Noodle Raider

There’s an interesting detail at the start of a recent Economist piece about a network of tomb raiders in China, or bands of archaeological burglars who have been breaking into and stealing artifacts from ancient sites all over the country.

“By day,” the piece begins, “Mr Wei sold pancakes in Shaanxi, a northern province. By night he led a gang of grave robbers who tunneled under an ancient temple near his shop. It took 11 months for them to reach the treasures buried beneath, which included gold statues of the Buddha and the bones of illustrious monks. Mr Wei and his cronies went on to dig several more passages from restaurants that they opened in the vicinity of shrines and pagodas.”

For as many as five years, allegedly, the crew hit graves and tombs, abetted by this false front of restaurants that were actually being used as forward operating bases for underground tunneling operations. This is quite the modus operandi—though, to be 100% clear, it is not something I am commending. Admiration of method should not be confused with advocacy for its implementation.

Nevertheless, the prospect of these restaurants’ secret purpose being discovered, or even suspected, could easily be the start of a novel or comic book: you and your single parent, say, live alone above an empty restaurant on a dilapidated side street in your depressed hometown, near an old historic site of some sort, when a new owner signs a lease downstairs. A week later, a noodle shop opens. But the food is terrible—it’s just a Coke machine and some instant ramen—and there are strange sounds at night and whispered voices coming up through the ducts. Unexplained piles of dirt begin to appear out back in the alley. Then one day you decide to investigate.

In any case, you can read more about Mr. Wei and his noodle-shop tomb raiding over at the Economist.

Koala Dream Theory

I have not been sleeping well the past few weeks, but I had a great dream the other night in which someone explained to me a new conspiracy theory; in the dream, they really wanted me to investigate it.

The idea, this person explained, was that an obscure clause of the U.S. Constitution, somehow related to the regulation of commerce, requires that the federal government print two back-up copies of every dollar bill in circulation. Every one-dollar, five-dollar, twenty-dollar bill, etc., thus exists in triplicate.

What this means, the person added, was that if you know where the back-up bills are stored, you could thus steal the entire national monetary supply—twice.

I must have been excited by this, because I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep for more than an hour—but while I was lying there, thinking about conspiracy theories, I came up with my own.

In 1973—according to my new conspiracy theory, thrown together at 3 o’clock in the morning last week—Australian researchers discovered a koala that knew how to talk. Amazed, convinced it was the scientific discovery of the decade, they filmed a whole series of long TV-style interviews with it for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—but the tapes were immediately confiscated and never aired out of fear that anyone who saw the talking koala might panic.

However, this theory claims, the tapes still exist and are being stored in a warehouse somewhere. (Note to new readers of this blog: I do not actually believe this theory.)

Right before drifting back to sleep again that night it occurred to me that you could write a story in which someone who believes in Theory #1—that every dollar bill has two back-ups somewhere—breaks into a warehouse only, instead, to find videotape confirmation of Theory #2.

Cut to a scene of disappointed burglars sullenly sliding an old VHS tape into a machine—only for their jaws to drop in wonder at the sound of a little voice…

Every Reflection A Leak

[Image: “Two images of the same room, one reconstructed from video footage of a bag of chips within the room (top) and the other photographed directly (bottom),” as described by Scientific American. Images courtesy Jeong Joon Park.]

“Researchers have now found that by filming a brief video clip of a shiny item, they can use the light flashing off it to construct a rough picture of the room around it,” Scientific American reports. “The results are surprisingly accurate, whether the reflections come from a bowl, a cylinder or a crinkly bag of potato chips.”

It comes down to mathematically modeling “what a known object will look like—how light will reflect off it—when it is placed in new surroundings,” such that you can then reconstruct the proper orientation of what it reflects.

There’s a lot more in the original article, but what immediately struck me about this was how this technology could be used for crime or espionage, both.

You send an unsuspecting group of school kids into a target building, carrying highly reflective silver balloons, or you wear a slyly reflective and precisely designed item of clothing into a business meeting: in both cases, a photographer on a roof across the street or hidden in a park nearby snaps away through a telephoto lens. The reflections spilling off in all directions are like a 360º spherical photograph of the building interior—the art on the walls, the position of furniture. The location of a safe.

Think of the Japanese pop star who was tracked by a stalker after he deduced her location by analyzing the reflection in her eye in a selfie. Every mirrored surface becomes a security leak—“Las Meninas” as burglary tool.

[Image: “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez; if my reference to this painting makes absolutely no sense in the present context, it’s because I’m being pretentious and indirectly referring to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, where he discusses the painting’s use of internal reflection.]

Of course, you may also recall that sounds can be reconstructed from the vibrations of distant objects: “Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass… In other experiments, they extracted useful audio signals from videos of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and even the leaves of a potted plant.”

