Every Step You Take I’ll Be Watching You*

Violations of PrivacyOne of the facts of life about modern technology is that we arguably have a lot less privacy than we used to have. Today, when you sign a lease or apply for a job (at least in the U.S.) it’s not uncommon to include a credit and criminal background check in the process. And computer and Internet technology has made it increasingly easy to get very private information without waiting weeks or longer. Even if you move from one country to another, it’s still fairly straightforward to find out if, for instance, you have a criminal history. And with so many people using social networking such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s not hard to find out private things about people – who their friends are, where they eat, how they vote in elections and lots more.

On the one hand you can say that having less privacy has benefits. It’s easier for police to catch criminals because they have access to information that they didn’t used to have. People who are not guilty of crimes can more easily support their claims, too (e.g. travel and credit card records that show someone was in another place at the time of a crime). On the other hand, a lot of people see this trend as a violation of their privacy. Whose business is it really what you buy, where you go (so long as you don’t commit a crime) or how you vote? And today’s ability to track people makes it frighteningly easy to follow someone – ask anyone who’s been stalked. Identity theft and fraud are scary realities too now that today’s criminals can find ways to get credit card and ID numbers. In that sense, we have to be more careful than we used to be.  For better or for worse, we do seem to have less privacy and it shouldn’t be surprising that this trend shows up in crime fiction.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who is planning to get married soon. The king is worried because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising photograph of them and he’s afraid of the scandal that would get around if that photograph is ever published. He hires Holmes to get the photograph and return it so that his reputation will be protected. Holmes fans know of course that Irene Adler is a formidable opponent. In fact, she manages to elude Holmes and ends up keeping the photograph, promising never to use it unless she is forced to do so. The science and art of photography were relatively new at the time of this story; it’s interesting that if it had been written just a few decades earlier, there might not even be a compromising photograph. As it is, we can see how the limitations of technology meant the king was only worried about that one photograph. He had no worries about members of the press or his fiancée’s family getting hold of private telephone conversations or other communication between the two lovers. The limitations of technology also make it difficult for Holmes to track Irene Adler. In part it’s because he decides not to, but it’s more than that. The technology of the time meant that there were very few fingerprint records and the records that were available were not easily accessible. And of course there were no credit cards, no telephone records or other ways to track Adler. So she was able to maintain her privacy a lot more easily than she would be able to do in today’s world.

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, people already had less privacy because technology had evolved. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Marie Morisot, a well-known French moneylender who did business under the name of Madame Giselle. The only possible suspects are the other passengers with whom she shared a flight from Paris to London. As a part of the investigation, Poirot and Inspector Japp look into all of the other passengers’ backgrounds. They also find out as much as they can about Madame Giselle’s past. Part of what they learn comes from personal interviews, which were not new. But part of what they learn comes from police and other contacts in other countries. By the time of this novel, photographs could be sent by cable from place to place, and the telephone had made communication easier. So it was beginning to be much harder for people to hide their pasts and that is what puts the proverbial nail in the coffin for the killer in this novel.

In Cat Connor’s Killerbyte, FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway and her lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly track down a vicious killer through the use of modern technology among other things. Conway and Connelly are both members of an Internet chat room called Cobwebs, which is devoted to poetry. When one of the members Carter McLaren is banned from the chat room, he tracks Conway down and threatens her. He’s arrested but disappears after he makes bail. When he’s later found dead in the trunk of Conway’s car, it’s clear that this is more than just a chat room member who took revenge too far. Then there’s another death. And another body is found. At each crime scene, police find a Post-It note with a poem, and before each murder, Conway and Connelly get cryptic taunting emails. It’s soon evident that the killer is targeting chat room members and that the killer is someone who knows Conway personally. As Conway and Connelly slowly put the pieces together, they and the FBI use modern computer surveillance and other high-tech equipment to track down the killer. In the end, it’s a simpler clue that leads the two sleuths in the right direction, but technology plays an important role in stripping away the killer’s privacy.

But this novel also shows the negative side of that loss of privacy. It turns out that the killer is technologically very adept at covering up ‘footprints’ and tracking down victims. Individual computer IP addresses, bugging devices and even tracking software are all part of what this killer uses to follow Conway and Connelly and to stalk victims.

We also see that kind of electronic violation of privacy in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been having marital difficulties, but so far they’ve stayed together. Then, Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. When she finds out, she takes a decision that turns out to have consequences she couldn’t possibly have imagined. At first her decision doesn’t seem so fateful though and she continues her life with Henrik and their son Axel. Then she learns the identity of Henrik’s mistress. Eva decides on a particular plan for revenge that also has consequences she hadn’t imagined. This plan involves a real violation of privacy. I can say without spoiling the story that it involves breaking into an email account, which Eva is able to do with frightening ease actually. In the end, you could say that Eva and Henrik have betrayed each other and their choices end up causing real tragedy.

