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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Every Breath You Take

by James M. Jackson

Are you familiar with the 1983 song “Every Breath You Take” by the Police? Thought by many to be a classic love song, Sting wrote it while going through his divorce. It’s a stalker song. Watch his facial expressions (Sting plays the bass and sings lead) in this version on YouTube. It also predicts the state of the world thirty-five years later in which many entities watch every move we make.

My mother provided many pieces of advice while raising me. Some made little impact on my day-to-day behavior, such as her classic directive to never leave the house in dirty underwear because if I was in an accident everyone could see. In the 1950s, that advice was limited to the physical boxers or briefs I wore under my trousers and was important because it would reflect badly on her if I were caught in two-day-old undies. Today, it is a metaphor for avoiding anything I don’t want to see the light of day.

As Omarosa recently demonstrated with her recording of her firing in the White House Situation Room, it doesn’t matter where you are; if someone has a smart phone, they could be recording what you say. Even from a distance, people can record your conversations. Laser microphones combined with software can “hear” distant conversations using vibrations from window glass—even “soundproof” glass. And technology has improved so even videotape of a bag of potato chips can give away your conversation.

Hiding your location and travel has become increasingly difficult. If someone wants to secretly travel from point A to point B in the US, they need to avoid (1) all license plate scanners (toll booths, red light monitors, mobile police cars, etc.), (2) refueling at any gas station with video, (3) carrying a smart phone, unless it’s in a Faraday bag, (4) any random recording by a business near a road the car travels, or (5) accidentally being caught in some stranger’s Facebook post, etc. And that assumes the individual is not already under surveillance.

If surveillance is in place, the individual needs to know how to spot and lose tails, and then hope he’s not being tracked by a drone or satellite.

Even our DNA is not private. To find a serial killer, California investigators searched over a million DNA profiles to find relatives of the unknown killer whose DNA they had as evidence.

Leaving aside personal privacy concerns and issues regarding the development of a government surveillance state, let’s consider the crime-writing aspects of these technological leaps.

Authors writing novels set in the present who want a character to be unable to communicate are forced to take extremes measures. Characters must lose their cell phones, or run out of battery power, or find remote locations without cell phone coverage so they can’t call for help. (On that account, I am lucky. Early on, I gave my protagonist, Seamus McCree, a character-fault of forgetting to take his cell phone with him or charging it up—it’s a running battle he has with his son. And his place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is still a location with very spotty coverage.)

Characters can no longer avoid having their movements recorded. Even in the remote woods where there is no cell phone coverage, trail cameras are ubiquitous and need to be accounted for in plot lines. Facial recognition software is becoming more sophisticated, allowing computers to rapidly process video recordings. Everyone and their mother uses their cell phones to record anything they think looks suspicious.

We risk diminishing our stories if we don’t make our criminals worthy antagonists by being technologically smarter. Most criminals make stupid mistakes, but other than the humor found in the how-could-they-be-so-dumb stories, these aren’t the folks we want to write or spend our time reading about.

Given these technological advances, how can our bad guys avoid becoming suspects? And, once they are, how can they circumvent surveillance? How can our good guys use technology to set traps? And how can we write all this in a way that isn’t obsolete when then next technological advance arrives?

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at


Annette said...

Fascinating, Jim, and so true. There really is no expectation of privacy anymore. A mixed blessing where writing crime fiction is concerned. But I will say, you've sparked an idea for my next book with this post.

Jim Jackson said...

You're welcome, Annette. :)

Kait said...

Ah, but technology does give writers a way to fool everyone, too. My home in northern Maine is across the St. John River from New Brunswick, Canada. There are long stretches of rural areas where a cell phone will register as being in Canada and your calls, texts, etc. will show as Canadian in origin. One is at the top of the hill in the woods on my property, others are on the road to Frenchville and on the road to the Allagash. Lots of solitary space for the villain to be in two places at once. I suspect there are other locations on the US/Canada border that also qualify. GPS in that area is often unavailable or unreliable, too, so the standard failsafe fails.

