Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The good old days of spies - Required reading

Charles Cumming wrote this article in the Guardian -
In John le Carré's 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, an intelligence officer named Alec Leamas is thrown out of MI6, takes a job at a library, loses himself in drink and is sent to prison for assaulting a shopkeeper. When he emerges from jail, he is approached by a member of the East German intelligence service, the Abteilung, and travels to Holland, where he agrees  to work as a double agent.

Le Carré's precision-engineered story is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, but it would have been almost impossible to construct had the author been writing in the age of the internet, or if the cold warriors of the 1960s had been armed with tablets, laptops and smartphones. Why? Because Leamas's apparent fall from grace is an elaborate MI6 ruse. His behaviour is designed to attract the attention of the Abteilung and to make him look ripe for recruitment. An East German computer and telecommunications whizz would have analysed Leamas's digital trail and inevitably found a flaw in his backstory.

It is no exaggeration to say that technology has transformed the spy novel as comprehensively as the discovery of fingerprinting changed the detective story. Once upon a time, spies like Alec Leamas could move across borders with ease. Passports were not biometric, photographs were not sealed under laminate, and there were no retinal scanners at airports (which, incidentally, can't be fooled by fitting a glass eye or wearing contact lenses manufactured by 'Q' branch). With computers in their infancy, cover stories would stand up to considerable scrutiny. Typically, an MI6 "backstop" would sit beside a telephone in London, waiting to answer calls from suspicious officials overseas, or reply to letters requesting information about an officer's false identity.

Nowadays, travelling "under alias" has become all but impossible. If, for example, an MI6 officer goes to Moscow and tries to pass himself off as an advertising executive, he'd better make sure that his online banking and telephone records look authentic; that his Facebook page and Twitter feeds are up to date; and that colleagues from earlier periods in his phantom career can remember him when they are contacted out of the blue by an FSB analyst who has tracked them down via LinkedIn. The moment the officer falls under suspicion, his online history will be minutely scrutinised. If the contacts book on his Gmail account looks wrong, or his text messages are out of character, his entire false identity will start to fall apart.

The Day of the Jackal
Collared in 10 minutes these days … The Day of the Jackal.
Villains in spy novels are just as vulnerable to these advances in technology. Had Frederick Forsyth's Jackal been plotting to kill François Hollande in 2014, rather than Charles de Gaulle in 1963, he would have been collared by Deputy Commissioner Lebel within about 10 minutes. Numberplate recognition technology would have flagged his Alfa Romeo in the south of France, his movements in Paris would have been captured on CCTV, and his several false identities unravelled by GCHQ. And that's assuming he wasn't so rash as to use a mobile phone.

As the Guardian's Luke Harding discovered in his encounters with Edward Snowden, a smartphone can very quickly be turned into a microphone by any half-decent intelligence operative (the solution, apparently, is to stick it in a cocktail shaker). An iPhone will also reveal an astonishing amount of information about its owner, from the calls they have made, to the photographs they have taken, to the places they have visited. (Try it: press "Settings", "Privacy", "Location services", "System services" then "Frequent locations" on your iPhone – and prepare to get a fright.)

As many a paranoid parent or suspicious spouse will know, it is also possible to install an app inside a smartphone that will secretly transmit a constant stream of data about the user's whereabouts. Worried about your teenage daughter? Think your husband is cheating on you? The app will tell you everything about them, from the Whatsapp messages they are sending, to the internet sites they are visiting.

All of this has affected storytelling. If a character can be reached or tracked by phone, it follows that he or she can be warned of impending danger, or rescued from peril. In my novel A Foreign Country, it was necessary to set a crucial sequence deep in the English countryside so that the principal characters were thwarted by feeble mobile reception. Likewise, unless a character knows to remove the battery from their phone (something, incidentally, that can't easily be done with an iPhone) he or she can be followed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even when switched off, a phone emits a signal that can be picked up by GCHQ and others. The phone's position can be then be pinpointed to within a few feet by "triangulating" the signal to the nearest satellite or mobile phone mast.

