5. Murder Bit-By-Bit

What Is Cryptocurrency?

I’d like to talk about cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is a type of digital asset that is an intangible currency that uses a highly sophisticated type of encryption called cryptography to secure and verify transactions. So, what is cryptocurrency and how can mystery writers incorporate it in our books. We all use cash and credit cards. In addition, many of us have investments which, we hope, will increase in value. Cryptocurrency combines the cash, credit cards, and investments into one package. You use it to make purchases and its value can change over time.

How Do I Purchase Cryptocurrency?

Just as you buy stocks on a stock exchange, you buy cryptocurrency on a cryptocurrency exchange. You create an account and register a credit card. You then buy cryptocurrency using your credit card. On December 1, 2020 one Bitcoin, one type of cryptocurrency, sold for $19,783. Whoa, you say, that’s way beyond my budget. No problem, you can buy a partial bitcoin. So, if you want to stick your toe in the water for, say, $100, you can. When you purchase cryptocurrency, it is placed in your crypto wallet.

Now What?

Okay, you have your cryptocurrency. How do you use it? You find someone who accepts cryptocurrency as payment. If you purchased the $100 in cryptocurrency mentioned above and you want to buy an item that costs $50, you transfer $50 of your partial bitcoin to the seller’s crypto wallet. There is no government regulation or a paper or electronic trail of this purchase.

How Is Cryptocurrency An Investment

Just like other investments, cryptocurrency’s value fluctuates. That $100 you invested could be worth $125 or $75 tomorrow. Cryptocurrency is an extremely volatile investment. The chart below shows Bitcoins value from 2017 to 2020.

How Can Mystery Writers Use Cryptocurrency?

Let’s say you have a murderer who needs to purchase poison or a weapon. If he buys it in person, surveillance cameras and witnesses can identify him. If he purchases it on the web using his credit card, the purchase can be traced. He can buy it on the dark web, a network of encrypted Internet content that is not accessible via traditional search engines, most often used for illegal activities. Our criminals think their purchases will not be discovered. Not in our stories. Detectives like the Tech Squad and Sheriff Department’s officers in my Lionel Trevor/Tech Squad Mysteries can find the murderer and provide the evidence needed to convict him.

I hope this post provides information my fellow mystery writers can use. Please contact me if you are writing a story and need help when including technology in the plot.

4. Here’s Looking At You – Kid

This month I’d like to talk about surveillance, what it is, and how our criminals and detectives can use it.

Surveillance is ubiquitous. We see traffic cameras on our roads. Businesses such as banks and retail stores keep track of people both inside and outside their establishments.  We have these devices in our homes, attached to our doorbells, or nanny cams to see what people are doing inside. We carry smart phones wherever we go, and GPS devices guide us to our destinations.    

Now, let’s see how our bad guys can use surveillance systems. You could have a rogue cop, Department of Transportation employee, or owner of a company access their organization’s equipment. Maybe they’re being blackmailed, or they could owe a large debt to their local loan shark and this is their way of paying it off. And there’s always that old standby, hacking. Accessing someone’s phone or car GPS system, your criminal discovers that his victim travels the same route home every day or frequents a favorite restaurant. He lies in wait and commits his crime. Or maybe he wants to frame someone else, committing a murder along the route the person takes every day. He wipes his fingerprints from the gun and throws it away in a wooded area along that route. You could have the wrongly accused suspect dragged away in handcuffs by the cop who framed him.

Your bad guy can get access to the victim’s home surveillance system and use it against him. A cat burglar who’s employed by a travel agent or company that schedules tours, sees that a wealthy couple leaves their home with suitcases. He knows they will be gone for a while. He hacks into their surveillance system and creates a loop of the feed into the monitoring company. This causes the video from the home to repeat as it is transmitted. Since nothing is moving in the house, system tracking doesn’t recognize that the feed is being looped. The burglar breaks in, takes the valuable jewels, and returns the system to normal operation when he leaves. No one knows he was there.

How can your detective use these devices? In the case of the wrongly accused suspect, his lawyer discovers that the rogue cop, who does not usually access surveillance systems as part of his normal duties, logged on with his own ID and password. He finds how the cop tracked the victim and used a gun that was untraceable. He also discovers a motive, possibly something that happened in the past.

He could find a brief hitch in the monitoring video to the surveillance company when the burglar looped the feed and again when he reset it.  He then traces the source of the hack and solves the case.

As you can see, mystery writers have ample opportunity to use surveillance systems in their stories. I would love to hear from blog readers how you use these systems.

3. The Internet Can Kill You

This month I want to talk about the Internet of Things, IOT, and how you can use it in your writing. IOT can be defined as physical things that are connected to the Internet and which you or, as we will see later in this post, others can access and manipulate. For example, many of us have apps on our phones and tablets we use to access devices in our homes and offices.  I don’t know how many times I’ve driven away from my house and then wondered if I remembered to close the garage door. Now I have an app which allows me to view my garage door from my phone. If it’s open, I can close it. Using other apps on my phone I can also ensure that my home security system, locks, outdoor lights, and household or business robots are operating properly. You can control cameras inside or outside your home to ensure your family members’ safety.

I assume you’ve heard about smart cars. They’re available now for limited use and will be more widely available in the not too distant future. These vehicles depend on IOT to operate. The vehicles’ systems, such as the motor, steering, accelerator, and brakes communicate with each other and with things outside such as GPS satellites, traffic signals, road signs, traffic lights and people, to guide the car and keep its passengers and cargo safe. IOT can monitor road conditions and can alert you to an accident or construction ahead and recommend an alternate route.

