Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History Mystery: What's in Your Computer?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  It's scary enough when I look at my computer search history. Recently it says: Cute kids signing Frozen, Hope is a thing with feathers, reaction to steroids, video cache, Boston police when founded, Carolyn Hart, Portmanteau words,  stab wound when fatal, Humpty Dumpty and Philip Margolin. (Not together, Mr. Margolin, really.)   

There are reasons for all of these, of course,  and a mystery author has a lot of leeway, right? What's more,  I have to figure no one is ever going to look.

However. I could be wrong. 

(And may I just parenthetically say I am SO thrilled with today's guest! I have ben a huge fan of hers from moment one, and when her first books sold, and the debut now newly published by the incredibly wonderful Henery Press--well hey. This is exactly they way the world is supposed to work.)

But back to Annette Dashofy's scary question:

What’s In YOUR Computer?
How many old computers have you thrown away? Do you have any idea what kind of information might still be on those old discards?

I love my electronic gadgets and own way too many of them—except I don’t own a smart phone, preferring to stick with my stupid phone for now. But that’s a blog for another day.

While I love my gizmos, I’m extremely technologically challenged.
For example: Recently I installed a new printer to replace the one that died the previous week. The set-up went well until I had to connect it to my wifi. It found my home network all by itself, no problem. But then I had to type in the WEP.

WTF is a WEP?

I have a faded sticky note over my computer on which I had once scrawled “Home Network Password.” That must be it! I tapped in the very long number only to be told by the printer the number was invalid. I must have hit a wrong key. Tried again. Same result. In a panic, I searched my files for some piece of paper with another number on it. Finally, I flipped my modem over and discovered—you guessed it—the WEP.

Problem solved. Until the next morning when I had to set-up my other new toy, a Nook HD+. Again, it found the network. Again it asked for a password. And again I tried the stupid number on the sticky note. It still didn’t work. 

The WEP on the bottom of the modem did, though.

Maybe I should toss the sticky note.

Anyhow, I tend to merrily surf the web and waste entirely too much time on social media, all the while having no clue how it all works. And until I did the research for my book, I had no idea of the data trail left behind on my old defunct PCs.

In Circle of Influence, my protagonist Zoe Chambers shares my lack of techno-know-how. She’s a paramedic who is much more comfortable dealing with human blood and guts than with hard drives and mother boards. (Honestly, I don’t know what either of those things are. I just wrote them here because they sound techie.) 

When Zoe is faced with a murder that turns out to be tied to an obsolete computer, she has to join forces with a computer-savvy teen to find out what secret is on the PC that’s worth killing for.

Or worth dying for.

If you want to know what kind of information can lurk on ancient, discarded electronics, you’ll have to read the book.

Seriously though, what do you do to your out-of-date devices before discarding them or giving them away? I’d like to know. Because right now I’m afraid to toss anything, and I don’t want to end up on the next episode of Hoarders!

HANK: And a copy of Circle of Influence to one lucky commenter! Come on, even just tell us one thing in your search history...

Annette Dashofy, a Pennsylvania farm gal born and bred, grew up with horses, cattle, and chickens. After high school, she spent five years as an EMT for the local ambulance service, giving her plenty of fodder for her Zoe Chambers mystery series including CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE (Henery Press, March 2014) and LOST LEGACY (Henery Press, September 2014) Her short fiction, including a 2007 Derringer nominee, has appeared in Spinetingler, Mysterical-e, Fish Tales: the Guppy Anthology, and Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales (December 2013).

Yes, I put the cover in twice. xo Hank
Zoe Chambers, paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township, has been privy to a number of local secrets over the years, some of them her own. But secrets become explosive when a dead body is found in the Township Board President’s abandoned car. As a January blizzard rages, Zoe and Police Chief Pete Adams launch a desperate search for the killer, even if it means uncovering secrets that could not only destroy Zoe and Pete, but also those closest to them.


