you. And that was definitely Michael's plan from the beginning. He said Kelso is back. And that we find out that the bank score was not the first time he had worked with Neil's crew. And that would not be the last time he works with Chris. So we get to move back into the 80s. Where he helps Neil work out a plan for a score both in Chicago and across the border. And then comes back in the year 2000. With Chris coming to ask him like, we want to do something different. Can we? How could we? So it was it was wonderful to have him on the page.