The mobile phone (not) the death of the crime novel (Part 2)
Using modern technology in your books
Last week I wrote about the ways in which mobile phones are a technology that should be seen as an opportunity for modern writers, rather than as a constraint to their story telling. This week, I want to explore that in a bit more depth.
Location data It is often said that we now carry a miniature tracking device around with us. That is true to an extent. Unlike radios, phones do not connect directly to one another. Rather they need to connect to a cell tower, which then relays the signal (often in multiple steps) to the receiving handset. Therefore to make a call, send a text or use the internet, they need to be able to contact a cell tower - the same goes when receiving a call or text - if your phone has no signal, when it finally reconnects you will get any unreceived text messages or missed call notifications.
As a phone moves around it constantly connects and reconnects to the nearest cell tower. In areas with multiple towers, the phone will often be connected to several, choosing the one with the strongest signal. The strength of a signal decreases with distance, which means that it is possible to work out roughly how far from a tower a phone is. In a remote area with very few towers, this will be a large circle around the tower. In an area with more than one tower, there will be a circle for each connection. The handset will be within the region where the circles overlap, a process called triangulation. The more towers the phone connects to, the more precisely the phone can be located, sometime to just a few metres. In an urban setting, this should be very precise. In practise, lots of tall building and thick walls will impede this - consider this if you don't want your character's handset to be located too precisely. Handily, phone networks keep a record of this data for at least 12 months, and again it can be obtained by a warrant. If you want to place a suspect at a location, at a specific time, then you can use this to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy.
However, this is only useful if your character is carrying their phone with them, or it is switched on. Might they leave it at home when they go out to commit their nefarious deeds, thus establishing an alibi? This could be disproven if a witness places them somewhere different to where their phone states they were. Perhaps they just turn it off? It's circumstantial, but if they never normally switch their phone off it seems a bit suspicious if the phone went off at the exact time the crime was committed...
GPS is a little different. The handset uses the distance from a series of orbiting satellites to triangulate its position. The satellites have no idea where the phone is and you can't "hack into" a GPS signal to work it out. However, the device may broadcast or record its location, and this could be picked up. Many online services like to know where your handset is, for legitimate or not so legitimate purposes. This can be turned off in your privacy settings (consider doing this - it's under location services on Google Android). Many apps make a log of where your handset has been. If police can unlock the handset, then they can access this log. Intelligent, professional criminals will likely switch this feature off - would your character be savvy enough to do this?
Unlocking phones Of course all of this stored data is useless, if you can't access it - and there in lie the challenges and opportunities for writers. Modern phones have screen locks that most people now use. With so much of our lives now conducted through our mobile devices, it's madness NOT to lock your device - if only so your 'friend' can't send rude text messages to your contacts when you leave your phone unattended. Many devices also encrypt the data held on them, making it theoretically impossible to read the data. As an anti-theft device, many smartphones now have the option to remotely lock and even wipe the data from a phone. For this reason police will often place phones in a 'Faraday bag' which blocks signals to the phone, so the owner can't remotely access it. In a pinch, the shielding on a microwave oven will also do this.
So how does your investigator unlock the device? PIN Codes The easiest to use. Perhaps they use the same PIN for multiple devices? Dirty fingerprints on the screen might give an indication of which digits were used, but the possible combinations will soon become unmanageable. Perhaps keep it simple and have somebody look over their shoulder and memorise the PIN as they type it.
Swipe Access The user swipes their finger across the screen in a pre-determined pattern. Again, grubby fingers may leave a trace on the screen.
Biometrics Fingerprints, facial recognition, voice recognition - all of these are potential ways to lock a device. The most poorly understood one is fingerprint. You cannot unlock a phone using the owner's severed finger. Nor can you use the finger of a corpse. All modern fingerprint readers use the miniscule electrical charges generated by living cells to generate an image. After death, these charges dissipate. Exactly how long after death this occurs is the subject of some debate - it's difficult to get ethical approval to perform the necessary experiments! Suffice to say that if you want to unlock the phone of a dead person in your book, they need to be really fresh!
That's all I am going to say about mobile phones for the time being, but there is much else consider. In a later post, I will return to the topic of Social Media, which these days is often linked to mobile devices.
Next week, I will move away from technology for a week and focus on character voice.
As always, if you want to comment on any of this, please do, either here or on social media.
The mobile phone (not) the death of the crime novel (Part 1)
Using modern technology in your books
In 1910 the notorious Dr Hawley Crippen fled Britain aboard the Montrose to start a new life in Canada, after murdering his second wife, Cora. The fugitive was recognised by the ship's captain, who used his ship-to-shore wireless set to inform the British authorities about his infamous passenger. Chief Inspector Walter Dew booked passage on a faster White Star Liner, SS Laurentic, and arrived ahead of Montrose, whereupon he boarded the ship and arrested Crippen. Crippen was tried, convicted of his wife's murder, and hanged in November of that year.
