Phone Tracking

The NY Times recently published an article, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night,” detailing how easily someone could reverse engineer location data to identify someone and track them. While the article is correct to point out that there are few (and in some case no) safeguards regarding who can use the location data, the revelations are by no means new.Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 6.09.07 PM

In 2009 Zeit Magazine in Germany worked with the politician Malte Spitz to demonstrate how phone records could be used to track and trace someone—no apps required. Certainly no permissions.

The triangulation and “handing off” that cell towers do allows anyone with that data to reconstruct, as Zeit did here, the life and movement of any individual with a phone. It’s fascinating viewing. Link: https://www.zeit.de/datenschutz/malte-spitz-data-retention

As a citizen and phone user, I found Zeit’s trace map disconcerting. As a novelist, I was Zeit-berlin.activeintrigued to discover what happened during the times for which there’s no data. Where was he? What was he doing? The record is incomplete.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mr. Spitz was doing anything nefarious, but as my second Imogen Trager thriller, Dark Network, began to take shape in late 2016, I saw how I could have Imogen track her quarry via their phones—and her genius is that she pieces together the trail by linking the time and location of known acts with where the conspirators were when they turned their phones are off.

DarkNet.ad-poster-WITHOUT LAWIn an early scene from the book (p. 35), frustrated at the FBI’s lack of progress and in a fit of pique at her new boss, who keeps calling and texting her for status updates, Imogen considers turning her phone off. To do so, she admits sourly, would be “like an act of treason.” She sits at her desk seething, looking over the scant bits of evidence she has—wallet, keys, drop phone: “Or,” she thinks, “if you were committing treason, wouldn’t you turn it off?”

She teams up with an IT specialist, Trey Kelly, who designs a trace very like the one Zeit created, only they overlay all four known conspirators, and look for meetings and similar times when their phones are switched off. Together, Trey and Imogen pick the lock on a door no one else thought to look for.

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

Mendacity

votingIn the Noirpolitik thriller Faithless Elector, the reason the faithless electors give for not voting as they pledged to vote (for switching) is presented as a vote of conscience. In the book, there were seeming irregularities in the Illinois vote count, allowing each faithless elector to say their switched vote was cast as a vote of conscience for the candidate who should have won the presidency.Illinois

It’s Imogen Trager’s enlightened, careful investigation and analysis that brings the surprising truth to light…and puts her in mortal danger.

I was intrigued by the notion of an anti-democratic power grab that exploited administrative and procedural weaknesses with deadly consequences. I was excited as the characters and the real story of how they try to oppose such a conspiracy took shape.

In the original draft of the book I chose Illinois as the site for the fictional malfeasance because I had in mind the disputed vote count there in the 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy. Many contend the Daly machine rigged the vote. I hoped that setting the disputed votes in Illinois would give the novel some verisimilitude. As I’ve noted in other posts, readers will sooner believe the fantastic than they’ll accept the implausible.

FLA-hanging chadPerhaps I should have chosen Florida, particularly since the scandal, irrespective of the truth remains a volatile point of contention across both (now, all three) books and Florida is back in the news again…and likely, again.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

The pawn who would be king

Readers will sooner believe the fantastic than the implausible.

People who have read Faithless Elector are amazed that it came out well before the pawn-to-king-Whogoverns2016 election (March, to be precise), long before either of the parties had chosen their candidates. At the heart of the stories is FBI Analyst-turned-Agent, Imogen Trager, whose patient, analytical approach is regarded as alien and “soft” by many of her colleagues—even while it is precisely her methods that are getting results.

Initially, she learns of the plot through her former academic advisor Duncan Calder and his current star graduate student, Matthew Yamashita. They have information no one else is looking at,and they’re in way over their heads; and they have less than a month to stop the plot before it’s too late. Later, pushed to the edges of the investigation, she picks the lock on the back door no one thought to look for, plunging her again deeper into danger.

The backdrop for the thrillers is a contested presidential election. The situations looming over the action ring true to our shared experience—a dangerously divisive campaign, accusations of voter fraud and dirty tricks…and then (in my story) the murders begin. The second thriller, Dark Network, has as its backdrop a fractured Justice Department. The FBI is leaking, the Attorney General is being undermined, politicians are spinning, social media is in an uproar…and a murderous dark network is gunning for anyone standing in its way.

In the third book Who Governs, begun in late ’17 and now with my editor, a beleaguered Attorney General is barely holding onto her job, and a president is busily staffing his sub rosa “kitchen cabinet” with loyalists. To be fair, I haven’t seen everything in advance: there are no Russians in my books, and “bot” is a word I have only recently learned. I definitely missed that part.

DarkNet-FE.togetherSo, did I just get lucky that many aspects of the novels jibe with our collective sense of democracy off the rails? Do I have a crystal ball?

This journey really began with the 2000 election. I had a rough draft of Faithless by then. I had the principal characters in place, but the setting and background came into sharp focus during the run-up to and fallout from the Bush-Gore election: a very close race, backroom dealing, voter fraud. It became clear to me that we were entering a new era, and that realization animated the story.