  1. How do I find the search history to tell you something that’s there?

    I am so not the person to ask about the technical side of any of these marvelous inventions. I may really love them but I have apoplexy if my laptop doesn’t work and a blue crash screen is enough to strike absolute terror in my poor heart. I love my Nook HD+ [but what does that infernal message box that keeps popping up to say the android.process has stopped working mean anyway???] I have absolutely no idea what any of those Artie-Smartie tech folks are talking about whenever they try to explain it to me . . . .

    Anyway . . . congratulations, Annette . . . Zoe sounds positively terrific and I am really looking forward to meeting her and reading her story . . . .

  2. I fully expect Hoarders to come knocking on my door one day. I have too many collections and can't throw away the things I don't collect.

    That's just a warm up to say that all my electronic devices are still sitting in my condo or garage (garage most likely) gathering dust. I should probably figure out something to do with them, but that would take time away from reading about Zoe's adventure, and we wouldn't want that, would we?

  3. Thanks, Joan and Mark! I haven't received that particular message on my Nook HD+. Hmmm... Guess that's something to look forward to.

    As for my technical skills, I'm quite proud of myself for fixing my stupid phone yesterday. It died, and after a moment of full-blown panic, I took the battery out and popped it back in. It WORKED! When all else fails--REBOOT.

    Beyond that, I'm stuck.

  4. Annette, as you know I have specialized in computer forensics and electronic evidence for 14 years now, and you're signing my song! It is *stunning* the tracks left behind.

    There are several excellent 'wiping' utilities out there that will destroy all data on a hard drive, USB stick, memory card, etc. The Good news is most of the better ones are free. The bad news is they can take a GREAT deal of time to overwrite the data left behind. A run-through of "0" and "1"s usually does the trick and overwrites the data rendering it unrecoverable to all but the most sophisticated of tools, tools that only Federal Law Enforcement has access to.

    The only way to truly get rid of information on an old hard drive is to take a hammer to it, or use a drill to shatter the discs inside. I'm not being facetious, that is the *only* way to genuinely make the information unreadable.

    See this link for more information:

  5. P.S. It is *TERRIFIC* to see you here, Annette! ;)

  6. I've heard about the old hammer solution, Will. Of course, that requires knowing what a hard drive looks like!

  7. Scary stuff, indeed. From yesterday's history: shalwar kameez, and diapers history.

    Some say to take a hammer to your hard drive before throwing it away. I have donated several older-but-running laptops and desktops to an organization in West Africa, and frankly I just deleted everything I thought was personal and emptied the trash. I'm sure it was all still on there deep inside, but...

    Can't wait to read your book, Annette! (!nd the second word of my Capcha here is "remove"!)

  8. A mother board is the front of the refrigerator where your mom lists the chores you have to do after school. :-)

    I clear my cache every day, which only keeps me safe from my husband seeing searches like "handsome middle age cowboy on a ranch photo" (Look it up. Whoa, baby.)

    Recent searches: "can police say don't leave town" "chlorine in a baby bottle" "Heartbleed virus (name of my bank)" Only the first two would get me into trouble, right?

    I love my iPhone and now take photos with it all the time. I hate it for talking, though. I have a Nook, which I love, and a hand-me-down iPad. Two laptops and a desktop. But I am totally not technie. I also know what a hard drive is, but mostly because I know it's bad if it crashes. I also still believe it's possible to hit the wrong key while typing and your whole computer (and maybe your house) will blow up.

    I love Annette's book! I am reading it right now, a little every night at bedtime. It's fab. Everybody read Annette's book!

  9. Hi Annette! *waves*

    I only know enough tech to be dangerous to myself and others. I like trying to figure out things on my own and when I get stuck I just call the youngest son.

    In the township where I live, we have an electronics recycling day once or twice a year where they wipe the hard drives and/or destroy them. At least that's what they tell everyone.

    Also, Annette's book is fabulous. If you haven't read it yet. GO DO IT NOW.