As with Annette, you have sparked an idea for me to file away with this post.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Jim, I remember discussing with you a plot scenario in which a battered wife attempts to live off the grid in another state. Everything worked with an LLC...until her predator hired a hacker to break into her lawyer's computer and find records of her paychecks.

Grace Topping said...

You raise some excellent points, ones that I am aware of when I read books written before modern technology. It makes me wonder how they would have been written if the main character/victim/villain had a cell phone, etc. Most of them, I imagine, wouldn't work. I ran into this with my manuscript. A faxed document is a key clue in my manuscript. Everyone who read earlier versions kept saying, "Nobody uses fax these days." Some do, which isn't the point. I had to come up with a way that receiving a fax or at least enabling the main character to eventually recognize the fax number would be plausible. Tricky, but I think I solved it. I hope readers don't roll their eyes at my solution.

Jim Jackson said...

Kait -- I suppose the same thing might happen down near the Mexico border as well. Not so much in the rest of the country. Where I live is equally inconvenient to a number of cell towers and depending on which room of the house we are in, the cell phone could think it's either Eastern or Central time. [To solve that in real life, I don't let my phone choose the time zone.] I've used that abnormality for a plot point.

Margaret -- and we know from recent news events that lawyer offices are a trove of "interesting" information!

Grace -- Even between first drafts and last drafts, I've had to change a plot point because of technology change. (Another disadvantage of being a slow writer!) And yes, just because something is still possible (like faxing), if readers don't think anyone does that anymore, we need to either introduce a troglodyte character or change our approach.

Warren Bull said...

That's why I usually write historical mysteries. Of course, that introduces an entirely different set of problems. It's really just trading one headache for another.

Jim Jackson said...

Warren -- so true. Or you could start like Sue Grafton and write current fiction, but when your character ages slowly relative to real time after a lifetime they become historical mysteries.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Something interesting I just found out: a warrant that includes documents and computers would not include passwords and encryption unless the police can show probable cause that a crime was committed using the computer or evidence of the crime exists on the computer.

Grace Topping said...

As to the Fax situation, I had the main character request something by fax and then had someone say no one uses that anymore. To which my main character acknowledges that but came up with a good reason to still use it. The fax was central to my MC being able to solve the crime, and I absolutely needed it. Now I know why Sue Grafton was so smart keeping her character in the 80s.

KM Rockwood said...

I sometimes wonder how often our circle of critique readers, etc, are truly representative of our potential audiences. After all, they are a self-selected group, often people who are keeping up with technology, and they have preconceived notions about what "everybody" does.

For instance, many of the participants in my exercise group are avid readers. They often exchange books in the locker room. Yet several of them don't own a computer, much less a smart phone, and have no idea how to use the internet (I often print out information for them)

In the same way, when I wrote about a teenager who didn't have a driver license, people told me "all teenagers get their licenses ASAP." This has not been my experience, and I could point to a number of teens I know who really didn't care about getting a license, including a friend's son, who didn't feel that he needed one until he moved to a remote area of Italy, and then finally passed their much more difficult steps to get one.

Jim Jackson said...

Margaret -- those who do police procedurals need to be much more precise than the typical amateur sleuth who probably breaks several laws in every story!

KM -- A statement beginning with all or none is automatically suspect in my thinking. City folks often don't understand country; country don't understand city. Young shake their heads at how slow my generation is to do anything except protect their power; to the old, the new generation is either the salvation or ruin.

However, with the right motive, any action can be made understandable. To my mind one major task of authors is to avoid readers throwing the book across the room when a character does something they would never consider and instead realize there was a good enough reason for that person.

Edith Maxwell said...

Great stuff, Jim. Thanks! Need to consider this with every book.

Jim Jackson said...

Thanks, Edith.