Initially, I harbored a naïve hope that Bush’s narrow, disputed win would produce a humble bipartisan administration, eager to reach across the aisle and govern with broad consensus. (I know.) What we got instead was a tight group who sought to fortify their hold on power through administrative, extra-democratic, and mendacious means—“yellow cake,” anyone?

So, no, I don’t have a crystal ball. I have the newspaper. Eighteen years ago, I gleaned what it might take to steal the presidency, and the more I read and paid attention, the more clearly I saw what a group who seized power would need to do to cement their status. And I wrote it, because it’s a good story.  Moreover, it is in fact plausible.

Obviously, the stories are fiction. They aren’t about one administration/party or another, but rather the latent weaknesses in our laws and processes, and the theme is (certainly, it should be) worrying to liberals and conservatives alike.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Parties and the Presidency

The convictions and confessions of an ever-shrinking circle of advisors and fixers around Donald Trump has led many people to look at the legitimacy of this presidency again, with some holding out dismal hope for a do-over or to remove him from office.

cohen-nyt

Att’y Michael Cohen (NYTimes)

The Constitution provides for some guidelines, but once the Electoral College has had its say, the matter is largely over. It has always been the case that the president is cloaked in power and immunity, his only check being a watchful, attentive Congress.  If they choose to be neither there is a little that can be done.

It’s no exaggeration to say the Framers didn’t contemplate party loyalty and partisanship as obstacles to good governance. Indeed, it took only one contested election (1800) to force the 12th Amendment in response to changing conditions and to clean up the errors. It is the only such amendment to address the presidency directly.  In a non-partisan, non-party dominated milieu it made sense (as it 12thAmendwas originally construed in the Constitution) that the candidate with the majority of Electoral College votes should be president and the candidate with the second best showing be vice-president. But, as the nation realized in the 1800 election, that meant that president and vice-president were from different parties.

We find ourselves now in a situation that Five Thirty-Eight describes as radically different from that which the Framers knew:

“The structures established by the Constitution assumed a world in which the presidency and the Electoral College were not fully absorbed into a contentious national party system. That vision has long since been replaced by one in which presidential elections are national contests over policy agendas and ideas.”

And a president with a majority in both houses might be altogether immune from scrutiny or constraint.

The first Imogen Trager novel, Faithless Elector was published in the Spring of 2016, before Donald Trump was even his party’s nominee. The story was conceived after the debacle of the 2000 Bush-Gore election, but it imagined just this world. It’s a taut thriller about people in way over their heads trying to stop the theft of the presidency. Its setting—clear to anyone who cared to look as far back as the 2000 election—is hyper-partisanship and the weaknesses of our rules governing the highest office….weaknesses, it should be noted, that remain latent and could still be exploited…if they haven’t been already.

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, will be out next year.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:
JamesMcCrone.com

 

Disappearing Content: The Memory Hole 2.0

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 11.41.12 AMOn his blog, Wings Over Scotland, The Rev. Stuart Campbell writes about a Kafkaesque removal of Youtube content by the BBC on its site, ostensibly for “copyright infringement” despite the fact that [from Wings’s post]: “Our videos are all in full compliance with fair-use laws. You are absolutely allowed to record and reproduce clips for news-reporting and discussion purposes. The BBC, of course, knows that perfectly well.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 10.29.18 AMCampbell goes on to note in detail that Scottish Conservative party and anti-Scottish Independence news organizations seem not to have run afoul of the BBC’s gatekeepers.

He details the Byzantine process of closed loops and dead ends he encountered when he tried to appeal. The combination of automated responses and references to appeals processes that lead back to step one is brilliantly—chillingly—effective.

It’s a recipe for Memory Hole 2.0, with a dash of Kafka for spice, leavened with liberal slogs of post-modernist self-reference. Worse, the automated and seemingly reasonable claim of infringement makes BBC’s actions seem like not what they are—silencing the record of dissent.

Orwell-memory holeWhile this is particularly disturbing for pro-Independence voices, it also points up a larger contemporary epistemological problem: how do we know what we know, if the evidence and facts that underpin our opinions and action are so easily disappeared?  How do we hold officials and others accountable when the record of their very words is so slippery?

A friend in the Academy told me recently about a periodical he relies on for his writing and research. To save money and space the university where he works now subscribes only to the online version of the journal and its searchable back numbers. But if the university fails to pay its subscription fee (which happened) or encounters some other difficulty, access to the whole journal, including its back numbers—its history—is lost. In days past, when libraries were late with a payment, the latest issue or volume might be delayed in arriving, but the earlier, already-paid-for editions remained in the stacks.  And if the journal were to go out of business, the volumes (the record) would also remain intact.  Not so now.  What, and how many, such things do we rely on that could vanish?

The so-called “cloud” is rife for this kind of Memory Hole mischief, whether calculated or merely irresponsible. How do you restore what’s lost? To whom do you appeal? In an online space where we the people are constantly expected to certify that we’re “not a robot,” it’s algorithmic ‘bots who are the guardians, and while marvels of technical prowess, they are also unaccountable, aloof engines of plausible deniability.

