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?