Monday, March 02, 2009

Privacy in the Digital Age

Over the years, I’ve always tried to use modern technology in my suspense novels. I remember long ago transmitting data with a cutting-edge communications device–the fax machine. And as my career has progressed, I’ve gotten into DNA evidence, nuclear radiation, clones, and werewolves. The werewolves are easy because I can make up any “rules” I want for them. But even my werewolves have to deal with modern technology.

As an author, I’ve got to keep up with several fields that have changed life as we know it. Which is why I sat in recently on a lecture by Harvard Computer Science Professor Harry Lewis. He is the co-author of BLOWN TO BITS: YOUR LIFE, LIBERTY, AND HAPPINESS AFTER THE DIGITAL EXPLOSION.

Dr. Lewis started off with a Power Point demonstration of how easy it is to get information on an ordinary citizen–in this case the Baltimore woman who picked him up at his hotel and drove him to the Hopkins Club, where the lecture was held. Among other things, he showed us her address and her house using Google Earth (aerial view and front elevation), her property tax records, and the profile of political contributions in her neighborhood.

As he pointed out, the Swiss Police also used Google Earth to discover a major marijuana farm. And the terrorists who turned Mumbai, India, into a killing field used Google Earth to plot their routes through the city to the hotels and other locations they attacked.

Or consider something that seems pretty innocent–Picasa–a software download from Google that lets you organize photos and share them with friends and family. According to Dr. Lewis, you can use this program to search the web for photos of people–which might allow you to see where they’ve been, and with whom.

Information available on the Internet has enormous implications for all of us. As Professor Lewis said, we’d be up in arms if this information were available only to the police. But we’re less worried when it’s “available to everyone.”

He also noted that once something goes electronic, it’s basically forever. You can take it down, but it may still exist in a “cache” of information. Like the less then sparkling Twitter comments of some congressmen during the president’s recent address.

We now take the free flow of information for granted. But that might not be as available in a country with an “oppressive regime.” One way these regimes control their citizens is by restricting what they can access on the Internet or by directing them to Web sites controlled by the government. Because of Mumbai, the Indian government decided to ban Google Earth. Of course, that doesn’t do them any good if Google Earth is available in a neighboring country!

Another technological innovation that has enormous implications is the cell phone, which Dr. Lewis points out is a small computer. (He jokes that it can break down, “just like a computer.”). If you’ve got your phone, the authorities can track you. It doesn’t even have to be turned on. This is why some people remove the battery in addition to turning the phone “off.”

If you’re going to use cell phone tracking in a story, however, you’d better understand state laws. Dr. Lewis cited a case where a woman’s car went off the road, and she spent a week in a drainage ditch, injured and trapped in her vehicle. Her husband reported her missing, but Washington state law assumed that she “wanted to disappear.” It wasn’t until they finally declared him a suspect in her disappearance that the police could check the location of her cell phone. When they found her, she was dehydrated and in kidney failure. Another day or two, and she would have been dead.

In my current suspense novels, I’m constantly thinking about cell phones. You’ve now got to explain why your characters can’t get in touch with the world. (No signal is one of my standard explanations.) I’m also worried that since my phone is a couple years old, I’m not having my characters use it in enough of a “high tech” way. For example, Professor Lewis told us about new shopping software you can have on your phone. After checking the price of an item in the store where you’re located, your phone will tell you the price of that same item at stores that are near your current location.

And, for purposes of designing plots, I’d better remember that you can take a picture of ANYTHING with your phone. My husband had brought his camera to the lecture. But when I asked him to take a picture of me and Dr. Lewis, the battery went out. So the picture that accompanies this post was taken with his cell phone.

One astonishing piece of information came from a survey Dr. Lewis cited. A researcher asked young teens where they felt most “private.” All the adults in the audience were shocked to hear that teens felt most private on Facebook. And least private “at home.” Naturally, that attitude has enormous implications for suspense plots. You probably remember the case of Megan Meier who committed suicide after she’d made friends with a boy on MySpace–and he ended up telling her, in effect, that she was a worthless loser. It turned out that the “teen boy” was actually the mother of a girl in the neighborhood–who wanted to humiliate Megan, so she created the profile of “Josh Evans.”

At the end of the lecture, someone in the audience asked, “Will stronger cryptography make for a better balance between privacy and information dissemination?” Dr. Lewis said that there are some good things about it. Like your being able to give your credit card number to Amazon safely. But it would be a bad thing to let encrypted e-mil go from one bank to another. Nice idea for a plot involving financial fraud, right?


Mary Marvella said...

Thanks for sharing. I needed the reminders of just how far I can go with my own romantic suspense books. If I can imagine it today, someone will do it tomorrow.

Jean Marie Ward said...

Sounds like a fascinating lecture, Ruth. Thanks so much for mentioning the blog on the WRW list. LOTS of stuff to think about. Cheers, Jean Marie

Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

Thanks for sharing this lecture with us! I also have to stop and consider how technologically challenged or skilled my characters should be. I watch the teenagers who can text with the phone in their pocket or under their desk and am amazed! Our society is changing so rapidly it is hard for a writer to keep up!


Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

Mary Marvell, I'm following you!

Rebecca York said...

Right, scarlet. You're reminding me of stuff I didn't think about.