I’m aware of the irony of writing this on a platform that is itself ethereal, disposable.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

The final book in the series, Who Governs,  is due out next year.

For a list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:
http://jamesmccrone.com/about.html

There are also a couple of Youtube clips of readings on the about author page.
(Check ’em out, while they last! 🙂

Noir, spy thrillers, and political history

“If I had to give [my work] a general theme, it would be something along the lines of ‘How the hell did it all come to this?’” -J-P Manchette

Crimereads features a fascinating discussion and exploration of the themes animating the final work of the writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, and why he abandoned the crime novel. Obviously, reports of the crime novel’s death are greatly exaggerated. Their number, variety and loyal followers attest to it.  But I was intrigued by the lure he felt for the fusion of noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 17.10.55Manchette cites many of my favorites, like John Le Carre and Ross Thomas as having been very influential in his embrace of a new aesthetic. As Ethan Anderson put it in his ‘Do The M@th‘ blog about Ross Thomas’s work: “Thomas’s outsized passion for the mid-century American system gave his books a unique ambience, at once humorously bitter and happily jaded.” For his part, LeCarre gave us the anti-James Bond, George Smiley, a quiet, pudgy, near-sighted cuckold.

smiley

Alec Guinees as George Smiley

When I come to write the stories that grab me, I’m drawn to this noir-spy hybrid.  It’s a rich vein of crime and realpolitic, combining detective work and contemporary politics—a “who dunnit” (and why), plus “who gets power and why.” Leavening this compelling mixture is the fact that the things government (and quasi-government) operatives do to achieve their ends are often downright criminal, adding a noir level of complexity and moral uncertainty.

Call this suspense-thriller genre “Noirpolitic.

Putting characters into a story where not only crime but competing values are involved makes for rich, vivid storytelling. The tales of Le Carre and Thomas, though exemplars of the suspense-thriller genre, are generally less concerned with the literally ticking time bomb, and more about what’s going wrong and how to right it.

quietTo Manchette’s list of influential writers in this hybrid genre, I would add Graham Greene. His “entertainments,” like The Quiet American, The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul are extraordinary. Political events are not just backdrops for Greene’s and the others’ stories, they are integral, giving deeper meaning to the characters’ struggles and to the stakes if they fail. They inform the stories and give them an edge, whether it be Viet Nam as the Americans replace the French (Quiet American), or the gullible Agency in Our Man in Havana. As I struggle to write engaging thrillers, I keep these and other works in my mind, not to copy, but as strong examples of all that’s possible.

To write now, in the context of the decline of democracy, the rise of nationalism, backlash against globalism, fraying political alliances and norms, is to stare at a reality that’s all too noir.

Situational morality, suspect propaganda and win-at-any-cost gambits used to be the province of clandestine agencies. Now it’s mainstream politics. If, with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, “politics is war by other means,” then we are simultaneously the prize to be won and the foe.

“How the hell did it all come to this?” is a question we should all be asking.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series is due out at the end of this year.JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

 

 

Justice Delayed, Lagging Indicators

The Imogen Trager novels are a fearless examination of our current moment, but the books were years in the making.

A lagging indicator is an economic term for “a measurable economic factor [e.g. interest rates, inflation, unemployment rates] that changes only after the economy has begun to follow a particular pattern or trend.” (Investopedia.com) But there are lagging indicators in the political realm, too, where by the time something registers as an issue or problem it’s already happening, fully formed.

If the daily newspaper is the “rough draft of history,” as Philip Graham of the Washington Post claimed, then fiction, a game of “what-if?” can serve as history’s cadastral surveyor, articulating context, delineating boundaries and contending with problems.Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 11.47.44 AM

The Imogen Trager novels are a fearless examination of our current moment, but the books were years in the making. The outlines were there to see; and while the outcome wasn’t inevitable, the trajectory was real, and frightening. Faithless Elector, told through the story of an idealistic young researcher who’s in way over his head, spotlighted the inherent weaknesses in the Electoral College—weaknesses which remain latent and could still be exploited. Dark Network focuses on the gritty work of arresting a power grab and the forces arrayed to abet that seizure, told through the story of its feisty, committed heroine, FBI Analyst, Imogen Trager.

Imogen.site1In the real world, we’re shocked to be now confronted with authoritarian propaganda at the highest levels, dismayed by craven apologia for that propaganda; by an increasingly irrelevant, neutered main stream media, and an administration that has its hands on all the levers of power. But this state of affairs has been apparent to anyone with imagination. It’s disturbing just how much these first two Imogen Trager novels get right regarding the context and background in which the conspirators operate—a pliant media, cowed by power, machinations at the highest levels of the Justice Department; fake news, false claims of voter fraud, collusion and corruption.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 11.47.11 AM

Pres. Trump, Att’y Gen., Sessions (A. Jackson)

Long before Donald Trump assumed the presidency, Dark Network grappled with the frightful possibility of a president with no check to his power aided by a politicized Justice Department. Both novels were written before the current administration. Trump and Sessions and McConnell are absent from their pages. But their outlines are unmistakable.

 

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series, is due out at the end of this year.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center