Audiobook review - Sockpuppet by Matthew Blackstad - Nothing is private. No one is safe!

I’m listening to more novels as Audible Audiobooks when I go out for long walks and came across this novel almost by accident as I was looking at Audible releases.  Now I don’t especially look for books that have a technothriller theme, but I do think that novels like this explore and challenge important issues about technology, its impact on privacy and how it changes people’s behaviour.

So, the novel…Bethany Lehrer is the government minister in charge of the Digital Citizen (Digicits) programme, where people who sign up to the programme receive a digital ID which acts as a trusted ID for all public services.  Unfortunately, there are a few teething troubles with the pilot group, whose computers are invaded by pictures of dancing pigs, which defy all attempts to remove them.  More troubling is an online whistle-blower, sic_girl, who is posting information claiming that the Digicits programme has been hacked and private data compromised.  The police confront Danielle Farr demanding to speak to sic_girl and to stop her online activity.  However, that’s not going to happen, because sic_girl is simply an algorithm that Dani has created – one which scrapes and regurgitates information from the internet, creating apparently intelligent chat.   

Despite Dani’s explanations, the problem just won’t go away and sic_girl reveals more secrets that implicate both Lehrer and the government’s IT supplier Mondan, in a cover up of data leaks.  Suddenly Dani becomes the target of an orchestrated online campaign that exposes her personal life in excruciating and embarrassing detail leaving her no privacy and literally nowhere to hide.  Someone, somewhere has to be pulling the strings and co-ordinating this campaign.  Dani has to find out who is responsible so she can get her life back.

The book explores a range of themes, particularly around privacy – what we give up, often unwittingly, what are our rights to privacy and importantly, how can we hold to account governments as well as corporations like Mondan and Terasoft, that have an insatiable appetite to consume and exploit vast amounts of data about as many people as possible.  The way Dani is hounded by the media and particularly internet trolls is both realistic and disturbing.  Perhaps paradoxically, it is online anonymity which allows people to shower Dani with the most vile and offensive abuse.  If they weren’t fortunate enough to have that cloak of anonymity I doubt they would dare behave that way!

I thought the range of characters was great- techno nerds who only interact online, craven politicians and devious civil servants – all inhabiting a plot that kept me guessing.  The slow reveal knits together in the last hour of the narration, when it becomes clear who has been pulling the strings all along.  There are also some amusing “nods” to other books and genres – Dani Farr has been described as bearing more than a passing resemblance to Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium series and the political machinations are a blend of The Thick of it and Absolute Power.

I really engaged with this novel and although there’s a lot of tech involved, you don’t need to be a hardcore techno nerd to enjoy it.  One caveat – lots of bad language, which felt far stronger hearing it spoken and shouted out loud than it would reading it on the page.  One other thing, Audible has a free download of an interview with the author, so you can hear first hand where his ideas came from and what he’s trying to achieve in this novel.

Final verdict – whether you’re a nerd or not, an easy yes!