Virus Bomb, speculative fiction in 2020

Virus Bomb, speculative fiction in 2020

We had an interesting and wide ranging conversation with D. Greg Scott, who has just published his latest book ‘Virus Bomb’ which is available to buy here  and see his website here.

What is your own background briefly?

I grew up in about the most unconventional circumstances imaginable. In one story of many, I never finished third grade because my mom took me to Canada with an artist friend she’d met a few days prior. She left him a couple months later, but took his last name to hide from my biological dad. Today, a piece of paper sits in the basement of the Hennepin County, Minnesota, USA Government center, documenting my legal name change from 1978 so I could get married.

Virus Bomb, D. Greg Scott

If I can grow an author brand, I may write a memoir with a theme around overcoming adversity.

I had to get a certified copy of that piece of paper in 2013 to get a passport, so I could drive to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to take a Red Hat certification test. Lots of people thought I was crazy to drive seventeen hours , spend a night in a hotel, take the test, and then drive home the next day and overnight.

It *was* a long couple days, and the Canadian border agents in Sault, St. Marie, Ontario, tried to make my life miserable. I did it because I had failed that test twice before, I was ready this time, Ottawa was the only place available to take it, and a plane ticket cost a fortune.

I have a bachelor’s degree, MBA, a long professional background, a wife of 41 years, an adult daughter, two grandsons, a dog, two cats, and more fish than I can count. That’s all on my website. But the theme around my background seems to be finding unconventional ways to deal with unique challenges.

Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?

Some of it.

I decided at an early age I needed to learn to be self-sufficient if I wanted to survive, and that turned me into a gravel-in-the-belly do-it-yourselfer. There were times I would have been smarter to pay somebody else, such as the time I messed up the ductwork in our basement. But those were also learning opportunities.

I took on one DIY project in 1999 and 2000 to teach myself how DNS works, and built and operated my own public facing DNS servers in my basement for several years. In 2000, somebody attacked my DNS servers and turned them into drones in an attack against the country of Brazil. That made me mad, but also made me interested in cybersecurity.

How was the last 12 months? What were your big wins?

I help a Christian group named Fishing For Life with an annual event called Holes 4 Heroes. H4H is an ice-fishing tournament on top of frozen Medicine Lake in Plymouth, Minnesota, USA, tailored for US military families, and raises money for other local Christian nonprofits.  My piece of the event is setting up the technology to support radio broadcasts and live-streaming highlights.

After struggling for seven years, I finally found a great video streaming solution for the 2019 and 2020 events, and now I can livestream from a cell phone. It’s portable, the audio and video are great, and now event sponsors can put the livestream in a frame on their own websites and use it for marketing. This was a cool win – in more ways than one.

Publishing “Virus Bomb” was another big win. 110 potential literary agents either ignored my queries or turned me down with form letter rejections, and a couple told me nobody would ever publish any story with a middle-eastern antagonist. I made it my mission to prove them wrong.

When Irish Tech News agreed to review “Virus Bomb,” it was another sweet win, not just for me, but for everyone, by helping spread the word about this story that really could happen.

What would you have done differently?

After growing up in an alcoholic family and being bullied much of my young life, I made rude jokes about other kids in high school. A potential girlfriend chastised me for that, and I felt miserable when I realized she was right. In college, I avoided alcohol, but encouraged a few friends to get drunk and make fools of themselves. If I could travel back in time and kick my younger self in the rear-end for that, I would. But since those things happened and I can’t change history, I try to use yesterday’s mistakes to teach my grandsons wisdom for tomorrow.

I never had a substance abuse problem, but I developed plenty of other problems, and I almost destroyed my family in the 90s. There are lots of things I would do differently if I had the opportunity to do them over again.

1 min pitch for what you are doing now?

Authors are supposed to entertain, inform, educate, and inspire. That’s what I want to do with my novels, hopefully improving with each one.  On the cybersecurity front, if we can teach people to really take it seriously, instead of talking about taking it seriously, then I’ll declare “Bullseye Breach” and “Virus Bomb” successful. There are more cybersecurity-focused novels coming, and a few other story ideas brewing.

