I suppose every sf writer worries that something is going to come along to invalidate their vision, fictional though it is.  I’ve been having some worries lately about whether the sort of espionage pictured in Against Peace and Freedom will actually be possible in an info-saturated world.

We already live in a world where multiple entities have data about you that would be the wet dream of a totalitarian.  And it’s not even the government.  Facebook knows your whole social network, and peeps on what other sites you visit.  Stores know what you buy down to the last bag of candy.  Games give feedback to developers on how they’re played.  Cel phone conversations have been externally monitored.  Google has created a wildly detailed map with annotations– where you can’t turn left, what paths are suitable only for foot traffic, where the KFCs are.

Let this system develop for fifty years.  Would it then be possible for an Agent to come into the country, evade the secret police, and meet dissidents?  I’ve suggested that externalities can be reduced by low-level monitoring– bullets know who fired them, pollution is chemically marked to show its source.  In this kind of info-rich society, a human being is like a bull blundering through a dollhouse– there’s no way to miss their trail.

Now, the first thought is to minimize the clues.  This might be barely possible today: pay cash, never use a computer, use other people’s houses and cars.  But will cash even exist in 50 years, much less 2500?  And retail is already being transformed; it may not be long before it’s strictly impossible to buy a plane ticket without going online.  Besides, a suspicious government might well slap a nanobug on every traveler to add to the data trail.

Surveillance can also look for missing data.  Fifty travelers arrived; we have 49 hotel rooms rented.  Look up the missing guy in the airline’s database.  If he’s lost, maybe periodically scan everyone in random restaurants, see which ones can’t be linked to a valid identity.

The next solution is false identities.  To be honest, my account of Okura was based on the mechanics of visiting 20th century dictatorships.  Even today, my understanding is that it’s not easy to simply wander around China as you like.  Unless you look Chinese.  I have a Chinese-American friend who did just that; she could ignore all the restrictions on foreigners.  A totalitarian government can watch its citizens because it has key bits of leverage– they need to work and live somewhere, they have children who go to school, etc.  Watching everyone all the time is a hard problem and they take shortcuts that work for most cases; but with care, these can be avoided.

Creating false identities in an info-rich world would be possible, but tedious.  Imagine creating a fake Facebook account.  It’s highly suspicious without a bunch of commenting friends– we either have to invent them too, or co-opt real people to recognize the impostor.  The very idea of Facebook is based on shallow but wide-ranging connections… the person should have family, grade school friends, co-workers, neighbors, and all these interactions have to be plausible.

A foreigner might not be in the local Facebook, of course– but espionage frequently requires passing as a local, and again we run into the problem of missing data: the person with no online connections looks odd, and oddity invites scrutiny.

I refer to this a bit in the book– the idea is that the Incatena produces multiple, complex false identities everywhere, for Agents to step into when needed– if necessary, changing their features to match.  They’re probably mostly created by AIs, and it can be assumed that all spy agencies have been engaged for centuries in an arms race of fraudulence and counter-fraudulence.

If the systems are old enough, they might be riddled with hacks.  But I don’t buy the movie version of hacking– that any bright teenager can break into a system and make it do whatever they want.  Go and get some data, fine.  Add to a database– tricky.  Serious databases are not HTML pages you can hop in and add your anarchist message to; they’re carefully constructed to control and timestamp all access, and properly updating a web of records is actually a pretty complicated task that takes coders months, not minutes.  And adding hacked bits of code… again, a good system is housed in timestamped source control systems, and changes are looked at carefully.

(And yes, I know, systems do get hacked in grandiose ways– Stuxnet, for instance.  But Stuxnet wasn’t some kid breaking in from his mom’s basement.  I’m talking about things a single Agent can do.)

As for nanobots, I threw in a kludge– the arms race of nanobottery was statemated, and as a result no one really trusted their high-end measures and countermeasures.  In effect Okura doesn’t trust its own nanobots to stay where they’re placed; it relies on human agents to sequester travelers instead.

Another possibility is that an info-saturated society drowns in the density of the data.  It might be like the human genome: we have the data, but we don’t have the tools to understand how it all works.  It takes a long time to create new tools to dive deeper into the data, and by the time they’re written the data is denser yet, plus the databases aren’t compatible and the guy who really understood the schema quit to live offgrid in a cabin.

Anyway, APAF was set on peripheral worlds with backwards technology.  I’m tempted to set the next novel in a more central world– Earth, or Euko, or Sihor– some place that would showcase the more crazy-futuristic elements of the Incatena, and maybe a higher level of espionage.