Gonna Find Out Who’s Naughty or Nice…

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The Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” is weighing on my mind right now, and the reason isn’t just the season.  It is also because of the verse in the song which lightheartedly notes that Santa is making a list and checking it a couple of times for the purpose of finding out who is naughty or nice. Santa isn’t the only one who is doing that. Just about anyone — including you, and you, and you — can do it, too.

I had the occasion recently to get a look at an evidence list prepared by a local police department with regard to a homicide. I’ am not referring to the murder which occurred on my street last year. The one which I am discussing here took place in a neighboring suburb and involves a woman who has been charged with murdering her husband, who was a prominent physician in the area. The police in the course of their investigation subpoenaed, among other things, recordings made by the couple’s Echo devices; their ring cam and trail cam video recordings; and the ring cam video recordings of the house across the street from them. You may not know that your Echo and Apple devices aren’t listening only when you say, “Alexa, order me a pizza from Donatos” or “Siri, what is traffic like?” No, they are listening to everything you say, recording it, and storing it offsite in the cloud. Yes, I know, we have been assured that such recordings are erased after a certain amount of time. They aren’t, and police departments are increasingly utilizing these recordings in investigations. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be sitting in a defendant’s Timberlands in court when an Alexa device plays back a recording of the accused telling someone, “I’m gonna kill that (insert your own term of endearment)!” This is thanks to technology in general and to devices in particular which may be sitting in your home.

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Did I mention police departments? Many or perhaps all of you have heard of ALPRs, or Automatic License Plate Readers. ALPRs take many forms. If you are fortunate enough to traverse a toll road on a regular basis you are probably aware that these devices are set up at the booths to scan your license plate. Should you blow through the gate without paying the piper your license plate number is duly recorded and read, the better so that the turnpike authority can send you an extremely expensive ticket. Similar units that do much more are now installed in police cars. They scan the license plates of parked and driven cars as the officer drives down the street. If the scanner detects a plate registered to someone who (to name one example) has a driver’s license which is suspended said someone’s information pops up on the unit’s screen, as does the license plate, the make and model of the car, and all sorts of other information. ALPRs were primarily used only by larger metropolitan police forces until recently. The cost of the hardware and software, however, has been reduced to the point that the price is within reach of most departments. Oh, a variation of it is available to you as well. Something that I call “ALPR lite” can behad bay anyone. It won’t give you the name, address, and vitals of everyone who drives by your house but it will record the license plate of any vehicle driving by the scanner hardware and the time of day it does it. It will also collate it. Anyone owning the hardware and possessing a subscription to the service can note how frequently a car bearing a certain plate number is driving past their house and the times that the visits occur. If there are frequent break-ins to homes or vehicles during times that coincide with the appearance of the vehicles or if the same vehicles pop up during porch pirating incidents this information can be given to the police for follow-up investigation. ALPRs are primarily being purchased and used by neighborhood associations and apartment complexes, but the price is under one hundred dollars per month and dropping. I would guess that within a couple of years — or maybe a few months — anyone who wants the service will be able to get it for less per month than for what they are spending on their overpriced coffee fix.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. From a professional standpoint, I am not seeing any of this technology being mentioned in mystery or domestic thriller fiction. That doesn’t mean that authors aren’t doing it, but I read enough of a cross-section of books in those genres that I would expect to be encountering it.  I can, without hardly trying, think of a few different ways that a writer stuck on a plot could build a whodunit using an ALPR or Echo-type device as a foundation. 

One last thing. Everything that makes you YOU is being analyzed, collated, considered, and shared as you do your holiday shopping and spending. The folks who issue those store loyalty cards that you scan at the checkout compile your purchasing data and sell it. Do you use credit cards or have installment loans? The information as to how you pay your debt each month is strained, drained, blued, tattooed and passed on. If you would like to see how your financial practices are sliced and diced, take a few minutes and check out this article, which discusses the minutia contained in your credit report and why you may or may not have difficulty the next time you go a financial institution looking for a loan. It’s fascinating information and it might provide an initial bit of grist for that financial thriller you’ve been thinking about writing. 

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I’m not trying to frighten you. I’m attempting to forewarn you by turning on a light to reveal a corner of the world that you may not be aware of. It isn’t just Santa who knows all about you when you are sleeping and what you are doing when you are awake. Be forewarned. And with that knowledge, please have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We’ll see you in 2020 if the creek doesn’t rise. 

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

34 thoughts on “Gonna Find Out Who’s Naughty or Nice…

  1. Ah, Big Brother it seems has twin lil’ sisters in Alexa and Siri. . . My dad was an airline pilot who told the tale of a coworker who used to tell the flight recorder what it – and anyone who might have reason to listen to his final 20 minutes in the air – could do. I’ve thought of that whenever I realize the remote on my Firestick has Alexa’s ear.

