Navigating the Dark Web
By Tim O’Mara
As my big brother (pun unintended, but you have to wait for it) used to tell me when I was speaking on a subject I thought myself well versed in: “You don’t know the half of it.”
After reading Reece Hirsch’s BLACK NOWHERE, it became clear to me that as much as I thought I knew about the Internet, my brother was right: I don’t know the half of it.
In Hirsch’s cyber-thriller, brilliant college student Nate Fallon starts a website—on the “Dark Web”—as an experiment. He wants to see how efficient he can make the illegal drug trade by creating a kind of eBay for illicit pharmaceuticals and other black market products. Not only does he end up making more money than he’d ever dreamed possible, he draws the attention of FBI Special Agent Lisa Tanchik and a criminal organization represented by the mysterious “El Chingon.”
How did Hirsch, a partner in an international law firm and—more importantly to the book—co-chair of the firm’s privacy and cyber-security practice, find out about the ways and means of the Dark Web? And how much did recent events play into the plot of the story?
“This was the first time I’ve written a book so influenced by actual events,” Hirsch says. “So I did feel that I had to read everything written on Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht before I could start writing.” But Hirsch is quick to note that BLACK NOWHERE is not a “commentary” on Ulbricht and his online black market for selling illegal drugs.
“I also did some exploring on the Dark Web,” he says. “Which feels a little like swimming with the sharks. But at a certain point I had to cut myself loose from the facts of the case and feel free to invent characters and incidents to tell the best story. One of my motivations in writing BLACK NOWHERE was to understand something the journalism about Silk Road couldn’t tell me: what was going on inside the head of a figure like Ross Ulbricht as his initial idealism gave way to his darker impulses? How does a bright college kid who set out to create a laboratory for his libertarian ideals become a drug kingpin who’s willing to order hits to protect his empire?”
Libertarian becomes drug kingpin? “At another point in the book,” Hirsch adds, “Nate says that people are free on the Dark Web because they’re wearing masks, and that liberates them. His buddy Hardwick responds, ‘Maybe they behave badly because they’re wearing masks. That’s why bank robbers wear them.’”
“BLACK NOWHERE,” Hirsch says, “explores the dark side of the libertarian ethos that lies at the heart of a lot of today’s ‘disruptive’ tech companies. Sometimes the freedom and anonymity provided online and by the Dark Web brings out people’s worst impulses. That’s something a writer of technology thrillers can definitely work with.”
That connects directly to one of the most disturbing themes in the book: “…people’s truest selves were only revealed when they were telling lies.”
I asked Hirsch to elaborate on that.
“I think the idea that our truest selves are only revealed when we’re telling lies is sort of a mantra for the Dark Web,” Hirsch says. “Special Agent Lisa Tanchik is particularly adept at donning online identities in her pursuit of cybercriminals. While she does that to further her law enforcement goals, she also finds it strangely liberating—and disorienting. At one point, Tanchik states that she knows what it must be like to have multiple personality disorder after spending an extended period exploring the Dark Web using her various personas.”
Having never done so in my novels, I asked Hirsch why, as a male writer, did he choose to create a female lead protagonist?
“I wrote the character of FBI Special Agent Lisa Tanchik because I thought a woman would be a good foil for Nate Fallon,” Hirsch says. “Lisa poses as Rodrigo, a male drug dealer, to befriend Nate online. I thought that making her a woman posing as a man added another interesting layer to the deception.
“BLACK NOWHERE is the first in a series featuring Lisa Tanchik. The second book is called Dark Tomorrow. It explores the sometimes fine line between cyber-crime and an act of cyber-warfare, and there are definite echoes of the Russian interference in the 2016 election.”
I asked Hirsch if he was chosen to put together his ideal panel for ThrillerFest—with authors living or dead—who would he pick and what would the topic be?
“If I could moderate my dream ThrillerFest panel, it would be ‘Future Shock: Imagining Future Technology in Thrillers.’ The panelists would be Jules Verne, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, and Ray Bradbury,” he says. “Gibson and Stephenson are still with us, so I hope the ThrillerFest organizers will keep that in mind…”
If he hadn’t mentioned Orwell I would have been in present shock. What would Mr. Orwell make of today’s social media?
“I think he would be shocked at how freely people relinquish their privacy through social media,” Hirsch says. “Big Brother (See? Pun completed) would find his work so much easier today. I think Orwell would find the Dark Web fascinating because it has served as a means for dissidents to communicate beyond the scrutiny of repressive regimes. But that same anonymity has enabled cybercriminals to thrive on the Dark Web, like the marketplace for illegal drug and weapons sales in BLACK NOWHERE.”
What would a sequel to 1984 look like with today’s virtual world?
“I think a sequel to 1984 would probably look at how search engines and social media companies have become the new Big Brother. As artificial intelligence evolves, ‘augmented reality’ becomes part of our daily lives and mobile app trackers monitor our every movement and action, the giants of the tech industry are going to know more about us than Orwell ever could have imagined.”
I wondered about Gibson’s influence on Hirsch and this new(ish) sub-genre. “William Gibson pretty much invented the cyber-thriller genre,” he says. “So he has always been a big influence. I think I’ve name-checked him in almost every one of my books. There’s a very modern sort of terror that comes from being so connected to everyone and everything, and Gibson was probably the first to put his finger on that.”
I had to admit to Hirsch that I’ve never read Neal Stephenson. “Neal Stephenson’s books,” he says, “like Cryptonomicon, showed me how you could combine a commentary on Silicon Valley with a high-tech crime story, which is something that I attempted to do in BLACK NOWHERE.”
Finally, I asked Hirsch what he likes most about his own writing.
“So you saved the toughest question for last!” he says. “I think one of my strengths as a thriller writer is that the stories I choose to tell tend to be fairly original. I draw upon my unique experiences as a privacy and cyber-security attorney. My work, which involves security breaches, state-sponsored hackers, malware, big data, and AI, provides me with an endless supply of thriller plot lines. The challenge is often making the fiction as scary as the reality.”
Fortunately for readers of BLACK NOWHERE, Hirsch has met that challenge.