High-Tech & the Modern Thriller

Modern readers expect pace-racing action, an intriguing plot, and realistic characters. But they also demand a believable story, and that presents a unique challenge to thriller writers in today’s world of high-tech gadgets, the internet, and massive computing power.

I love working with high-tech. I graduated in electronics in the eighties, and the exciting gadgets and ideas that engineers generate never fail to amaze me. I try to use that experience to enhance my writing, and in this two-part blog, we’ll look at some of the constraints and difficulties our high-tech world imposes on story lines, the new challenges authors must grapple with to maintain realism, but also the fresh opportunities that new technology offers for plot ideas.

High Tech in the Crucible

For Agatha Christie, it was simple. Suspense could easily be generated by imprisoning her book’s characters in an environment in which mortal danger lurks, but from which they cannot escape. This is sometimes known as “The Crucible” technique.

Trapping them there is a simple way to create tension—take six friends and place them in a manor house surrounded by ten feet thick snowdrifts; they cannot leave. Now murder one of their party, and the opportunity for tension is obvious. The murderer is one of the five still alive; he or she is still in their midst because there is no way to leave. And if they find someone has snipped the phone line, they cannot call for support. They are stuck with a murderer without help. What was his motive? Will he strike again?

While that was fine for the 1950s, it is hard to make such scenarios work these days. Any of the guests could call the emergency services from their mobile, or send a Tweet to the lmobilephone-smlocal police station. The modern writer creating stories based in the 21st century must therefore work a little harder than their predecessors to make crucibles work.

And technology makes plot lines more difficult in other situations, not just the crucible. Barely twenty-five years ago, no-one but the richest high-fliers had a mobile phone; today, seventy-five percent of the world’s population can make a phone call almost anywhere across the globe. These days, a 4G phone call can be made on Mount Everest to an altitude of 5,200m[i]. This means modern authors cannot be lazy. They must work at their plots to ensure they remain realistic in the modern world.

When writing Eavesdrop, which has pivotal scenes in Finland, I had to site some of them in the country’s remoter northern areas away from its capital Helsinki so that the hero couldn’t simply use his phone to tell the authorities what he’d discovered. These days, isolation can be difficult to achieve.


As spy writer Charles Cummings pointed out in an article for The Times[ii], technologies such as number-plate recognition cameras and computer systems that track phone calls and credit card swipes mean a terrorist is no longer able to drive across Europe unseen.  Now, one’s character must have access to credit cards in false names (and must therefore have a means to obtain those, despite all of today’s identity checks), and have contacts who can arrange false car registration plates, as well as access to large amounts of cash without arising suspicion.creditcard

None of these are impossible; they simply make the author’s work harder to maintain realism.


Demands on the Modern Writer

As well as recent advances in technology imposing constraints on modern plot lines, they also place a demand on authors to keep abreast of what’s possible.

F16 jetFor instance, hacking and virus generation are now sciences in their own right, and the author needs to be aware of what can be done. Think, for instance, of Israel’s scheme to destroy Iranian nuclear plants in 2008. They could have sent F15 and F16 fighters across Saudi Arabia from their Negev base to drop 2000lb bombs on the reactors as they did in 1981. However, twenty-seven years later they took a more subtle approach.

In conjunction with American intelligence experts, Israel’s software engineers developed a computer worm (a type of virus) they christened Staxret. Once released, the virus spread throughout the world’s computer networks to hunt the specific Siemens computers known to be running the Iranian’s uranium enrichment plants. Once it had infected those in the centre of the Iranian facilities at Natanz, the virus exploited a known security vulnerability of the computer to take control of the plant’s centrifuges. While reporting back to the centre’s control desk that all was well in the system, it secretly sped up the centrifuges to such unprecedented speeds that they started to break. One thousand centrifuges were rendered inoperable before anyone realised something was amiss.