With current real life events, Coronavirus and beyond are you cursing or celebrating in terms of how it might help sales of your book? You mention cuts to the disease defense departments which has been mirrored under the Trump Administration for example.

I’m not cursing or celebrating the coronavirus outbreak. It might restrict travel, but then maybe more people will read more books instead of traveling, and a few will want my books. I don’t give it much thought.

On the cuts – early in “Virus Bomb,” my fictional antagonist researched the US Centers for Disease Control and found the IT strategic plan on the CDC website. The plan documented a large gap between IT funding and needs. That fictional report came from my real-world research, and I am probably one of the few people who read, downloaded, and kept a copy of the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Information Technology Strategic Plan, FY2012-2016.”

The cover is blue; it’s eighteen pages. It’s not exciting reading. I am still surprised that CDC would quantify and publish such a large funding gap. But it’s typical of many organizations trying to do more with less in IT.  In my fictional world, that funding gap left CDC more vulnerable to cybersecurity exploits than it should have been, and was one important factor in an attack that could have devastated the United States. But I made no effort to tie that IT funding gap to direct support for biological disease programs.

Are you now figuring out what your next plot lines might be & is future proofing them a factor for you?

Yes. I have another work in progress and hope to have something to show soon. Future proofing is always a tough call. The stories need to be timely, so they need references to current events, but they also need to be timeless so they’re still valuable with future generations.

Big picture question, how do we make young people less disaffected and quick to reject society’s norms?

It’s a big picture question, but the answer starts small with family and parents. Parents and grandparents need to provide loving and safe households, teach our kids right from wrong, and live as role models.

John Turnipseed was a notorious Minneapolis gang leader, pimp, and drug dealer, but now he’s the Director of The Center for Fathering and Vice President of Urban Ventures, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the cycle of poverty in south Minneapolis. I talked to John a while ago, and he said the common theme with all the women who turned to prostitution was a poor father role model.  From other research, I suspect poor family conditions planted the seeds for many of the people who abandoned their country to join terrorist groups.

In the book it feels like you are recounting conversations that you have actually had with people, at times you seem too nice to them – if they were that rude to you, was it tempting to walk away and leave them to deal with their IT issues!?

One of the fundamental tenants of customer support is, “kill ’em with kindness.” I’m not always successful at that, but I learned you don’t win friends and influence people by alienating them. But sometimes, enough is enough and you just have to take a shot. A few months ago, I pitched doing a talk at a conference, and the feedback to my pitch was, I’m an arrogant, condescending fear-monger with nothing of value to offer.

I decided to wear that label as a badge of honor and wrote a blog post about how people really should listen to professionals who know more than they do. I posted a link to my blog post on their Facebook group and they kicked me out of their group. Here is a link to the blog post:

How can people find out more about you personally & your work?

Keep an eye on my website, Or just contact me.

Who and where do you get inspiration from?

Inspiration comes from all over. Some of the characters in Jerry Barkley’s world are composites of real life; others come from thinking about how somebody becomes the way they are.

But sometimes, it starts with something simple. We always talk about Alice and Bob in cybersecurity textbooks, and I remember wondering about why Alice wants to exchange encrypted messages with Bob. Where did Alice come from? Why Bob and not Charlie or Evan?

Sometimes, news events trigger ideas. News stories inspired Brian Cox in “Virus Bomb.” Sometimes events in my own life make their way into fiction. There’s a whole bunch of me inside Jerry Barkley, although he’s smarter than me – he gets the benefit of editing and new drafts; in the real world, we only get to live the first draft.

Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked?

Yes! Or, as we say in Minnesota, you betcha! I also solicited questions from a few friends.

What are your thoughts on technology scenes in books, movies, and TV?

The phrase, Hollywood hackers, came to me a couple years ago. Bad guy Hollywood hackers break into important systems and hold the world for ransom, until good guy Hollywood hackers save the world by guessing the secret password in the nick of time. Hollywood hackers tend to be the smartest people in the story, but awkward in social settings.