  10. Annette welcome to JRW! The book sounds wonderful. Obviously you've struck a nerve with most of us with the techie problems. I'm sure I have between 6 and 8 old devices that I'm terrified to throw out...though who would care about my old notes anyway?

    Ramona, LOL, you devil...

  11. Tegucialpa - the last thing I searched on "the Google." (Joan, I went to History and looked for something on Google.)

    When I got my iPhone I had to ask a friend how to answer a call. And Windows 8 has a major learning curve for me. I know enough to get myself into trouble. ALT+CTRL+DEL.

    And I adore Henery Press! Such great authors and wonderful books. I can't wait to read about Zoe. (And the coffee mugs are adorable.)

  12. Hey, Annette! Loved the book! (I got to read an advance copy - nyah nyah na nyah nyah!)

    I have a laptop three feet away that hasn't been used in a few years. Keep meaning to take it to Staples for recycling. Used to be I had to wait until my town's toxic material recycling day an pay $10 to get rid of one.

    I'm more afraid of losing my work than of leaving some valuable information on a dead laptop. So the one thing I try to be careful about is backing up my work. Easier now with the "cloud" -

    ... How you gonna clean the cloud??

  13. How you gonna clean the cloud? Ooh. Yeah Can we talk about this? It's always all going to be there, right? From my comparisons of chicken recipes to someones else's plans to do some nefarious thing. To all of our next books in every incarnation.

    And certainly there's everyone passwords and account numbers. And photos!

  14. In TV, we used to call it "the Westinghouse fix"--when a machine was not behaving, we'd just WHAM it. Give it a whap on the side. Often worked.

    Now for computer type stuff, the westinghouse fix is to turn it off. It generally works 9knock on pod) but I always forget. I always freak, and panic, and then someone says--did you turn it off? ANd I say-o, right.

  15. Joan, go to wherever you search on google. See that little triangle by the magnifying glass? CLick on it. It should drop down your recent searches.

    Does that work?

  16. And hey--HI Annette! YOu are having such mad success--it's so terrific!! What are you working on now..if you can say?

  17. I can't help remembering that scene from ZOOLANDER in which the male models break into the computer to retrieve the secret information that is "in the computer."

    I don't discard computers very often - I'm still using an HP desktop (that used to connect to the internet over the telephone) and, of course, a really stupid phone.

    PS - I already have an autographed copy of Circle of Influence. It's a good read.

  18. The local Women's Club here in NJ sponsored a "used electronics day" in which residents were encouraged to drop off anything in the way of old TVs, radios, computers, and tape machines. When I saw that pile of old computers in their parking lot, the idea for a novel like yours occurred to me. So much information ... Good luck, Annette. We're still fans over here at Spinetingler.

  19. plants cellular coding
    robotic farm equipment
    get sweat smell out of gym clothes
    chemical that won't freeze
    Scottish surname

    All but one are for my WIP. Guess which one isn't? :-)

  20. Hi, Annette!! I'm so happy for you, and can say I knew you when. So looking forward to seeing you at Malice, and having you sign a book for me.

    Gosh, since 1983 we've had at least 35 computers in our family, probably more. (My photographer/videographer husband has an insatiable need for mega-gig hard drives to hold his photos and video footage. He took 100 GB of video in Tanzania in 12 days.)

    My computers always have lots of financial data on them, among other things. In the past when I've gotten rid of hard drives I've taken them out of the computer after doing as much wiping as possible, and set a giant magnet on each of them for a few days. I don't know if that works or not. Will? Any idea? Now with so many of the computer devices we use, the hard drive is integrated into the device, and it's not as easy to wipe them. I'm fairly sure that smartphones and e-readers (which I use as portable computers) will just need to be smashed to get rid of personal data.

    Just cleared my search history last night before I turned off the computer for the night, and I can never remember what I've looked for. It's always a surprise, isn't it, to be reminded of the crazy things we look up.