No-one has yet made public how the worm succeeded in reaching the Iranian computers—something it managed to do despite those computers deliberately being isolated from the internet. It is surmised that they entered by first infecting laptops used by technicians that worked there, which were later connected to the main computers during maintenance procedures.

Novelists must obviously know and understand the methods deployed to deliver computer viruses to their target.

DVDThere are frequent cases of industrial espionage, where hackers have succeeded in getting their spying software installed on their victims’ computers. Some years ago, a London couple ran a profitable but illegal business selling trade secrets. Their main tool was a piece of highly sophisticated software (called a Trojan), which they embedded in DVDs containing business proposals, which they mailed to CEOs of a variety of companies. Because their software was so targeted at those individuals, the anti-virus programs failed to detect it, and the CEOs happily inserted the disks into their machines. The Trojan set to work and scanned the companies’ entire computer systems. Anything interesting was copied and sent back to the hackers, who promptly sold them to that company’s competitors.

The modern thriller author must understand these techniques, at least in basic terms, if they are to maintain realism. How? Search internet technology news sites for such stories, and a wealth of real-life examples come to hand from which to copy.

Of-course, Edward Snowden’s leaks have placed details of many high-tech espionage techniques into the public domain, and these can again provide the author with an appreciation of what is currently possible. For example, he leaked information about USBhow the NSA developed an innocent-looking USB lead with a tiny transmitter built into the connector. A spy just needed to break into an office and swap the cable with one already in use (for example to a printer), and they’ve got access to that computer’s data the moment its owner entered their password the next day.

And what about eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations? Although phone tapping isn’t as easy as in the days of copper cable, everyone knows from media reports of phone hacking that it’s possible to intercept cellular phone calls. A common technique is what is known as “man-in-the-middle”, where the spy has equipment that mimics a base station (just google ‘Stingray spy tool’ to discover more). As the victim’s phone comes near, it locks to the spy’s fake base-station’s radio signal rather than the genuine one because it’s stronger. All of the phone’s traffic then passes through the spy’s hands, which he forwards on to the real base-station so that his presence isn’t spotted, while taking a copy for himself. It can even instruct the victim’s phone to reduce the encryption level to make the data easier to decipher.

Accounts of such events are easily available via news articles, and authors should regularly scour such sources.

Next month

In the second blog of this two-part series, we’ll look at what opportunities modern technology brings to fiction storylines.


[i] The Telegraph, 5th July 2013

[ii] Has Modern Technology Killed the Spy Thriller? The Times. July 2014

Photographs (freeimages.com) by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.

About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

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High Tech That Thinks For Itself

As I was growing up, robots were limited to the car production line.  Adverts abounded that showed robotic arms welding chassis with amazing speed and precision.  Slowly, though, robots have moved out of the factory and, on their caterpillar tracks, have trundled into a world where they make our lives safer by working in dangerous situations on our behalf.

Now, I am a technophile.  I love new technology, and have worked with it for my whole career.  Some may have ethical worries about what we may “allow” robots to do, but in this month’s blog I want to focus on the positives of how they allow us to do tasks we otherwise couldn’t, and what else they can do for us with the aid of artificial intelligence.

The power of robots comes from their ability to operate in hostile environments, where they can act as their handler’s remote arm. Robots can examine suspicious objects and give their operators the ability to disarm bombs without being so close that an explosion would kill them.  They can enter nuclear reactors and check for cracks or leaking radiation. Robots can work beneath the waves at depths where the pressure would crush our feeble bodies, and stay there longer than our puny lungs would permit.  They freely enter tunnels without being distracted by the risk that the roof might collapse or that gas levels could become dangerous.

Let’s explore what these beautiful bits of technology can do for us.

I was fascinated recently by an MIT press release that told of how a robot it had designed to search the walls of nuclear reactors for cracks, had been converted to an anti-smuggling robot. These football-sized machines can now swim underwater and secretly scan a ship’s hull to find the secret compartments used by smugglers.  It’s envisaged that a shoal of twenty such robots would work together to scan a complete ship’s hull without those on board ever realising.