The world would be a better place if only they weren’t so misunderstood. Sometimes good guys need to see Evil Corp’s database, where bad guys keep their master plan to take over the world. To access it, the good guys need to breach several firewalls and face a gauntlet of cyberstalker programs, all designed to destroy their laptops and ruin their credit.

Why do we keep producing this stuff? It’s no wonder the public thinks we’re all helpless against the next evil attacker that comes along.

If mission as writers is to inform, educate, entertain, and inspire, then we need to respect readers and subject matter enough to at least make an effort to get it right.

What should readers take away from “Virus Bomb?”

Jet-lag at first. Don’t start reading until Friday after work, because then you’ll have the rest of the weekend to recover from binge reading all night Friday because you can’t put it down. After recovering from your jet-lag, understand that for data breach, identity theft, and other cyberattack victims, the odds are almost certain that nobody in government or law enforcement will lift a finger to help most of us. It’s up to people and private industry to protect ourselves, and we can rise to the challenge when we finally decide we’re tired of getting plundered over the internet.

What’s the relevance of your story to current international events?

Some have expressed skepticism or downright disbelief at the “Virus Bomb” scenario. These people need to open their eyes. Consider:

– In the real world, somebody developed Stuxnet to attack Iranian nuclear centrifuges, the antivirus companies and private security researchers uncovered it, and the consensus was, the Israelis and US National Security Agency built it, even though they never acknowledged it after it made its way into the wild.

– Dozens of young people from Minnesota, the United States, and other western countries really did try to join terrorist organizations in the real world.

– A North Korean state-sponsored cyberattack really did take down Sony Pictures in 2014.

– The Chinese really did steal information about every US Government employee, including detailed data about everyone who applied for security clearances, in the US OPM attack.

– Recent press stories documented real-world Iranian cyberattacks over the past few years.

– Jerry Barkley’s history with the FBI mirrors my own real-world FBI experience.

– I’ve seen more than my share of small business servers stuffed inside hot janitor’s closets right next to a faucet and hanging mop bucket. Or worse.

– I personally cased the hotel parking ramps bordering the largest shopping mall in the United States. A couple of cargo vans loaded with explosives could do serious damage.

Every “Virus Bomb” scene was inspired by real-world events, or could easily happen in the real world.

What cybersecurity role should government play?

The public, fueled by Hollywood and politicians who should know better, perpetuates a myth that cybersecurity consists of supersmart friendly government agents working tirelessly against supersmart criminals and hostile government agents trying to plunder us. This is hogwash. The real cybersecurity picture is messy and government is one player among many. And government is no smarter than the rest of us.

Defining government’s proper cybersecurity role is a can of worms, because every restriction on government potentially gives an advantage to attackers. But every overreach is a slippery slope to totalitarianism.  Which suggests we should search for balance.  We want law enforcement agencies to vigorously enforce the law, but not bully the public. We want government researchers who find 0-day vulnerabilities to practice the same responsible disclosure as private sector researchers.

We want government to listen and respond to threat information from the private sector, and share threat information liberally. We want mutual accountability between government and the people. And we want government as a partner, not an adversary.

More about the author

Greg Scott is a veteran of the tumultuous IT industry. After surviving round after round of layoffs at Digital Equipment Corporation, a large computer company in its day, he branched out on his own in 1994 and started Scott Consulting. A larger firm bought Scott Consulting in 1999, just as the dot com bust devastated the IT Service industry. A glutton for punishment, he went out on my own again in late 1999 and started Infrasupport Corporation, this time with a laser focus on infrastructure and security. In late summer, 2015, after “Bullseye Breach” was published, he accepted a job offer with an enterprise software company.

He lives in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area with his wife, daughter, and two grandchildren. He hold several IT industry certifications, including CISSP number 358671.

He graduated from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1979 with a double major of math and speech, and earned an MBA from the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis in 1996.

In the 1990s, he wrote a column on the back page of IT industry publication ENT Magazine titled, “NT Heartland,” and another column in Enterprise Linux Magazine titled, “Converts Corner.”

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