In “Code 6,” James Grippando provides a thriller with a dual plot line; both plot lines deal with information and how technology makes mining data about people so easy that even the most primitive technology identified those of Jewish descent for the Nazis. The main character is Kate Gamble, whose father is the CEO of a huge technology company that specializes in data integration. His company has ties with the CIA, the NSA, and other counterterrorism organizations. Kate is graduating from law school, but she really wants to be a playwright. She is writing a play about the beginning of data mining and its dangers, which she hides from her father because of his own business. He might not be pleased that the subject of her play is the dark side of data technology.
Grippando tells the story from several points of view. Mostly, we see the action as we follow Kate’s problems as she struggles to finish her play. She has caught the attention of Irving Bass, an award-winning Broadway director, after winning a live critique at his workshop. He demands she change the focus of her play, and as we read scenes from the play as part of the narrative, we learn about the role of IBM in documenting race issues going back to 1890. The first scene of her play takes place in the US, and the census taker wants to know someone’s race. The choices are: “white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian.” Kate’s point in writing this scene set over a century ago was that this was the first census where the results were tabulated using machines created by Herman Hollerith. Grippando writes, “Suddenly, the Census Bureau could nail down the name and address of every single American with a drop of African blood in his or her body. This is 1890. The possibilities are so much scarier now.” Kate’s play presents the theme of “technology and the abuse of personal information.”
The director wants her to change the focus to Germany, and how the Nazis, with the assistance of IBM’s Thomas Watson, were able not only to identify those of Jewish descent but also pinpoint their assets. While her play was inspired by her father’s company, the actual action revolves around a newer use of technology to mine data.
Kate’s mother, an alcoholic, falls from her penthouse apartment in what is deemed a suicide, but her last note is not much of a suicide note, “I did it for Kate.” What specifically did she do? What is “it”? Shortly after that, a young employee of the company disappears and is kidnapped in Columbia, South America. Part of the narrative is from Patrick, the employee’s, point of view. We learn that Kate was his babysitter and feels close to Patrick. She makes it her mission to find out what happened and save him.
There is also the investigation of her father’s company by the Department of Justice, and the fact that the investigation is being headed by Kate’s ex-boyfriend Noah. All of this means that there are many different plot lines and characters to keep track of. But thanks to Grippando’s masterful writing and gripping action, we have no problem following along.
The question at the heart of the story is about corporate greed and the complicity of governments in data mining to gain information about its citizens for purposes that are not aboveboard and trustworthy. Part of what is displayed in the novel is based on what is happening in social media now. We learn that those “fun” quizzes on Facebook are often a way for unscrupulous actors to gain information about our favorite colors or our pet’s names. Why? To gather information about each of us in order to make it easier to steal our identity or just our financial information.
As an aside, I recently had my Facebook page hacked by someone in Viet Nam who then posted pornographic videos on my page. Why? I have no idea because the page was quickly disabled and I had to jump through hoops and the Attorney General of my state to get it back. I still have not had my Instagram account reinstated even though nothing inappropriate was ever posted on it. It opened my eyes to the ease with which our information can be hacked. I had two-step verification on my account. It didn’t matter. One also must begin to wonder about those corporate messages, when you call customer service, that conversations are being recorded. Just what are those recordings being used for? Quality assurance, as they state? Do they then delete them? Or what might they be used for in the future?
This is a truly thoughtful read, and readers will be pondering questions and issues regarding technology and the fact that while we enjoy having a computer at our fingertips with our cell phones, our microphones can be turned into listening devices and our cameras into video recorders, all of which could be following our movements. Is there really any such thing as privacy these days unless one shuns all social media and technology? Our movements can be traced and our every purchase noted. It’s definitely a scary new world, and Grippando’s latest novel effectively and scarily drives that point home.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Harper, the publisher, for review purposes.