America’s next top sleuth
Gina Twardosz | Monday, March 23, 2020
In the Netflix series “Gracie and Frankie,” Frankie, a kooky hippie grandmother, exclaims in one episode that she’s an “amateur sleuth with limited self-control and a computer.” While hilarious, Frankie raises a good point: How much of ourselves and others are online and who has access to this information?
In “The End of Privacy as We Know It?”, a recent episode from “The Daily” podcast, host Michael Barbaro interviews New York Times technology reporter Kashmir Hill about a company that sells software to law enforcement officers that scans the Internet for photos posted of a particular person. Once found, the photo tells the company when and where the photo was taken.
While the software has completely changed the way investigations are conducted for the better, what would happen if this software was available to the public? Who could find whom and for what reasons?
While this increasing lack of privacy is problematic, the idea of an amateur sleuth has been revitalized because of the overabundance of personal information available on the web. The amateur sleuth becomes a detective, an archivist and a journalist — all in their spare time.
In the recent Netflix documentary “Don’t F**k With Cats,” a group of strangers came together through Facebook to, at first, find out who kept posting animal cruelty videos online so they could report him to the ASPCA. But, through endless hours of sleuthing, they discovered the man was actually a murderer who they helped the Canadian authorities identify and capture.
While that case is extreme and its conclusion is unlikely, the story behind the documentary reveals that many ordinary people fall down the rabbit hole of amateur sleuthing. Through it all, the amateur sleuths worked quicker than detectives just through monitoring Facebook and Google Maps — in fact, it was the murderer’s own hubris in constantly posting on Facebook that allowed him to be caught.
As previously stated, the events of the documentary are extremely unique, but inside us all is an amateur sleuth just waiting to get out. My friends have caught the amateur sleuthing bug themselves due to their procurement of a rather innocuous postcard. The postcard is from 1968 and depicts a view of Lake Adirondack near the village of Indian Lake, New York. On the back, in loose cursive, a man, signed Rick S., writes: “Hi Man This is a lake thats near us our lake is adorondak lake No fish, caught yet But I’m trying write again.” [sic] The only other information present on the postcard is the name of the recipient: Mark Becker.
But Rick S. probably never fathomed that in 2020 a bunch of Smicks would be pooling their resources in order to decipher his backstory. The postcard is not linked to any crime, but it incites a feverish curiosity: Who were these men, how did they become friends and most importantly, where are they now?
My friends have already spent countless hours scrolling through social media, online phone books, Google Maps and even online newspaper obituaries. I have even encouraged them with my own journalistic insight: Contact the thrift store owner, see if they keep a record of the donations they receive — or maybe even try the Indian Lake town historian.
The postcard has no bearing on any of our lives, and yet, we cannot help but to invest ourselves in this petty investigation. What are we looking for? It would be poetic to say that we are looking for ourselves, or for a sense of righteous community — but I think we are all just nosy and looking for a way to pass the time. If anything, we are chasing the adrenaline of discovery in a world that is seriously lacking the unknown.
In this digital era, everything demands to be known, and when, if ever, something languishes in obscurity, it excites something primal in all of us: What is out there, lying just beyond the familiar, and what will happen when it finally reveals itself to us?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.