And while we’re thinking about the fight against smugglers, other robots are being used to continuously search the maze of tunnels near the U.S border that are so frequently used to smuggle drugs into America.

TheBlaze.com reported at the start of this year that over 170 tunnels have been found beneath the U.S. – Mexico border, linking into Arizona’s storm drainage system, through which the smugglers can enter the U.S. These tunnels are frequently no larger than a man can crawl through, so securing them can be dangerous and time-consuming, thus making it a perfect application for a robot. These machines are really little more than remote-controlled cars with a camera, which feed back what they see to a Border Patrol agent at the surface.  You can watch a great video of one of these at work on theblaze.com [link].

robot bomb disposal

This is very similar technology, of- course, to that used in bomb-disposal robots such as the British Army’s Dragon Runner that was deployed in Afghanistan.  This version is far more rugged than those sent after drugs smugglers, and has arms that allow its operator to manipulate what it finds – for example to open a bag or to carry suspicious objects to a safer location for destruction. Essentially, though, they are still just remote controlled vehicles, and a long way short of the science-fiction robot that can think for itself.

Scientists are, however, working hard to give robots intelligence.  Researchers in artificial intelligence (A.I.) have been striving for over fifteen years to give robots the ability to work things out for themselves, and to allow the tether between robot and its human operator to be severed. Rather than such robots running on software that’s been written to control what the machine does when it encounters a pre-defined set of conditions, robots endowed with artificial intelligence work in a different way.

They are given many sensors, and their software allows the robot to use them to learn the effect of its actions. For example, consider a model car with ultrasonic sensors: if programmed with A.I. to have the objective of reaching the far wall of a room with barriers placed in the way; the first few times it tries to cross the space, it hits the barriers and can’t progress.  However, it soon learns that its sensor gives a high output just before it fails its mission, and realises there is a correlation.  From then on, whenever its sensor output goes high, the robot stops and tries a different route.  Before long, it is able to manoeuvre around the obstacles to reach the far wall.  Like a baby experimenting with arms and legs and fingers, it learns by itself the best way to succeed.

The advantage of a robot that can think for itself is the speed with which it can process information.  Take, for example, the automated missile defence systems that have been so successful at protecting countries from incoming rockets. A human operator has sufficient time to recognize an in-coming missile and start to say something, but can manage nothing more in that time.  A robot with A.I., however, thinks sufficiently quickly that it can identify the threat, aim its own weapons, and shoot it down before it strikes.

The downside, though, is that it is, after all, just a computer controlled robot. Some years ago, a system that was being demonstrated at a defence show incorrectly locked-on to a group of bystanders and had killed them before a human operator could de-activate the robot.


Such events, and memories of such films as Robocop and The Terminator, make the public wary of letting robots lose when they have integrated weapons. There is still a very strong pull, however, for weaponized robots to be developed that can be used in frontline fighting.

One major obstacle is of course batteries. We all know how quickly a power-pack runs flat, especially when powering powerful motors.  In order to prolong the amount of time robots can spend on a mission, scientists have been developing what are being called scavenger robots.  One research machine knows whimsically as EATR (Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot) has been developed to re-charge itself by consuming organic matter. While out on a mission, just like a wild animal it consumes vegetation to keep itself powered, giving it the ability to roam freely without the need to return for a re-charge.

Worries exist here for its battlefield use, though. Proponents say it is programmed to identify and eat only vegetation.  Those who oppose such a system, on the other hand, are worried that it may still start of feed on fallen soldiers.  Shudder.

Technology marches on ever faster, with robots gaining more intelligence, speed, and the ability to operate with increasing freedom from their human handlers. They can outthink us; the worry is, will the ever outsmart us?


Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.

Ian Coates is the author of the thriller, Eavesdrop, to be published  shortly by Bad Day Books, an imprint of Assent Publishing.

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?



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