Now, let’s talk about how the criminals and detectives in our books and short stories can use IOT. Let’s start with the criminals. Any Internet application can be hacked.  As writers, we can make creative use of IOT for our murders. Try this, you have a robot at home that contains a camera and can grasp objects. You also have a pistol in a bureau drawer. Your killer hacks into the robot and has the robot grab the gun. The camera allows the robot to aim and kill your victim. It then returns the gun to the drawer.

Or how about this? Your victim lives alone. Your killer hacks into the home’s IOT to unlock the door and lets himself in. He kills the victim when he is asleep, at around midnight. The hacker knows that a maid will arrive at 8:00 AM and discover the body. Have the murderer turn the thermostat down to fifty degrees on a cold winter night. Using IOT, he remotely resets the temperature to seventy-five degrees at 7:00 AM.  The maid arrives and calls the police. The medical examiner assumes the temperature in the house was seventy-five degrees all night and estimates the time of death earlier than midnight, based on the body temperature, when your killer has an alibi.

Here’s another way for mystery writers to use IOT. Your victim is traveling in a self-driving car. The killer hacks into the car’s steering mechanism, causing it to dive into an ice-cold river. Your killer cracks the window open a few inches and then locks the doors and windows. Water streams into the car. The driver can’t escape.

What about your detective? How can he use IOT? Let’s continue with the murders described above. With the robot murder, he discovers that the home’s IOT devices have been hacked. Playing a hunch, he checks the robot’s “hand” for gun residue. With the thermostat murder, he determines that the thermostat has been hacked. Using surveillance video from the area, he sees a car leaving the crime scene at the time of the murder. Using image enhancement, he clearly reads the license plate and sees the driver. Facial recognition software identifies the driver, who is a technology expert and has hacking expertise. With the self-driving car murder, your detective discovers the hack and finds out that the victim was about to become a whistleblower, revealing that the company’s CEO has embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars of government grants.

As you can see, IOT can be a useful tool for mystery writers. We’d love to hear from our readers about how you use IOT in your stories.

2. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Clues

As mystery writers, we know the importance of getting as much information as possible from the crime scene. Investigators collect blood and skin from under a victim’s fingernails. They estimate time of death by the state of rigor mortis and a body’s lividity. Police photographers take pictures and videos. Everything that is related to a murder is bagged and saved as evidence.

Detectives examine the crime scene and surrounding areas to see what else they might find to aid the investigation. For example, they may see an empty jewelry case, which could indicate robbery as the motive. Everything our detective sees or hears is important to the case.

What’s absent from this analysis is what happened before and during the commission of the crime. Surveillance cameras may have captured the scene, but what if they didn’t? This is where a software application I created in a story in my book, Murder in the Sunset Years, comes in. The murder takes place backstage during a break between the matinee and evening performance of a community playhouse production.  The actors are passing time until they must again go onstage. They use their smart phones to take photos and videos of each other and of the theater. Later in the evening, one of them is killed. (I won’t tell you how. You’ll have to read my book to find out.)

The police use standard investigation techniques, such as collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses. My amateur detectives, a college professor and his students in a Forensic Technology workshop, add a new tool for solving crimes, image meshing software. They combine pictures and footage captured on the actors’ phones, combine them, and make one 3D video that shows everyone and everything in the theater during the time between performances. They don’t see the actual murder, but they don’t have to. Our astute detectives see something innocently captured in an image that leads to unmasking the killer.

Mystery writers can use this technology whenever a murder occurs during a large gathering. At a wedding, for example, you have the snapshots and videos of the professional photographers as well as those of the guests. There are multiple cameras at sporting events, as well as TV footage of the playing field and the fans. Have your investigators collect the pictures and footage from every source. They can then find clues to solve the crime.

I’ll be interested in hearing how you use this type of software in your stories. Please let me know.

May all your murders be pleasant ones.

1. What’s It All About, Alfie

As mystery writers, we create criminals who break the law, victims who suffer at the villain’s hand, and detectives who catch the felons (most of the time). In a murder mystery, the victim may die by gun fire, poison, and strangulation, to name just a few of the ways a person can be killed. Those who write thrillers may put your protagonist’s life in danger in any number of ingenious ways, often facing a ticking clock. Our detectives use muscle and brain power to solve a case.

In this blog, I will add a new set of tools criminals can use to commit crimes and our detectives have available to solve cases: technology.  I will show how a murder can just as easily be committed by hacking into the micro-chips, which are ubiquitous in our lives, as by stabbing or shooting.  I will show how our detectives can track down bad guys by clicking a few buttons on their keyboards.

In my book, Murder in the Sunset Years, killers use computers to plan, execute, and attempt to cover up their crimes. My detectives, a college professor and the students in a Forensic Technology workshop he teaches, then use cyber-tools to put the bad guys away.

My goal is to add new posts to this blog at least monthly, each one describing technologies mystery writers can use in their books and stories. For example:

  • I’ll show how software which ages someone in an old photograph can help solve cold cases.
  • I’ll demonstrate how to use data from a genealogy database to match DNA found at a crime scene.

I look forward to reading your comments on my posts and suggesting topics to include in this blog. I would also like to know how you use cyber-tools in your writing.

I encourage you to subscribe to my blog. Subscibers receive an email whenever I add a new post. Although I would hate to lose you, you can unsubscribe at any time.

I hope my fellow mystery writers will find information in my posts useful.  And may all your murders be pleasant ones.