Look Who’s Stalking



Recently I needed to learn how to make a bomb for research in a book I was writing which has a terrorist theme. I’ve done this before, but back then there was no online tracking. When I did it this time I really upset my online footprint. I’ve described how to make a bomb before in a book (‘Psychoville’) but being a responsible citizen in the post-1984 world I left out some crucial details in the narrative.

Now, online researching has become quite tricky. If I use Amazon to look up a book it turns my buying interests list on its head. As more and more people feel threatened by the spying abilities of the internet, I realise that the argument ‘only felons need to be afraid’ is not valid. Our social habits are being exploited to an extraordinary degree. Recently a new Donmar play explored this problem, working out entire life histories from borrowed audience phones.

But does this perceived invasion of privacy actually hurt us? It’s meant to help us with our choices – for which read ‘retail choices’ – but surely it’s also limiting? If I decide to buy a book on Henry VIII I don’t want to be recommended endless books on Tudor history. I’m sure that, like you, I find some targeted ads intrusive and insensitive, but I’m not especially outraged. It’s not 1984 unless it’s turned against us. And of course, that conversation leads us to the NSA, where data gathering takes on political significance.

People do push back. There’s now a ‘black phone’ that hides its history and makes calls private again as consumers start choosing not to give companies and governments all their details. The website Ghostery shows you how the cyber-system works and how to block unwanted info-trawlers here.

I’ve yet to read a good thriller exploring this subject – has anyone else?

7 comments on “Look Who’s Stalking”

  1. snowy says:

    *dons protective tin foil hat*

    Adverts are an annoyance and an inconvenience, [though not as bad as Blipverts], and can be easily blocked. [AdBlock Plus since you ask].

    The first time this profiling came to my attention was an article entitled “My Tivo turned me Gay!”. Generally you don’t see that kind of behaviour in {even] a major appliance. But rather than get into it, a tip.

    For people that want to look for a present for a partner and not have related Ads suddenly pop up or leave traces on a shared computer. Open a ‘New Private Window’ in the browser and work inside that. But understand that if you find something you like you must make a separate note of where it was, because when that window closes you may not find it again.

    The same trick works if you want to avoid having research change your search or shopping recommendations.

    There are other tools around that can cloak your identity, but they are all fallible not mainly through technical flaws, but through human behaviours. I have a common little piece of software on a USB key that allows me to appear to be anywhere on the planet and flit instantly hither and yon at will. [I use it for Geo-location testing.]

    The trouble with creating a fictional world around these ideas is the sheer amount of ‘Basil Exposition’ required to pull the reader/viewer along, it can feel like a very difficult read and people just lose interest.

    The one ‘thriller’ that springs to mind is a film, [unsurprisingly] ‘Untraceable’, it owes its idea more to the rise of streaming video but it does deal with the basics of cyber-forensics reasonably well.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    This post supplements what I have felt would happen if you dipped a teaspoon into a tainted pool. The splash back could be worse than the minimal query. Fortunately, I ordered and bought a number of forensic books on macabre subjects way back in the sixty/seventy years ago. They are out of date, but they still give you good description that can substitute for the current state of the deduction art. After all blunt force trauma hasn’t changed that much since the well flung river stone knocked over a rival.
    And leaving things out seems morally right and can be fudged. It may also keep the writer on the right side of a law suit.
    Since I live about half a mile from an physically expanding shadow site, I assume the folks there could simply drop a tin can on a taught string down my chimney one night – a classic house-to-house phone (an iCan?) for kids – and they could then skip the whole expensive high-tech process.
    Indeed,I have read a good thriller on the subject of eavesdropping circa the Fifties, but what was the book’s name? Everything – well, 98% – was told through the strung together recorded material from a series of bugs, tape recorders, mini-cameras, etc. It was nearly as exciting as The Godfather. Anyone know the title? And who was the “British” writer who back then wrote 5/6 rural novels about the strange doings of off the trail sites in G.B.? He had one on the Wicker Man and another on some nasty, ingrown doings off the coast of your country? The books stretched the limits, but they grabbed you by the throat and hung on to the end.

  3. snowy says:

    A piecework narrative? ‘The Anderson Tapes’ by Lawrence Sanders, would fit the outline, [It won him an Edgar] but it’s a 70’s piece.

    And coming up short on the British bod at the minute.

    [Leslie Thomas’ book about the cover-up that took place after Slapton Sands, has the right feel, but it is completely the wrong author.]

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    You are right, Snowy. Thanks. I was off the right decade. Bon weekend.

  5. Stefan M. says:

    Although it is probably intended for so-called young adults, I found Cory Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother’ quite frightening.

    Another useful add-on in addition to Ghostery is BetterPrivacy, which deletes flash-cookies after you close your browser.

    BTW Chris, I tried to contact you through the e-mail-address I got from St. Janssen, but it doesn’t seem to work. It would be great if you could get back to me regarding ‘Hell Train’.

  6. Em says:

    ‘No Harm Can Come To A Good Man’ by James Smythe looks like it could be that kind of thriller (http://upcoming4.me/news/book-news/review-no-harm-can-come-to-a-good-man-by-james-smythe). I haven’t read it yet but James is an amazing young writer and his novel The Machine was a fantastic modern Frankenstein story.

  7. admin says:

    Hi Stefan – substitute ‘europe’ for ‘london’. To everyone, you see how this works? You recommend stuff – I see/read it, and filter it into my mind, and it gets mulched up into new stories!

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