Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kelli's Question for Keith Raffel

What kind of diabolical inventions are going to be coming out of the Valley in the next few years?

Kelli, I think what’s coming is bad news for us crime writers. What’s affected the plot of crime fiction most in the last 20 years? Cellphones. Why walk into the dark house before calling 911? Our fellow authors seem to be handling the suspense-deflating qualities of cellphones two ways. First, they move their stories back in time to the seventies or eighties to the pre-cellphone era. Second, their heroes or victims have the phone battery run out at a critical time. The first may be okay, but the second is getting to be a cliché.

Well, things are about to get worse – for us writers, for criminals, and for civil liberties.

Here’s the first complicating factor. My friend Walter was the head of engineering at a Silicon Valley Company called Snaptrack. That company’s technology is now being incorporated into cellphones so their precise location can be pinpointed. Carry your cellphone with you and it tells your provider where you are. Tough on alibis, isn’t it?

Next videocameras are becoming more prevalent. Last month a grad student was murdered in a building at Yale that had 75 cameras. It didn’t take long to figure out the leading suspect. In London over 10,000 monitors blanket public places and form what The London Evening Standard calls a “publicly funded spy network.” The perpetrators of the infamous July 7, 2005 bombings on the London subways were identified by these cameras. Google searches throughout the entire World Wide Web to find you a given phrase. Video search technology will soon be to the point where it can match a certain person’s face. Combine this with ubiquitous cameras and future Sherlock Holmeses won’t have to venture out into the London Fog. He or she will use a video search engine to watch a suspect’s movements during the time of the crime.

To listen in on phone calls, authorities need a warrant that indicates probable cause of a crime or a threat to national security. There is no need for a warrant when likenesses are captured on video in public places, because there is no expectation of privacy. I’m horrified at the prospect of a real life Big Brother. My kids just shrug their shoulders. They kind of expect to be monitored.

What a problem for us crime writers. How are we crime fiction writers going to be able to make our stories compelling when authorities can track people’s locations through the cellphones they carry or watch them when they move through the streets? Was Sting playing a law enforcement officer when he sang:

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I'll be watching you

It’s going to be tough for us writers in a world where this is literally true.

Cheers. See you tomorrow.


As counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Keith Raffel held a top secret clearance to watch over CIA activities. As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he founded UpShot Corporation, the award-winning Internet software company. These days he stays busy writing his mysteries and thrillers in his hometown of Palo Alto, California. His latest novel, Smasher, is out this month. Check out his website and book trailer at


Jen Forbus said...

Oh, I'm not worried. It seems like every time some new gadget comes out to make things safer, the criminals find a way around things. They learn to pick locks and disarm security systems and blow up safes and who knows what else. The crime fiction novels may even grow in complexity as the criminals are forced to get smarter. Cell phones are easy...characters can be like me and despise the blasted things and conveniently "forget" them!

Kelli Stanley said...

Wow, Keith, that Orwellian stuff is freaky ... makes me glad I'm writing stuff in an era pre-cell phone, though I am planning a contemporary thriller in the next couple of years.

I see a couple of ways around the ever-tightening restrictions for our plots ... one, remote areas (and there still are rural places in the US, thankfully), and two, how the security cameras could be manipulated to provide the wrong data. And I love Jen's point, too--technology often doesn't work, and criminals usually find a way around it. Hmm. Now you've got me thinking!

But for now ... back to 1940, and technology I can understand! ;)


Cara Black said...

I remember Val McDermid's comment at Bcon in Baltimore when asked how do you Brits deal with all those CCTV cameras these days and your books?
She shrugged and said' half the time the bloodly things don't work, the view's restricted, they've recorded over the tape etc.I loved that. It's us humans operating them after all.I often put Aimee in a dead cell phone zone, her battery dies. She has yet to drop it in the toilet like I have.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Cell phone in the toilet? That makes my cell phone covered in the Chesapeake story sound glamourous!

I agree with Jen, the crooks will get smarter and it is the smart crooks we adore after all.

So, as a writer I am not worried. As a person constantly monitored, I am though...

Thanks for another great post, Keith!

Keith Raffel said...

Don't let Cara fool you. She was supposed to have dinner with me and Tim Maleeny at BEA. We were supposed to confer by cellphone to firm up plans. I guess she figured better to drop a phone in the toilet than have to sit through a dinner with us. (BTW, there's a terrific and gross scene in the movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist that involved a cellphone in the toilet.)

Kelli Stanley said...

OK, now I have to rent Nick and Norah ... isn't it funny that cellphones in toilets are a viable theme in all kinds of fiction? ;)

At least I feel better knowing Cara has done it, too. :)


Shane Gericke said...

No problems, mon. Dead spots. The cops I know complain about them all the time, for their cell phones and their police radios. Technology keeps getting better, but we'll never be smarter than ma Nature.

Leslie said...

I'm with Keith on the privacy aspects though, the direction we're heading is pretty unnerving and I've observed the same nonchalance about big brother from the younger set. They are used to no privacy online, that is the norm for them.

I think it is a case of speak now or it will be too late, if it isn't already too late!

Shane Gericke said...


Unknown said...

I think people's behavior will change as well, we just have to be fast enough to pick up on it -- like those poor girls in the culvert in Australia. Facebooking for help. Not just criminals moving from the street to the computer, but everyday people born after the cellphone was invented, too.

People can always be tricked.
And honestly, we can make that cameras everywhere stuff work FOR us as well as against us. Tradeoffs more than decent into Orwell, I think.

We just have to get creative, like we always do, observe life, like we always do, and lie our asses off, like always, in order to write in the new world :)


Lisa Black said...

Maybe criminals just won't carry cell phones. Kind of reminds me of Battlestar Galactica, where they purposely used phones with cords and non-networked computers just so they couldn't be hacked.
Keith, great to see you at Bouchercon. But you never told me you had top-secret, telling-the-CIA-what-to-do clearance! I'd have been too intimidated to speak to you all these years if I'd known that!!