  21. As a suspense writer, there's a lot of scary history on my computers. Bombs. Guns. Professional soldiers. Then there's the paranormal stuff about reincarnation, ancient Egypt, and astronomy. So maybe the history I've got just makes me weird. *insert snicker here*

  22. Welcome, Annette!

    "How you gonna clean the cloud?" — indeed!

  23. Oh my, yes, that "cleaning the cloud" bit is going to keep me up at night now. Thanks, Hallie. :-/

    Hank, I'm currently working on the third Zoe mystery, but the second one, LOST LEGACY, comes out in September and deals with a series of crimes spanning decades, linked by one gun. Oh, and most of them are somehow linked to Zoe and her family, too. But the part of the story I love the most is we meet Pete's dad Harry, who is suffering from Alzheimer's and who is QUITE a character.

  24. Hi, Jack! LOVE Spinetingler!

    *Waving back at Joyce*

    Oh, Karen, I didn't know you were coming to Malice! Very cool. Think we can find some chocolate martinis somewhere?

  25. It isn't just computers and the like. Seems photocopiers have a memory that records everything copied. I saw a show where they bought several used copy machines, pulled that part, and printed the results. Police department records and doctor's office files were among the collection!
    Great security, right?!

  26. You have the best ideas, Annette. My treat!

  27. First and most important: Buy the book. It's fabulous. And when the second comes out, buy that one because it might be even better.

    I have a couple of old computers in the basement. I've never gotten the time to wipe them as Will describes - and the only reason I care is because they have banking information on them.

    The cloud, ah the cloud. See, the thing about the Internet (including the cloud) is that nothing ever goes away. Ever. So that picture you snapped on a whim and posted to FB? Yeah, it'll be around for the rest of time.

    My recent searches include: what does a meth lab smell like, what does marijuana smoke smell like, 9mm handguns, symptoms of aconite poisoning, chemical substitutions for aconite, dark ale recipes, and mileage for a RAV4. All but the last are writing-related. God help me if the police ever subpoena my search history!

  28. Karen, you're ON!

    Libby, I saw that show, too. Scary.

  29. Okay, true story. I'm a would-be hoarder with old laptops, etc., because I'm afraid to throw away the hard drives in case the info's not secure. So my husband took a destroyed laptop (screen broken, very old, not worth fixing) to his workshop and ran a big electromagnet over it. It wouldn't run afterwards, which convinced me that it was safe to ditch. But I have 2 old laptops right now that I won't get rid of. Not yet.

  30. I once had someone ask me to donate my old computers to the local community college so they could take them apart and put them back together again.

    I said, "Um...No. I don't want a bunch of college kids digging into my romance novels and plastering God-knows-what on Facebook and Twitter."

    The kid laughed, and tried to say they wouldn't look at what was on the hard drive, but I knew they would...and he knew they would...and he wasn't a very good liar. LOL

    So my old computers still sit in my basement.

    susan meier

  31. Thanks, Mary. And I think besides being technically challenged and hoarders, these comments are proving we're all paranoid, too!

    Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

  32. Oh, Karen, can't wait to see you at Malice!

    LAura, that's so funny---although you COULD use sweat smell in a book. (I once had to look up "how to get shoes to stop squeaking"-and whoa, it was an emergency.)

    I love looking at my search history. My own memory is not so hot.


  33. "How ya gonna clean the cloud?"

    I wish I had never read that line.

    Annette - The book sounds wonderful and I too look forward to seeing you at Malice and having my copy signed.

  34. Kaye, Hallie's "clean the cloud" comment is bound to give all of us nightmares. Or more ideas for future books...

    See you at Malice!

  35. I tend to keep the last-computer-but-one nearby, Just In Case. And I have been back a few times to pick up the stuff I thought I'd never need.

    Then when it's ready to go out the door (thank heavens I've finally discarded all things desktop) I delete all the files. Yup, just delete. I know, they're still actually there, without an index, but I don't particularly care.

