Personal data’s been in the news a bit this week. From Monday to Wednesday, I work for a charity and our office is nestled in the impressive HQ of a much larger charity. On the ground floor there’s a big cafe showing rolling BBC news so you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone else while you’re microwaving your soup.
This week the story spelled out in hastily typed subtitles was Apple’s resistance to helping FBI officers access data on a gunman’s phone. The corporation argues:
“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.”
Now I’ve started to get rather paranoid about my own browsing history.
I wrote ‘Orangeboy‘ on our main family desk top. The computer’s currently being repaired having forgotten how to turn itself off and, once unplugged and replugged, sulked at being turned on again. This left my own options for fixing it rather limited.
The plot of ‘Orangeboy’ evolved gradually. In real speak, this means I had no idea what was going on until several drafts in. I knew that it was going to be a crime-inspired story – after all, it came to life at an Arvon crime-writing course. As the story parts were being hammered in place, the extent of my ignorance became startlingly clear.
Some of this was eased through the ‘Seven Degrees’ approach. As I found out, you’re never a couple of degrees away from a coroner, a lawyer, a senior police officer and someone who gets sick on fairground rides.
Other pieces of research are recycled from books that never happened. For instance, an east London cemetery has a bit of a star spot. I felt I owed it to my daughter after making her, aged nine, follow me round City of London Cemetery and Crematorium taking pictures. The book it was destined for was never published. But a few years later, a second chance beckoned.
But there was other stuff.
For a start, I have never set fire to a car. I know people who have but they refused the opportunity to tell me the details while I took copious notes. But this is core You Tube business.
Mangled hands? Click. Gosh. (But it does have relevance, honest.)
‘Orangeboy’ is a book that explores choices. Some of the choices potentially have unpleasant consequences. I needed to dig out info on getting round those consequences. And blimey, there are some innovative folk out there, albeit with ambiguous morals.
Though, no doubt the fixer guy hired by Currys PC World has his own view on my morals by now.
So, I’ve pumped friends, and friends of friends up to the seventh degree, for those reassuring details that make a good story plausible.
I’ve also fished in the seething depths of the internet and pulled out all sorts of brow-raising detritus.
But then, there’s the opportunistic ‘ask’.
You see those handcuffs in the picture?
Last September, I was trundling round London on my bike taking in some of the Open House opportunities. On my way to queue for a basement Roman bath, I passed the Custom House. No queue and handy railings for my bike.
The Custom House used to be the place which collected levies on goods entering London by boat. It is still used by HM Customs and Excise. So rather unexpectedly, I found out about sniffer dogs (how they’re acquired and trained), the range of forbidden animal-related items that are smuggled in (from endangered sturgeon’s caviar to a ruddy great big bear skin) and then, there were the weapons.
The guy displaying the weapons was a trainer. He helped customs officers involved in raids to stay safe. I couldn’t help lingering, or asking questions or taking lots of photos. Lots and lots of photos. he was very helpful. But he also looked really pleased when someone else showed interest because he moved really quickly away.