When Cyberthrillers Become Real Life

Thomas Waite
3 min readAug 31, 2015

(Author’s note: A version of this article appeared in The Boston Globe)

The recently announced six nation accord with Iran to greatly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade has thrust one of the world’s most critical flash points back into headlines. For authors of cyberthrillers, it’s also a callback to one of the earliest and most intriguing episodes of cybersabotage.

Stuxnet, a computer worm reportedly developed by the U.S. and Israel, was launched in 2009 to disable nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility. The cybersabotage did, in fact, delay Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium. Neither the U.S. nor Israel has ever officially confirmed its role in that attack.

So Stuxnet succeeded brilliantly — until it didn’t. By 2010 Stuxnet was a worm gone haywire, infecting untold computers worldwide, though it did little damage to systems not specifically targeted. Revelations about Stuxnet did spur attempts to establish international agreements to restrain the deployment of cyberweapons. Alas, they have proved mostly unsuccessful.

Since 2009, new cyberattacks have accelerated greatly, making headlines almost every week, but the initial reports, as with Stuxnet, often fail to grasp the extent of the attacks or their consequences. The most recent case to make headlines actually began a little more than a year ago. That was when news reports first appeared that Chinese hackers had penetrated the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management, OPM.

By late last year OPM’s cybersecurity breaches appeared to involve about 450,000 government contractors and federal employees. Big numbers, but nothing compared to what would be revealed last month when OPM finally estimated that about 21 million people who’d undergone background checks — along with almost 1.8 million more who were merely their spouses or partners — had had their personal information compromised.

Yet these frequent and startling penetrations of corporate, government, and private security don’t appear to faze the American people. Perhaps that’s because unlike traditional terrorist attacks that become manifest with bombs, bullets, or beheadings, cyberterror is an invisible invasion that takes its toll stealthily.

Enter the cyberthrillers now appearing on many readers most wanted lists. We authors often demonstrate the daunting threat to our nation’s security by showing the possibility of massive and highly lethal cyberattacks on our defense systems, infrastructure, and civilian populations. This is in notable contrast to the cheery notion that cyberattacks can serve as a humane alternative to the more lethal arrows in a nation’s quiver. While comforting, that is likely an illusion, for it ignores the widespread devastation cyber weapons are capable of delivering — and the historical willingness of desperate antagonists to use almost any means to try to defeat an enemy.

Fortunately, to this point cyber’s potentially apocalyptic violence remains the domain of fiction. That such mayhem has not yet occurred in the real world is scant assurance, though, given humankind’s history. Does any serious student of modern conflicts believe that war gamers worldwide are actually turning their cybersights away from civilians?

In writing our books we show how these attacks could take place, providing page-turning thrills rich with wake-up calls. And in anticipating the strategies of killers with keyboards, we pit ourselves as authors — intent on plotting with verisimilitude — against the macabre machinations of cyberterrorists. To judge by readers’ reactions, we’re holding our own. But for how long? While we are motivated by book sales and whiffs of public notice, the terrorists we fear most are fueled by the highest octane of all: the fusion of ideology and theology.

But I must confess that in my most uneasy moments I also wonder whether my efforts aid theirs. Am I, and other authors of cyberthrillers, war gaming for the bad guys?

That’s a haunting but very real question, for when authors and terrorists are both advancing the possibility of new weaponry, or fresh applications of older armaments, the line between reality and fiction can vanish as easily as the electronic trail of a cybersaboteur.

Let’s not forget that in 1994 Tom Clancy published his darkly prophetic thriller Debt of Honor in which a Japanese airline pilot flew a Boeing 747 into the U.S. Capitol.

Seven years later marked a new date of infamy.

Thomas Waite is the author of Lethal Code and Trident Code.



Thomas Waite

Bestselling author of thrillers. Nonfiction writing has been featured in The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, The Boston Globe, and The Daily Beast.