    If someone needs to steal all my story ideas, they can do it much quicker and more comfortably by hacking into my Dropbox account than going to some toxic dump and dragging the hardware to their old abandoned warehouse on the edge of town and running recovery software on it.

    Hmmm, search history, eh?

    I know when I look at my sites-visited history at, say, noon, I am blown away by the sheer number of sites I've visited in only a few hours.

  36. Susan, the problem with the old hard drives nowadays is that many communities do not allow dumping electronics into the landfill. The various heavy metals and rare earth components are both too toxic and too precious to dispose of into the environment. It's more responsible to recycle them.

    Collection sites which offer recycling often send electronic components overseas, and that's where the potential fraud and identity theft comes from.

  37. DId anyone read Linwood Barclay's TRUST YOUR EYES? TERRIFIC mystery about a clue on Google Earth. (Not a spoiler, it's on page one.)
    GRRRR wish I had thought of it..

  38. Annette, I'm another person who has my old computers sitting in the garage because I don't know what to do about the information on them. Charge accounts, forms filled out on line with personal information, and now my banking. I really don't want all that to fall into someone else's hands. Although, I do so hate the desktop models taking up room.

    Ramona, I love your definition of motherboard. Will, thanks for the information that should help all of us. With some of you writers listing what you've recently researched on your computers, I'm betting your computer histories are most entertaining, scary, and interesting.

    I am looking forward to reading your first Zoe mystery, Annette. What a great idea for a story!

  39. I should probably look at my Google search history more often - it's a good test of one's memory:

    fillmore east nov 20, 1970
    aledo tx
    stornoway island scotland
    frutigen name origin
    haplogroup w3a
    giles blunt

    Weird, but nothing that I'd care if someone sees. I'm fascinated by where search engines can lead me and what things people have gone to the trouble of putting on a website.

    Like most, I do need to learn more about computer security - it's just so easy to ask my husband to take care of "whatever" now that he's retired.

    Annette, the book sounds like one I'd enjoy. I'll be looking for it.


  40. Annette, can't wait to read this book. It sounds fascinating.

    I've often said I hope my beloved husband is never murdered. Because police would look at my search history and be sure I was the killer. How much force does it take to pierce the carotid artery? All kinds of poisoning questions. All kinds of weapons searches, especially Special Forces, SWAT teams, and paramilitary weapons and equipment. What kind of golf club could fracture a skull? How deep do you have to slice someone's wrists to make it look like a suicide attempt without killing them? Etc. And then there are all the emails with the Poison Lady. If Ben's ever knocked off, I'm toast.

  41. Linda, my husband takes great joy in telling everyone that he sleeps with one eye open. And he gets a weird/scared look on his face when I bounce ideas for my books off him.

  42. Getting ready to replace my computer and nervous about clearing it. I need a delightful book to comfort me!

  43. I love Henery Press (sp?) Will definitely read your book Annette.
    Damn. So now I have to be concerned about the freakin cloud? I'd been ignoring that, not being sure what that is. I had heard taking a drill to the hard drive, whatever that looks like, is the FINAL solution. So what do you apply to the cloud? A giant fan?

  44. This is exactly why I have refused to save anything to "the cloud", however my husband did talk me into getting a smart phone last year. I don't know how to use half its features. If I need to wipe a computer, I'll ask my toddler who managed to delete every picture of his baby brother off the new phone. When the toddler is smarter than the phone, we're all in trouble.
    My recent search history is boring and includes Captain America, movie times, Thomas the Train, removing spit up from silk, and Legos. (Can you tell I have young boys!)

  45. Melodie T, that is adorable. And yes, whenever I need computer help, I look for a thirteen year old. Scary.

    SO many interesting searches! SharonTX--I am stumped! Huh? And lInda, you are a FOUNT of great info.

  46. Love the giant fan idea to clean the Cloud, Pat!

    And I can definitely see a toddler being able to out-smart a smart phone, Melodie.