    And don’t forget your smart phone’s mic and camera function ~ I’ve had ad streams on my e-mail reflect recent conversation topics (like I’m actually gonna buy a 100 foot yacht), or maps open to the route of the trip I haven’t even backed out of the driveway to make.

    Just coz yer paranoid don’t mean they ain’t out to get ya. . .

    Have a Merry Christmas (anyway), and an enjoyable, unobserved, New Year. . .

  2. Anyone listening in on my Alexa device will know what music I listen to, what the weather is outside, and the joke of the day. Sometimes who’s playing football. Otherwise, she just sits there showing me a slideshow of vacation pictures.

    But incorporating the real capabilities could add to a crime fiction novel. Frankly, in mine, I try to find ways to avoid making things too easy for my cops.

    Happy Holidays to all.

    • Thanks Terry! Re: making things too easy…I’ve seen some items advertised on the darknet which will supposedly block the license plate scanners. I don’t know if they work, however. Ho Ho Ho!

  3. Good morning, Joe.

    Thanks for the wake-up call reminding us of all the devices and ways Big Brother can infiltrate our lives. My response has been to keep as many of those as possible out of my house. I was not aware of the increased use of ALPRs and decreased cost for using them.

    Great ideas for using this technology in our stories. That’s already given me some ideas for my next book.

    I hope you have a Merry (and unsurveilled ) Christmas. And thanks for all your posts.

  4. You didn’t frighten me. I was already creeped out by the excessive intrusion of technology. I do remain surprised at how passively everyone accepts it. I have to have a computer–no longer optional these days. I use a cell phone but only for talk & text not with a bunch of apps. But no other tech toys.

    • Bk, I think a great number of people are unaware of how intrusive it is, or feel that the convenience is a tradeoff. I remain astounded at what people put on social media about what they are doing or what has happened to them. They treat it like a diary! Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

  5. Mr. Hartlaub, I’m thinking that one reason that many authors, including me, don’t write much about technology–besides not knowing all that much about it–is that we, including me, are concerned that, in making guesses about what may developing in the particular devices or fields we’re writing about, we might trigger a federal investigation.

    It’s about having a federal agent of some kind come knocking on our doors, inviting us down to the shop to answer some questions about how we found out what the darned thing does, and do we know anyone in China.

    When I was a boy, one of the populars–Popular Science or Popular Mechanics–used to have a department about What I’d Like To See ’em Make. They’d have drawing about the proposed device might look like, and then a paragraph of text about what someone’s wish might be for some gadget, widget, or thingamabob. You want a telephone that takes messages? How about a thing called a speak-a-vision with which you can call someone and actually see their picture as you visit. How about a REAL two-way wrist radio just like the one Dick Tracy uses? How about a car that drives itself, or one that you don’t have to stop to change a flat tire–you simply, as you roll along at 50 miles an hour, push the button that extends the running board a little further, get out, drop down the auxiliary wheel, then proceed to un-lug your tire, put in the trunk, and pull out the repaired one, and put it on? Yes, those were all dreams back in those days. Now days, for having such dreams, you could be questioned with the prospect of someone saying the words espionage or industrial spying, or where’d you get the plans? in your presence.

    My Son served in the Marines in Ramadi, stood guard over the Iraqis who voted in their first-ever free election. He’s still proud of that. He used to call us at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in his time zone. Here, it was about 3 o’clock in the morning. Of COURSE, you talk to your Marine son anytime of the day or night. When he came home, we’d talk about the things he did, or the things he’s seen. One thing, which I won’t say much about, was the radio comms the Marines used. (I know nothing about them, but I do think about them.) I have learned that since those days, they have developed a system that I thought about. Only thought about. Try convincing a fed wearing a fedora, black overcoat, dark glasses, and a Sig on his hip, that you really did not know the Marine’s radio did all of that–you just wanted to talk to your son.

    So I guess I just take the safer route and, by implication, not invite a U.S. government employee into my writing nook.

    I’m thinking that, despite how many calendar pages have fallen to the floor, it’s still 1984, and getting more 1984 every day.

    • A few years after 9/11, an acquaintance who writes techno-thrillers talked to some of her contacts in various agencies about writer research and red flags on them. The consensus was that, if you have a platform as a writer who needs that kind of info and nothing in your public profile indicates you are a nut job, then the government will shrug and move on because you aren’t worth their time.

    • Jim, what you described is exactly what happened to science fiction author-editor John Campbell (he wrote about the atomic bomb before it was the atomic bomb). Thanks for the reminder about “I’d Like to See Them Make” feature in Popular Mechanics/Science. That was my favorite part of the magazine. Also, go back and look at the original Tom Swift series. Those books were remarkably prescient.