It's not all bad news for the spy novelist. Many of the technological developments of the past three decades have given us opportunities to tell stories in new and interesting ways. In my novel The Trinity Six, an academic on the trail of a sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring discovers a vital clue by analysing the data on an Oyster card. Try it if you have one: simply press the card onto a ticket machine at your local station, press "Oyster history", and you will see a list of your 10 most recent journeys by bus or train.

Nevertheless, it may be telling that some of the most successful thrillers of the past decade – Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, Sebastian Faulks's Bond homage Devil May Care, and William Boyd's Restless – were all period pieces without a mobile phone in sight. By the same token, cinema audiences flocked to Tomas Alfredson's 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a 1970s espionage classic in which the mole is cornered not by a laptop or an iPhone, but by something as simple as a missing piece of paper torn from an MI6 file.

The best spy novels are novels of behaviour, of human ambition and frailty. It may be that technology strips the spy of mystique. Where once George Smiley relied on the memory of Connie Sachs, nowadays he could find out all he needs to know by logging into the computer archives at Vauxhall Cross. In the age of Google and CCTV, would the mole in Tinker Tailor have remained in place for as long as he did? Not likely.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Excellent study, Cara. I first noticed the change in TV/movie story-telling about 15 years ago (give or take a decade...), when suddenly characters didn't have to "get back to the office" to exchange information or notify each other of events, they were reachable anywhere, anytime (even, snort, in the depths of the wilderness), and that dramatically changed the structure of the story-telling. Remember the cute sight-gag in the original Christopher Reeves Superman when Kent Clark dashes down the sidewalk looking for a place to change into Superman, spots a "phone booth" hanging on a light-pole, shakes his head, and heads into the nearest alley?

    But science fiction authors have been dealing with this kind of thing forever, only from the other direction and at 90-degree angles (take your pick... :-). And it's only accelerating. The changes wrought by cell phones and on-line data trails are small compared with what's to come. For example, think about DNA. It was first discovered in 1869 by Miescher, it's structure decoded in 1953 by Watson and Crick, the first draft of the human genome (90% complete) was released in 2001 at a cost of $100 million. By 2007 the cost had dropped to $10 million, by 2011 it was less than $10,000, and is expected to hit $1,000 in not too many years. We leave a trail of our DNA behind us, everywhere we go. How many decades will it be before DNA 'sniffers' exist that can quickly and cheaply not only find and instantly analyze DNA at a crime scene, but which can be used to trail the miscreant (at least for a while). Probably sooner than we think. And imagine how THAT will change your average murder mystery!

  2. And then, just this morning, I happened upon an article detailing how scientists can now use a high-speed camera to record sound from 15 feet away through sound-proof glass... by analyzing the motion of potato chip bags, tin foil, and other materials, converting their minute movements into sound sufficient to understand a conversation and identify the speakers:


  3. Wow Everett! This has fascinated me since our Leighton Gage introduced me to his son-in-law years ago in Paris who was in the 'shadow world' (he's not now so I can say this). His son-in-law never used his computer or cell phone to make contacts - it was all dead letter boxes, chalk marks, messages passed and destroyed. Old school. But this was going on in the 2000's.

    1. My CIA contacts tell me the same thing - much of today's operations haven't changed in their methods.

  4. A friend of mine in the 70s, who had worked at Hughes Aircraft, told me how they discovered that by pointing a laser at a glass window a distance away, they could hear what was being said inside. An unexpected consequence of something else they were doing.

  5. I'm so happy I place my novels in Greece, where ancient ways still prevail in all things.

    1. In ALL things? I know you live in the den of iniquity, but SURELY in the much of the rest of Greece there is phone sex, on-line pornography, and even the occasional cell phone, no?

    2. Your bet your bippy there is. Otherwise, why would I be here?

  6. Absolutely fascinating, Cara. I am currently in the thrall of the great Joseph Kanon's post WWII Istanbul Passage, where spies change identities by having false passports. Those DNA a sniffers that EvKa describes would know that, regardless of the name and picture on the passport, Mr. X is Mr. X.
    Your last paragraph is most telling to a writer a "period pieces" like me. It is the humanity of the characters that makes any story riveting whenever it takes place--past, present, or future. But verisimilitude is going to be a challenge, if people losing themselves is part of the plot.