An article on Wired today talks about a technique to rob ATMs using USB sticks, so long as the ATM is still running Windows XP. Had I watched this on an episode of television, I would have called shenanigans. Not because it seems unrealistic, but because it's too easy (more on that in a sec). And surely there can't still be ATM machines full of money still running on Windows XP out there.
In reality, I see problems like this all the time in my day job. Managers don't want to spend money to upgrade and maintain old hardware or code, even in critical systems. If a developer can't point to a specific vulnerability and prove an urgent risk, it's put off until never. There's no revenue in it. When something goes wrong, someone else gets blamed for it. I can easily imagine some executive of some large bank corporation scoffing at the cost of upgrading ATMs.
The kicker in this story is how the ATM is taken offline and the hack is untraceable. No one knows how much this has been used through the world, or if the criminals were able to intercept custom pins and card numbers.
The realistic part of the story? It isn't actually easy. Considerable effort and money went into developing the malicious code, including:
It's a ridiculous image. Research—talking to experts in the field—adds so much in terms of verisimilitude to a story. Lazy writers often take the easy path. If they do research, it's no more than gleaning a few cool-sounding words for their script.
In The Superhero Murders, my work in progress, I have an "evil app" used to track superheroes and coordinate attacks against them (it's a little more detailed than that, but you'll have to wait for the release.) I had to put some time into what resources would be needed to develop the app, how it would be hidden from the rest of the development team, and what kind of person would put this thing together. While I don't plan to spend a lot of time on the details, it's good to know. It's like that Hemingway quote.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.