FACT WITHIN THE FICTION
How Research Changed the Way I View the World: Stingrays, Dirtboxes, and Your Cell Phone
There’s always a need to suspend at least some disbelief when reading fiction. How much depends on the book, of course. Stories that are highly plausible and somewhat realistic can leave a reader wondering how much is real—I’m sure there’s plenty of fiction so uncomfortable that readers want to believe there’s no way any of it could be real.
Fiction allows us to discount what makes us uncomfortable and pretend it didn’t, or couldn’t, happen—at least not to us—because it’s presented between the covers of make-believe. Fiction is cozy like that.
As a character Vanessa Michael Munroe, much like Jason Bourne, pushes at the edges of credible reality. To counter this, the stories she lives and the worlds she inhabits are drawn heavily from real life. Mostly they delve into foreign cultures and foreign mindsets and I’ve found that, as a general rule, things that are “out there” tend to feel more interesting, even upsetting, than they do uncomfortable—because it’s “out there” and not here.
But THE VESSEL, a novella that sits between the 3rd and 4th book, shines a light on topics a little closer to home and that has made for some uncomfortable conversations.
We like to believe that we live in a society of law and order; unfortunately, law doesn't always play by the rules of order.
|Stingray was the generic term for IMSI catchers, though the name belonged to a specific brand in the same way Kleenex and Windex did for tissue and glass cleaner. Stingray was what law enforcement in the United States used to bypass wiretap and search and seizure laws, allowing them to utilize cell phone signals as GPS tracking devices and, with additional software, to listen in on conversations without the messy need for probable cause or the constitutional protections of a warrant.|
|Stingray removed the checks and balances of power by spoofing cell towers and pinging all cell phones within a targeted area every few seconds, gathering the accompanying data whether the phones were on calls or not. The machines were small and portable, could be carried in a backpack through a crowded stadium or placed on the front seat of a car cruising a neighborhood.|
|This wasn't a technology used by the NSA, whose collection efforts were far more wide-sweeping and sophisticated, nor was it carefully reserved for high-value FBI and DEA stakeouts and stings. The devices were prevalent across middle America, used by city police and small-town sheriffs without any offset against abuse of authority, and, because the laws that governed technology in the two thousand and teens were written in the previous century, nothing prevented an officer from listening in on ex-lovers or business competition.|
|But privacy violations that were good for one could be good for all.– Vanessa Michael Munroe in THE VESSEL|
That section from THE VESSEL was written toward the end of 2013 when very few Americans were aware of the devices. Since then, news outlets have slowly been covering the issue of IMSI catchers and this has helped to bring them to public awareness. But, because IMSI use is invisible and silent, there still seems to be a prevailing belief that this practice is something happening “out there.”
Left out of THE VESSEL was the detail that no one actually knows how many law enforcement agencies use these devices because there are strict non-disclosure agreements attached to them. According to the International Business Times, “Police agencies have also been caught trying to mislead the public and outright lying to judges about the power Stingrays have…the ACLU obtained five emails exchanged between Florida police officers and members of the U.S. Marshals Service discussing the best way to cover up their use of Stingrays, with members of the Marshals Service advising local officers to tell a judge they learned about a suspect’s location from a “confidential source” instead of admitting a Stingray provided that information.”
Why does this matter? Well, along with a host of legal and constitutional violations, I think most of us—regardless of where we stand on issues of politics and criminal justice—would agree that, “Local and federal law enforcement should certainly not be colluding to hide basic and accurate information about their practices from the public and the courts.”
But when it comes to this type of mass, unwarranted surveillance, IMSI catchers are only the tip of the iceberg. Since THE VESSEL was published in 2014, the use of dirtboxes by the US Marshals Service has come to light.
Dirtboxes operate much like Stingray, but unlike Stingray which are used on the ground and are limited in range, dirtboxes are flown in airplanes over cities.These devices don’t just spoof a cell tower, they convince cell phones that the device is the nearest tower and thus are able to redirect cell traffic and pull in data from tens of thousands of phones during each flight: data from innocent people, suspected of no crime, sitting in their cars on their way to work, or in their offices, and homes, and as they go about grocery shopping—that would be you.
Knowing that this goes on, knowing that it’s not being stopped, and not knowing what checks and balances protect the use of this information, how would a person with any desire for privacy protect themselves from this kind of invisible invasion?
Well, one could go high-end tech and get a blackphone--though no phone is truly private, and no phone can protect you from yourself. Realistically, one could raise their voice and let government representatives know that constitutional rights to privacy and unwarranted search and seizure are supposed to mean something—if enough people understood the long-reaching implications and how this applies to them and isn't something “out there” for “those people” who break the law, if enough people got involved and put shoe leather to the voting booth, eventually the laws would change.
Or, if that’s all a bit much, if you’re like Vanessa Michael Munroe, independent, self-sufficient, and capable of dropping of the grid, you can do the only thing that actually guarantees privacy and anonymity: don’t carry a cell phone, and don’t connect anything to your real-life name.
Taylor Stevens is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist who—by odds and expectations—should never have become either successful or published. Like many aspiring authors Stevens had no credentials or platform, and no direct route into the publishing world. But, unlike most, she was also limited by a life of cultural isolation and a sixth-grade education.
Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, Stevens grew up as a child laborer, cooking and cleaning for up to a hundred at a time, caring for younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of commune leaders. Books, movies, music, and pop-culture from the outside world were strictly forbidden, and she finally gained unlimited access to fiction after returning to the United States in her early thirties. Her books have since been published in over twenty languages, with The Informationist optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.