It’s worth noting here how potato chip bags pop up in each example. Ocean’s 14 will open with a surreptitious potato chip delivery…

In any case, political dissidents, high-value corporate CEOs, and adversarial diplomatic attachés will never be safe again. Just a brief reflection from a cigarette lighter or a piece of silverware, just a tiny ripple of sound across the leaves of an exotic orchid in the center of a dinner table, and someone across the city with a telescope has your bank passcode, the location of your home safe, and a complete 3D map of your building interior, even down to where your security guards are sitting.

[This is only somewhat related, but recall that an engineer at Carnegie Mellon has developed “a long-range iris scanner that can identify someone as they glance at their rear-view mirror” in a moving vehicle, Rob Meyer reported for The Atlantic back in 2015.]

Metropolitan Accomplice

[Image: Photo by Jonas Roosens/AFP/Getty Images, courtesy of the Guardian].

You might have seen the news that a crew of burglars used sewer tunnels beneath the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, to break into a nearby bank vault.

“Detectives in Antwerp are searching for clues in a sewage pipe under the Belgian city’s diamond quarter after burglars apparently crawled through it to break into a bank holding safe deposit boxes full of jewels,” the Guardian reported.

The heist allegedly began across the street, in a separate building, where they dug into the sewer network; one of the city’s many subterranean pipes led close enough to the bank that the crew could then tunnel just a few more meters to make entrance.

A couple of details stand out. For example, the police apparently had to hang back long enough to take gas measurements above the newly opened sewer tunnel, fearing either that the air quality would be so bad that they could risk asphyxiation or that the sewer emanations themselves might be explosive.

Either way, this suggests a possible strategic move by future burglars, who night now know that police—or, at the very least, police not equipped with gas masks—will be delayed due to chemical concerns. Infrastructural off-gassing could become a kind of criminal camouflage.

The other detail is simply that, when the police began investigating the crime, “The first the residents of the central Antwerp district knew of the incident was when police raised all the manhole covers running down the centre of Nerviërsstraat,” the Guardian reported. This otherwise inexplicable sight—law enforcement officers suddenly raising the lid on the city’s underworld—was actually part of a forensic investigation.

I’ve already written at length about tunnel jobs used in bank heists—including a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles, back in the 1980s—in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, so I will defer to that book in terms of addressing specific aspects of underground crime. In fact, I would perhaps even more specifically recommend the book Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, about another, massive heist in Antwerp’s diamond district pulled off in 2003.

[Images: Sewer maps and diagrams are now freely available online; the ones seen here are from Los Angeles and detail the same neighborhood in which a 1986 bank heist occurred, where the bandits tunneled into a vault using the city’s stormwater network. Read more in A Burglar’s Guide to the City or in retired FBI agent Bill Rehder’s absurdly enjoyable memoir, Where The Money Is].

Instead, what seems worth commenting on here is simply the very nature of urban infrastructure and the ease with which it can be repurposed for designing, planning, and committing crimes. The city itself can be an accomplice in acts entirely unrelated to the infrastructure in question. A freeway route enables a bank-heist getaway, a sewer tunnel offers jewel thieves a subterranean method of entry, a specific intersection’s geometric complexity means that carjackings are more likely to occur there: the city is filled with silent accomplices to future criminal activity, activities and events unforeseen by most city planners.

Will this intersection lead to more carjackings? is unlikely to be high on the list of questions posed by community feedback, yet it’s exactly that sort of tactical thinking that might allow designers to stay one step ahead of the criminals who seek to abuse those same designers’ finished projects.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Thermal Crime Wave

[Image: From FBI surveillance video in Baltimore].

One interesting side-effect of ever-intensifying heatwaves in an era of global climate change might be that infrared imaging technology used by the police is no longer quite as effective. Human bodies will be cooler than the surrounding landscape, meaning that they could simply disappear from view.

It’s like that scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where a portable heater, hidden inside a briefcase, incapacitates an infrared surveillance camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—only, here, it’s been scaled up to an entire metropolis. Heat the city; disappear.

This is, of course, a solved problem—forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras can be adjusted to accommodate different temperature ranges. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to imagine a fictional future crime wave timed specifically and deliberately for a night of excruciatingly hot temperatures in a city somewhere, the bodies of criminals mischievously blending in with the buildings around them as they only rob buildings close to their own thermal range. Criminals armed with precision thermometers, casing the city.

That, or they can simply wear graphene.

(Thanks to @raihan_ for the heads up; also, I wrote fairly extensively about police FLIR use in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.)

Rumored Chutes

For a piece published by The New Yorker back in October, writer Joshua Yaffa looked back at the history of his Moscow apartment complex, “a vast building across the river from the Kremlin, known as the House on the Embankment. In 1931, when tenants began to move in, it was the largest residential complex in Europe, a self-contained world the size of several city blocks.”

Among many other such stories and details, one stood out: the interior of the building, Yaffa learned, was allegedly used against the people who lived in it. He explains that, “throughout 1937 and 1938 the House of Government was a vortex of disappearances, arrests, and deaths. Arrest lists were prepared by the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police, which later became the K.G.B., and were approved by Stalin and his close associates. Arrests occurred in the middle of the night.”