    • Reminds me of the Robert Redford flick, _Three Days of the Condor_ from the similarly titled _Six Days of the Condor_ by James Grady, wherein the CIA runs a clandestine ops office in Washington, D.C. responsible for analyzing the plots of mystery and spy novels. . .. (All I’m gonna say about it, for various reasons. . .)

  6. My Alexa dot started recently flashing a green light when it was listening. That prompted me to unplugged my devices until I need them – I ask the one device to read me the news in the morning and the other is by my desk and occasionally helps me with spelling. I don’t have anything nefarious going on, but it’s disconcerting to see how much Alexa is listening to me.

    • Indeed it is, Alexa. Sometimes you don’t need something nefarious going on to be accused of it. Thanks!

  7. I was at a presentation by a famous poet who told about her nasty divorce. The husband wanted to prove adultery so he’d hired PIs to follow her and tape her phone. During one call, she and another poet, a guy, spent two hours discussing comma placement in their poems. Those poor PIs probably died of brain bleed by the end of that one.

    Or, as one of my English professors said, if someone left a note on our desk that said, “Flee, all is discovered,” most of us would shrug and go about our day.

    All that said, Siri is cut off and my desktop camera has a cover over it.

    • Marilynn, thanks for the reminder about desktop/laptop cameras. I’ve had mine covered for so long that I forgot about it.

      I should note that my wifi cut off while I was replying to Marilynn. Coincidence? Or an attempt by Daddy to take the T-Bird away?

  8. Thank you, Joe! You’ve just solved a problem with the ending of my latest WIP of how my protagonist was going to discover who was stalking her…now to work it into the story.

    But you know, all of these electronic gadgets are scary. Even my watch is listening to me. I’ll talk to someone in water aerobics (it’s about the only place I don’t carry my phone) about something I’m looking for and two hours later, I get an ad for that product.

  9. It is fascinating to read about all the changes in technology. My husband was impressed with the APLRs. They didn’t have that tool when he was patrolling the streets. It would have been a useful in the high crime areas where he worked. He started in LA in the early seventies and eventually retired out of southern Oregon. My hometown had more crime per capita than bigger cities like Portland, Oregon.

    I enjoy your posts, John. Always lots of good info for our crime novels and just plain interesting. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Cecilia. As for APLRs, they’re right up there with ring cams on my list of impressive surveillance equipment. I thought about getting a trail cam but decided that I probably DON’T want to know what (or who) is going through my back yard at night!

  10. I just finished a mystery in which the protag made interesting use of technology to solve a crime. (That’s all I’m telling you. Read the book.) In her after-note the author admitted that the tech was actually not available till two years after time the novel was set at. But that’s close enough for me.

    The tech solved part of her problem, but the challenge was recognizing the potential and learning how to do it.

  11. I actually just installed two LPR camers for a college. They’ve already used it to look for a hit and run. The image is amazing-day or night (it uses infrared red at night.)

    • That’s interesting, Michael. Thanks. I didn’t know about colleges using them but it certainly makes sense, particularly with larger universities which are centrally located in cities and have dedicated public streets passing close to or through them…

  12. It’s a frightening world out there, which is why I turn off Alexa on my Fire and refuse to buy any device like the Ring. The Ring hacking videos on the news are terrifying. Although, I do have an iPhone, and Siri does her fair share of eavesdropping, too.

    Wishing you a joyous holiday season, Joe!

    • Sue, I may have told this story already…but I mowed the lawn and left my phone on the kitchen table. I started getting ads for landscaping services! I assume that since I wasn’t interacting with the phone and it heard the lawnmower outside that the software figured out what I was doing. Smarter than a beagle! Thanks, Sue. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well.

  13. A wealth of information here…my husband and I were discussing this and we wondered what it would be like to be sans cell phones, computers, TV, tablets, blue tooth, etc. We decided it might be a whole lot quieter.

    We’ve also done some mild research on the issue of 5g. Frightening! As long ago as 2015, an Australian researcher/professor stated that it’s far more dangerous to our health than our current systems even thought of being.

    She made a point of asking, “Where do most men carry their cell phones?” In their front pant pockets. Think of where all that ramped up 5g radiation will land, guys! Ditto with those front shirt pockets, bra pockets, and your 2 year old grandchild with your phone 2 inches from her face, playing a game.

    It’s a dangerous world out there, and money’s the driving force. I’m not sure the money-mongers will be so up front about all of this if they can sell me a phone.

    Just my two cents…

    • Thanks, Deb. If you haven’t already…see if you can get a copy of the movie “They Live.” It was released in 1988 (cell phones were commercially available but beyond the reach of most consumers) and based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson (published in 1963). It will make you want to stay off of the grid going forward.

    • Thank you, Suzanne! And you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year as well, across the miles…

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