There’s an interesting and chilling case of violation of privacy in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman is still coping with the death of her beloved husband Stefan, but she’s functioning if not exactly functional. Then she gets a letter that makes it clear that she’s being stalked. What’s worse, someone seems to have gotten access to her private client information. That violation puts not just her but her clients at risk. There are other incidents too that seem designed to damage her credibility. Then the body of one of Bergman’s clients Sara Matteus is found in the water on her property. The death is set up to look like a suicide; there’s even a suicide note implicating Bergman in this client’s decision to kill herself. But it’s soon proven that this was a murder. Bergman herself is briefly a suspect until she’s able to show that she’s not guilty. Now the threats from this stalker become even more ominous and it’s clear that Bergman’s life is in danger. She’ll have to find out who the killer is in order to re-establish her credibility, protect her clients’ privacy and stay alive.

Today’s technology has made it easier than it ever was to catch criminals, and harder to avoid getting caught if one is a criminal. But it’s a double-edged sword as you might say. It’s also easier than ever to violate an innocent person’s privacy. Information is easier and easier to find, and today’s crime novels reflect that. Dozens and dozens of crime fiction stories (there really isn’t room here for me to list them) include cases where cops or private investigators trace criminals through their emails and social networking, even if the criminal leaves the country. Others depict people who’ve had their emails and banking accounts compromised. So do we have less privacy than we did? I’d say so. Is it a problem? For a lot of people, yes. For cops and private investigators, I’m not so sure.  What do you think?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Every Breath You Take.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Cat Connor, Karin Alvtegen

12 responses to “Every Step You Take I’ll Be Watching You*

  1. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many mystery novels I have read that feature how little privacy we have, although any current spy novels use that type of technology. I just finished The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer, which is a spy novel, with lots of surveillance technology in use.

    Most prominently I have noticed this In movies (Enemy of the State is a perfect example) and TV (Person of Interest is entirely focused on government surveillance and makes one paranoid).

    You have provided some interesting examples, and I look forward to other comments providing even more.

    • Tracy – Oh, you mentioned a movie I really liked! Enemy of the State is such a good example of the way modern technology can be used to dig into people’svery, very private lives. I have to admit, I love the very end of that movie. I’ve not yet watched Person of Interest although I hear it’s good.
      About books…I agree with you that some of the best novels that use modern technology for surveillance and yes indeed those tools violate privacy. It’s enough to make one really re-think every ‘phone call, every keystroke, etc…

  2. Margot: One of the scariest mysteries I have read in recent years was The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. The concept of a huge data farm being used for criminal purposes was most sinister. Then I learned their largest clients were large law firms.

    • Bill – One of the eeriest things about The Scarecrow< is that data farms like Western Data have so much information that could potentially be used illegally. It’s really scary to think how much private information is available in places like that.

  3. Linwood Barclay’s TRUST YOUR EYES uses the idea of our ability to watch people very effectively.

    • Patti – Thanks; I’m glad you filled in that gap. And Barclay’s a very talented writer who’s skilled at creating the ‘everyman in an increasingly dangerous situation’ plot theme.

  4. I compare Holmes’ Scandal in Bohemia with that modern day Sherlock Holmes story on TV. In the television episode, he used a cell phone and a computer to find information quickly about what he needed to know. Also, instead of storing the private documents in a house safe, it was stored on a mobile phone with a strong encryption devise. It’s interesting how modern day remakes of the same story can be so different with just technology.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I know exactly what you mean about the differences in a re-made story that come just from adding technology. It’s the same basic plot in a lot of ways, but so many differences in terms of finding people, getting information, storage and so on. I actually like the new Sherlock Holmes series on that score. It stays true to the original stories in a lot of ways but adds a 21st Century look to them.

  5. Privacy is important to me, for sure. I’m thinking about the drones now, and have a feeling it might have run through your mind as you wrote the post! I’ve seen CCTV cameras make a difference in British crime fiction (shows and novels), and am sure that it will make a difference in ours before long.

    • Elizabeth – Privacy is a major issue for me as well. And it’s odd you’d mention the drones. I honestly wasn’t consciously thinking of them when I wrote this post, but I’m willing to plead guilty to unconsciously letting the drone stories seep into the post. Hmmmm…. And yes, the whole controversy over CCTV cameras is no doubt going to be an increasing part of crime fiction (including U.S. crime fiction) as those cameras become more common.

  6. It’s not common to have a credit check when you apply for a job here in the UK but I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up going that way. Any novel that deals with computers/technology runs the risk of feeling out of date by the time it’s published, which is why Sue Grafton has been so clever to keep events in the 1980s I think. I don’t like the idea of Kinsey with a mobile phone.

    • Sarah – You have a well-taken point about technology dating a novel or series. It changes so fast that almost by the time a book is published, something new has come out and the book is no longer as relevant. So it’s important that if the author is going to use modern technology, s/he do so in a way that dates the book as little as possible. It’s a delicate balance and I agree that Grafton has taken a very creative approach to addressing this issue. I wouldn’t want to see Kinsey with a mobile ‘phone either, to be honest.

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