The Hazards of Research

We were raised to be respectful, law-abiding citizens. I won’t say that we’ve never criticized our government, vociferously, to all who would listen, nor that we haven’t broken a few laws along the way, such as the speed limit and running a dark orange light. (Okay, maybe the light was pink, but it wasn’t red, really.) But, we’ve never been concerned about being on the government’s radar as a ‘persons of interest’ ­­– until recently. 

One of us was on an authors panel last month http://www.washacadsci.org/activities-and-events/science-is-murder/science-is-murder-3-2012/ explaining to the audience that Maddi seeks to ensure that the technology and science the Miss-Information Technology Mystery books and (soon to be published) short story are “plausible.” We are not trying to write a “how-to” manual on hacking or murder (however angry we are at former boyfriends, the worst we have contemplated is using their name in a book, adding fifteen pounds and a bad comb over – oh wait, we did that. However, we’d like to be accurate in the portrayal of the workings of science and the potential of technology. It’s that striving for authenticity which is, frankly, now making us nervous. Our research is becoming hazardous.

Put your mind at rest; we’ve not actually killed anyone using the methods in our first two books. Let me rephrase that: we’ve not killed anyone, period. True-to-life research has been within the bounds of proper behavior: shooting guns (no assault rifles, except M16s that the Navy made us shoot and a couple of trigger pulls on an M60), trying out tropical drinks, surfing, getting tattoos … oops, scratch that last one. Researching hacking, murdering and other illegal activities has been conducted through consultations with experts (not the perps, but those who capture them) and searching the Web. 

Our third book – nowhere near completion – includes a scene involving the cultivation of cannabis or, as it is known in Hawai’i, pakalolo. As neither of us grows such a crop in our gardens (nor do we know anyone who does), one of us spent a great deal of time online researching strains that grow well in Hawai’i, visual and olfactory characteristics of those strains, how and where to cultivate, and the best ways to hide the illicit garden from the government. We’d be surprised if our Internet travels were unknown to the authorities. And we wouldn’t be surprised to be met at Honolulu airport on our next trip by members of Operation Green Harvest, Hawai’i’s cannabis eradication program. They won’t be bringing us leis. Though a fresh lei of pakalolo leaves would celebrate local culture. 

By virtue of her day job, one of us has a legit reason to be searching online for information about hacking. Supplemented by a little Internet work and talking with colleagues in the security business garnered what we needed for the first two books. However, bereft of contacts in the spy business, we searched online for information about bugs, er, listening devices (used in Denial of Service.  Our story is that we were looking for baby monitors that we could hide from inquisitive infants. Really!) 

We’ve been searching for novel ways to use “killer technology,” so to speak. Why use a firearm if you can just hack into a self-driving car (like the one driven by that annoying neighbor who won’t turn his headbanger music down after nine at night) and with a few remote commands, “oopsie” – now how did that car go over the guardrail on a really steep curve? And how about implantable medical devices, like insulin pumps, pacemakers and the like? For our short story, we’ve been researching how to hack these medical devices to cause, er, um, severe discomfort.  One of us even emailed a technologist, who published a paper in the field, asking if he’d answer a few questions. Does no response mean he’s ignoring the request, or that he’s already reported us to the authorities? (Honestly, any real malefactor would research murder methods in a library she doesn’t usually frequent.) 

And if these little research projects aren’t enough to cause concern, then maybe our recent probing into how to make an explosive device is. Using search terms such as “fertilizer as explosive” should put us on someone’s radar, shouldn’t it? More frightening than the specter of being considered a threat is what one finds in such a search: videos that show, step by step, how to make a bomb. (No, we DID NOT watch them).

One can also watch videos of explosions using varying levels of explosives. Yes, we watched those; we wanted to know the size of the explosive needed to cause appropriate destruction so we could determine how to disguise it in the story. However, after this research experience, we’ve decided to draw a line in the sand: no nuclear explosions in our stories. A few characters may “go ballistic” but only descriptively speaking. 

Naively, we at first thought our military service (no silver stars, but no court marshals, either) would prove that we were loyal Americans and no threats to the government. But have you noticed lately how the U.S. Government has come out and said that ex-military are a potential terrorist threat? Was that a signal that they’ve noticed our research? And do they know that one of us lives in Idaho (you can buy makeup and ammunition at the same store – how convenient) and the other drives a car with a Virginia “Don’t Tread On Me” license plate? 

I’m not saying we will, mind you, but just in case, if it comes to that, are any of you willing to illustrate Maddi Davidson’s line of children’s bedtime stories? C3PO meets C4? Or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom BOOM!?