Crippen was the first suspect to be caught with the aid of wireless telegraphy. At the time, it is said that some felt this advance in technology sounded the death knell for the crime novel - how could a fugitive evade justice if this new-fangled communication technology allowed their whereabouts to be communicated instantly to the authorities?
110 years on and every new advance in crime-fighting technology has provoked similar reactions. In fact just a few years ago, I was chatting to a long-standing crime writer about the use of modern technology "I've stopped setting my books in modern times, I stick to the 80s as I understand the technology," he told me. And that got me thinking.
Modern technology is an opportunity, not a constraint. There, I've said it. I write contemporary British police procedurals. I try to be as realistic as possible, and so cannot ignore the ways in which the latest technology now shapes the way that investigations are performed. But it can be daunting. Over the next few months, I intend to publish some blog posts looking at some of the ways that writers can incorporate the latest advances in technology in their books, and hopefully show how rather than being a straitjacket that makes modern story-telling more difficult, it actually opens up new and exciting ways to tell that tale.
This and the next blog will focus on mobile phones, with later blogs on DNA evidence, social media and other modern technologies. Don't worry, there will still be plenty of posts focusing on the craft of writing also.
London Calling... The scourge/usefulness of mobile phones in crime novels.
In 2020, almost everybody carries a smartphone. Criminals have been using mobile phones to run their operations since the days of the house-brick-sized Motorola. But every advance in mobile technology has both benefits and drawbacks for criminals, and by extension, writers. So let's look at a few of them.
Tracing calls. Many people have mobile phone contracts, keeping the same number for years. For many of us, our mobile number is the only number we can remember and the only one that we ever give out. I've had a mobile for over 20 years, and that number has followed me across the better part of 10 handsets and a half-dozen providers. Should the police stumble across my number in connection with a crime, my mobile phone company can tell them who I am and where I live in seconds. An easy way to track down your master criminal! Who sent the threatening text message to the murder victim? Clickity-Click, Joe Blogs, suspect identified!
But it doesn't have to be that way. It is perfectly legitimate for anyone to buy a Pay-as-You-Go SIM card, with cash, no questions asked. No need to give any details, just pop it in the phone, activate it and away you go. They have prepaid credit that can be topped up online, or if you value your anonymity, with cash at the local newsagent. And many people do. Criminals, especially drug dealers, will often buy several of these SIM cards, alternating between them or discarding the number after just a few uses. This means that as soon as the police have a phone number that they can link to the criminal, it's already out-of-date. You can use this in your writing to make things more challenging for your investigators.
Burner phones. Criminals often go one step further than multiple SIM cards, they have multiple handsets that they throw away when they've served their purpose. The device will include records of calls and texts made and received and perhaps even an address book, so criminals don't want that electronic list of their historic offences in their pocket when they are collared. The common term for these is a 'burner phone'. Cheap, basic handsets are easy to buy, either legitimately or from a mugger. But there is a protection against this. All devices have a unique identifying code called an IMEI number - look at your phone instructions for this - you can register the number with your network provider, so if your phone is stolen, they can block it. This obviously reduces the attraction of phones being stolen purely for their resale value, which is why many head off overseas, and those stolen to be used as burners have to be used quickly before they stop working. The IMEI number will be logged every time the phone connects to the network - can you use this in your book? If your victim's expensive phone was stolen, perhaps it was sold on? Trace the current owner, and perhaps it will lead your investigators back to the person that originally stole it?
Call logs. Who did your victim call? Who else does your suspect keep in contact with? Assuming that you can put a name to a number (see above), this web of connections between mobile phone numbers can be an invaluable tool. On production of a warrant, the police can demand to see this web from the network providers, going back at least 12 months. But it can't do everything. First of all, this log merely lists the numbers called or texted, date, time and duration. IT DOES NOT have the content of those calls and texts. You can show association, but can't prove that two people chatted about the crime. The network doesn't save the content of the texts, so you would need access to one of the devices to read them. Similarly, calls are not recorded. To get that, you would need to have arranged for this to happen in advance - a wiretap if you like. That requires a warrant, granted by someone more senior than the local magistrate. Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that all calls are recorded by GCHQ or the NSA etc. True or not, unless it's national security related, PC Plod isn't going to have access to that.
In next weeks blog, I am going to take this a little further and look at the other ways you can use mobile phones to help tell your story, such as location data and the ways that phones store this data.
Do you have anything interesting to add? Feel free to comment here or on social media. Until next time, Paul.