H is for hacking and its increasing use as a plot device

Author: Anne

Date Published: Sep 27th 2017, 10:54pm

I wrote the blog post below a year or so ago and I'm no less fed up now with the use of information mined from computers used as an easy way for teh author to move the story along. In fact, it is being used more and more ...


At some point in any crime/thriller/suspense novel the investigators will need to find out some information about the criminals or people who they think may be involved. This is usually a pivotal moment in the plot in that it will bring the plot nearer to its resolution. The information may come from a forensic breakthrough or from a confidential informant but more and more it comes from someone hacking into computers or electronic records – this especially applies when the investigation is not undertaken by a law enforcement agency but by people who don’t have access to their records.

Actually, there is a fourth way in which they can get information and that is by some form of paranormal means such as telepathy, dreams or precognition. You might laugh at this but take it from me that it is happening increasingly, especially at the cosier end of the mystery market. At times computer hacking seems to be little different from consulting the supernatural.

I read a perfectly good novel and then a computer hacker comes into play – fortunately, the investigator/hero/heroine always seems to know one. They immediately break into bank accounts and other sites, scour the Internet for information and hack into email and other accounts by an amazing ability to guess passwords. Because I can’t do any of these things it may as well be magic for all I know about the art/science of hacking.

I do know, however, that it can be very convenient for the author who can introduce information at this point which will move the story on and which it is difficult for the investigators to find any other way. Sometimes the investigators, especially if they are police officers acting outside the law, have a bit of a moral tussle about whether it is ethical or not but always come down on the side of the hacking because the ends justify the means (and it never seems to come back to haunt them as an unlawful act where the evidence retrieved this way is not admissible in court).

I am a hesitant computer user at best so I just have to accept that it really is that easy to obtain information this way – although it is very scary if it is true. Whereas I can always point out in historical novels where the facts are wrong or where I can determine in other novels places where the actions are not believable I can’t do this with hacking. I just have to accept it – even though I very often have significant doubts about the ease and speed with which electronic information is accessed.

I do suspect that at times the writer uses hacking as a very convenient and rather lazy plot device in the way in which paranormal powers are often also used but I just don’t have enough knowledge to know whether this is the case or whether what is written is accurate. It’s all very frustrating …