  47. Okay, I am now convinced I must take a hammer to my original hard drive, which is gathering dust in a corner of my bedroom. Someone wanted to take it to the dump for me but I said NO! NOT until I make sure the incriminating data is gone!

    Annette, I cannot wait to read your book. Sounds like it's right up my alley!

  48. Interestingly, I looked up Shalwar Kameez recently, too. Along with the various incarnations of hijabs, niqabs, and burqas. And Sikhs.

    Yesterday, among other things, it was black widow spiders and images of old fireplaces.

    Those are the more innocent searches, though. I wouldn't be surprised if I had an FBI file somewhere, after the searching on human trafficking and drugs and murder by anaphylaxis, etc, that I've done.

    Congrats again on your debut, Annette!

  49. HI, Jenna! xooo

    And I look up images, little detail can make a huge difference.

    Do people actually go to the dumps and retrieve computers?

  50. I'm with the saving old computers crowd. I have three old laptops. I also have a new laptop with Windows 8 and am dragging my feet about using it. I'm unwilling to give up my current duck taped one yet.

    I started reading your book, Annette, and am enjoying it.

  51. I know carol! I have an old Vaio that is so decrepit that I have to hold in the power cord with one hand and type with the other. It is so annoying -- but I'm used to it, you know?

  52. Thanks Carol, Jenna, and everyone for your kind words.

    I have discovered that old laptops make wonderful DVD players once they're past their otherwise useful prime.

  53. I must apologize for being so hit-and-miss with my attendance here today. I was interviews for the Pittsburgh Trib this afternoon (!!!!) and spent all day frantically cleaning my house in case the photographer wanted to take interior pictures. He didn't. PHEW! Anyhow, thanks, Hank, for having me and thanks to everyone for your comments even if I didn't respond to each of them personally.

  54. Sheesh, Hank . . . who knew? All those search reminders saved like that . . . .
    At any rate, my recent searches are all medical-related, seeking information [not nearly enough of it available] after we learned that my sister had a brain tumor and needed immediate surgery.

  55. My history is pretty innocent right now. Games, books, poisoning.... ;)
    I have only had a couple of computers & still have them. Now I'm afraid to get rid of them.
    And this phone.
    And now the cloud worries me. Though I am not sure of anything being in a cloud except kindle books.
    I suppose I could ask my 12yr old gson. He taught his great grandma how to use her new computer.
    The book sounds fascinating.

    Pen M

  56. 1. Sledge Hammer. Smash everything.
    2. Never take your personal papers to the police for shredding, and don't see any shrinks or other professionals who do. Many of my colleagues believe that is safe. It isn't.

  57. Great Book! Don't forget that your computer, actual check book(s), password books, and thumb drives can just be stolen from your house. No high tech needed.

    BTW: Does your doppelganger (picture) know more than you about computers?


  58. Oh, Dave,yes. You do know too much about that, don't you. :-(

    And just about ANYONE knows more about computers than I do.

  59. True, Dave xoo Thanks for the hit of logic.

    MArk Baker, Did I say hi? xooo

    Pen! SO lovely to see you! zoo

  60. There is software you can buy to wipe a hard drive. Of course, if the computer won't turn on, you can't install the software. Large , strong magnets, swiped across the drive may erase it. ( I'm not going to guarantee that.)

    If you really want to destroy it, try the software, then the magnet, then submerse in water, then get out the sledgehammer and smash it.

    Then recycle the rest of the computer and hide the wiped, swiped, soggy , smashed hard drive in the attic or basement. Or bury it in a bag of used cat litter. :-)

    Seriously, though. I worry more about what's in my email. That's out on the internet, stored on who-knows-how-many servers that we have no control over. Sure, you deleted those messages....or did you ? Backups probably exist somewhere.

    Use the cloud for data storage ? Be careful what you put there. I wouldn't put anything with personal info there. Passwords? There's only one safe place for those.