Today’s guest blog post is by thriller writer John Altman whose latest novel Disposable Asset, takes place against the backdrop of ongoing brinksmanship with Putin’s Russia. His article for Shotsblog is about modern surveillance and Edward Snowden, which links into the themes of his latest novel.
Western intelligence agencies, Edward Snowden has revealed, are not only infiltrating Islamic extremist groups and Russian sleeper cells; they’re also watching you, model citizen and responsible taxpayer, via the webcam and software already installed on the computer you bought at your local neighborhood superstore.
Or at least, they might be.
Whether you consider Snowden patriot or traitor, hero or narcissist – or, perhaps, all of the above – there’s no denying that his revelations drive home the uneasy inverse relationship between privacy and security. Other post-9/11 disclosures have raised similar issues: suspected enemies of the state have been detained indefinitely without trial, subjected to so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’; the USA PATRIOT act has authorized roving wiretaps and government searches of business records. But these phenomena remain comfortably removed from the typical personal experience, and thus more firmly situated in the realm of theory. Snowden’s leaks, by contrast, hit the average Westerner where he or she lives – in front of his or her computer.
In my new novel Disposable Asset, Edward Snowden is not mentioned once by name, but his presence is felt on every page. Asset evokes Snowden explicitly, telling the story of an American defector who has fled to Russia with a cache of classified documents that expose intelligence overreaching, where, having been offered sanctuary by the Kremlin, he is murdered by a CIA assassin.
The book also confronts deeper implications raised by the cutting-edge technologies Snowden has revealed. As a manhunt develops for the assassin, we witness firsthand how, in the information age, privacy has become an antiquated concept. Cell phones are remotely accessed without users’ knowledge; facial recognition software combs through endless surveillance camera and quadrocopter drone footage; spy satellites with a resolution of five centimeters reconnoiter the earth’s surface from thousands of miles above; infrared cameras and parabolic microphones eavesdrop through walls and closed doors; the scantest traces of blood, skin or hair lead to complete DNA profiles, with the chances of different individuals sharing identical profiles one in one billion.
But pointing out the scary efficiency of modern surveillance tells only half of the story – for the book also describes a reenergized Russian Empire, a reinvigorated network of secret prison camps in Siberia, and a ruthless and determined inner circle at a Kremlin that harbors little respect for human rights and none whatsoever for civil liberties. The question Disposable Asset ultimately poses, then, is which manifests the greater danger to the West: the external threat of a Russia that resembles ever more closely an artifact from the Cold War, or the creeping internal threat posed by the compromising of personal freedoms in the name of national security?
Of course this particular balancing act, between external threat and internal rights, is nothing new. But as intelligence gathering grows more efficient, more automated, and more intrusive, and the lingering specter of 9/11 reminds us all too acutely of the cost of failures regarding national security, the question of what balance is the right balance seems more immediate than ever before.
You can find more information about the author on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @johnaltman1969. You can also find him on Facebook.
A nineteen-year-old runaway goes head-to-head with the Kremlin and a seasoned CIA operative in a thrilling tale of international intrigue and revenge. Having completed her mission to silence an agency defector, CIA operative Cassie Bradbury finds herself cut adrift in Moscow with no documents, no tickets and no identification. Hot on her trail are the Kremlin, the Russian Mafia – and Sean Ravensdale, the disgraced ex-CIA agent who has been sent to track her down. Realizing that she has been set up and is now expendable, Cassie will need all her courage and resourcefulness to outwit her pursuers – and stay alive long enough to exact revenge on the man who recruited her, who trained her – who betrayed her.
Disposable Asset is by John Altman and is published on 29 May 2015, (Severn House, £19.99)