I Spy

I’ve been interested in espionage for a very long time.

In The India Road, the spy, Pêro da Covilhã, is one of the strongest characters in the book. I have no doubt that I’m close to the historical truth with respect to his role in Vasco da Gama’s journey.

There are no primary sources for that, but plenty of circumstancial evidence; much of it comes from the diary of Álvaro Velho, and the certainty in Gama’s decisions once he began his journey up the coast of Mozambique and Kenya—among other things, he specifically wanted to go to Calicut, which the spy had already visited by land eight years before.

In my new book, Atmos Fear, espionage plays a large part in the plot. Here’s a clip on the use of a computer virus for harvesting emails.

Right now, though, the Grey Goose gave him an extra jolt of courage, and he stuck the little USB into the opening on the front panel and waited.

Enjoy, Jennifer. He smiled.

The Israeli software was not strictly speaking a virus, just a small worm that burrowed through the network.

The malware drilled into the operating system, “talked” back to the pen, and the fingernail sized device beeped once and flash-erased. When you delete an email, the contents are only marked as erased―they are all preserved, ready to be phished out by a waiting hacker. But the worm destroyed itself byte by byte, eating its body alive, starting with the tail, until it reabsorbed its mouth.

Similar naughtiness is the day to day of agencies like NSA, GCHQ, or the Mossad. The Israeli agency makes its mission aboundantly clear with a quote from Proverbs XI/14.

Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety

Counsel, or advice, is a euphemism for what Le Carré terms product, or intelligence information. There’s no case for the recent U.S. versus the world snooping debacle, except the case of embarrasment. ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’, the saying goes, and it’s the diplomatic dream of every nation to listen to their counterparts’ leaders as they discuss matters of state, or affairs of the heart, on a cell phone.

This embarrasment is the latest in a series to hit the U.S., including the goverment shutdown and the healthcare website. It’s curious how the hair of world leaders goes grey and then white over their term in office, unless of course they are female or Chinese.

The Merkel wiretap is electronic intelligence, or elint, and it will lead to evermore secure chips and software encryption algorithms, unbreakable by whichever spook du jour is having a go. The difficulty is that the security needs to be on both sides of the call, and once such technology is broadly shared, it’s broadly cracked.

On the other hand, if the technology is unbreakable, then along come organized crime and terrorism to take full advantage. Anyone remember Catch 22? I have such deep-seated respect for it that I quote the passage from Joseph Heller’s book, courtesy of Wikipedia.

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch”, Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.


An encrypted cellphone sold by an Israeli company. Such is the suspicion about such products that the company contractually agrees the encryption has no 'back doors'.

An encrypted cellphone sold by an Israeli company. Such is the suspicion about such products that the company contractually agrees the encryption has no ‘back doors’.

Before I wrote my latest book, I spent a lot of time researching all these things. The image today comes from a company that offers a $250,000 prize to anyone who can decrypt a recorded conversation between two of their experts. After that the firm gives you a job. So if you feel like making a bit of cash and relocating to the outskirts of Telaviv, you know what to do.

Many of the things I tell you about here have found their way into my books—when you read Atmos Fear you’ll have no difficulty spotting them, so I guess in some ways parts of this blog are a kind of ‘behind the scenes’ guide.

Atmos Fear is priced at $2.99 for Kindle, the same as a cup of coffee in Starbucks. However, when you click the link on amazon.com from Portugal, it costs $6.14, apparently because it includes VAT* & free international wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet.

So I went on the net through a UK server, and tried again. There, the final price is… $2.99 and there are no further comments on VAT or anything else. In Portugal, the top VAT rate is an exhorbitant 23%, and e-books pay that, whereas analog (i.e. paper) ones pay 6%.

That in itself is outrageous, because it widens the digital divide between Portugal and other countries, i.e. increasing its digital disadvantage. In France, both types of books are taxed at 5.5%, and in Luxembourg at 3%.

Nevertheless, the 23% tax would increase the sticker price to $3.68, which is less than a coffee at Starbucks in China.

That leaves $2.46 for… Whispernet?


For those of you who live a sheltered life, and for our broader international readership, that means What the Fuck?

So I dug a little deeper.

amazon.co.uk tells me: Atmos Fear: This title is available to UK customers only. If I drill down it has the book cover blurb, the image, and even lets you look inside. But it also says: Pricing information not available.

I wander over to my UK server. The book costs £1.95. The site joyfully informs me that the final cost is… £1.95 including VAT* & free international wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet.

I’m not averse to using the Queen’s English to its fullest extent: after finding out the U.K. price converts to $3.15 at today’s rate… What the fuck’s going on? Why is the price in Portugal double?

The U.K. has a similar disproportion with respect to taxation on books: zero VAT rate on analog, 20% on digital. Federal Europe has come to the rescue, and Britain is expected to cut e-book rates to zero. I assume that will apply across the European Union, we’ll see.

So if my book costs $3.15 in the U.K. after 20% tax, the net price is $2.65, thirty-four cents cheaper than in the States. Go figure.

I tried John Le Carre. A Delicate Truth, which deals with outsourced warfare in a wonderful way, cannot be bought from amazon.co.uk as an e-book. Not if you’re coming in from Portugal. Through the U.K. server, £7.99 (you save eleven quid, Amazon says).

What about the U.S. website? Well, I can buy Le Carré from there when I connect from Portugal, for $19.76. When I drill down there are no VAT or Whispernet surcharges. But… wait for it. If I connect through a U.K. server to amazon.com the same product costs $11.99, almost eight bucks less. The price on the U.K. site (£7.99)) converts to $12.92, so my best bet would be to buy the book through the UK server, but from amazon.com once I’m on there.

Is this disturbing? Very. I looked up Atmos Fear on Amazon France. € 2.31 will buy it, pas de ficelles attached—no strings, complete with TTC and envoi gratuit via réseau sans fil par Amazon Whispernet. Und Deutschland? Well, Atmos Fear von Peter Wibaux is yours for the French price.

How about Canada? My book is yours for three bucks Canadian, and John Le Carré sets you back CND 14.99. Okay, enough already before this post turns into Craig’s List or Fran’s List or something!

Conclusions: something doesn’t pass the smell test; it’s not just Starbucks that’s fixing coffee; e-book tax is a shame and a sin; why is whispering so expensive in Portugal? I’ll be shopping for my books elsewhere—Blame Canada!

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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