However, it’s how the police were rumored to access individual apartments that caught my eye: “A story I have heard many times,” Yaffa continues, “but which seems apocryphal, is that N.K.V.D. agents would sometimes use the garbage chutes that ran like large tubes through many apartments, popping out inside a suspect’s home without having to knock on the door.”

This vision of vermicular control from within—of agents of the state sliding around within our walls and utility ducts like animals—is both unsettling and Kafkaesque, a nightmare and the setup for a surreal tragicomedy.

An undercover cop stuck in the walls between floors four and five for nearly three weeks is fed homemade soup by a young boy who takes pity on him, this unknown man caught in the fabric of the building and abandoned there by his superior officers out of embarrassment.

Gradually, the boy and this agent of the state strike up something like a friendship, sharing their hopes for the future, complaining about perceived limitations in life, confiding in one another about random things they’re both inspired to recall, and looking forward to future adventures—until, finally, one day after a shower leak raining down from a luxury apartment somewhere much further above, the man is able to slip free.

He slides into the boy’s room feet-first, covered in wood shavings and dust—where he promptly follows through on his initial mission and arrests the boy’s entire family.

Read Yaffa’s piece over at The New Yorker.

Incidental Detection

[Image: Aura WiFi burglar alarm].

A new home and office alarm system detects disturbances in WiFi to warn residents of potential burglars. The Aura, as it’s known, picks up “disruptions in the invisible radio waves that make up your home’s Wi-Fi network” to determine if someone—or perhaps something—is sneaking around inside, uninvited.

When Cognitive Systems, the Canadian tech firm behind Aura, began discussing the project publicly back in 2015, they suggested that WiFi is basically an invisible shape inside your home, and that “distortions” or deformations in that shape can be detected and responded to. There is your home’s interior; then there is the electromagnetic geometry of WiFi that fills your home’s interior.

Although the alarm is capable of differentiating between an adult human being and, say, a loose piece of paper blowing down a hallway or a house plant swinging in the evening breeze, the system can apparently be thrown off by complicated architectural layouts. Perhaps, then, in the techno-supernatural future, particular homes will find themselves unavoidably haunted by nonexistent burglars, as alarms are unable to stop ringing due to an unusual arrangement of halls and closets. A new Gothic of electromagnetic effects, where the alarm is detecting the house itself.

Of course, if devices like the Aura take off, it will almost undoubtedly lead to crafty burglars developing WiFi-shape-spoofing tools as ways to camouflage their entry into, and movement through, other people’s homes. A black market economy of signal-reflection and WiFi-dazzling clothing takes off, allowing humans to move like stealth airplanes through complex electromagnetic environments, undetected. The opposite of this, perhaps.

Stories of one thing unexpectedly being used to detect the presence of another have always fascinated me. In this case, it’s just WiFi being used to pick up potential criminal trespass, but, in other examples, we’ve seen GPS satellites being repurposed as a giant dark matter detector in space. As if vast clouds of invisible matter, through which the Earth is “constantly crashing,” might set off some sort of planetary-scale burglar alarm.

[Image: GPS satellites, via MIT Technology Review].

There are so many examples of this sort of thing. Recall, for instance, that subatomic particles (or, rather, their absence) can be used to map otherwise inaccessible architectural interiors, or that an experiment in the 1930s designed “to find out what was causing the static that interfered with trans-Atlantic telephone calls” inadvertently kicked off the field of radio astronomy, or the fact that tree rings can be used to detect both sunspots and earthquakes. Or even that LIGO, the gravitational-waves detector, at one point was accidentally being set off by wolves, or that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was picked up as an earthquake by regional seismographs.

Imagine scrambling all this; you wake up tomorrow morning to find that WiFi burglar alarms are detecting dark matter walls in space, telephone calls are picking up signs of unknown rooms and corridors hidden in the buildings all around you, and scientists outside studying wolves in the American wild have found evidence of celestial phenomena in the creatures’ tracking collars.

In fact, I’m tangentially reminded of the internet subgenre of what could be called things inadvertently captured on wildlife cameras—ghostly forms in the wilderness, lost children, “unexplained” lights. These are trail cameras that were placed there to track wildlife, either for science or for sport, but then these other things allegedly popped up, instead.

[Image: Via Outdoor Life].

I suppose this often absurd, Photoshop-prone field of purportedly occult photography comes about as close as you can to a new technological folklore, devising myths of encounter as picked up by systems originally installed to look for something else.

Yet it leaves me wondering what the “spooky trail cam” genre might produce when mixed with WiFi-enabled home burglar alarms, dark matter detectors in space, etc. etc.

In any case, the CBC has a great write-up about the Aura, if you want to learn more.

A Burglar’s Guide to Harvard

I was stoked to see a class being taught at Harvard this summer inspired by A Burglar’s Guide to the City. Called “(Don’t) Steal this Painting: A Burglar’s Guide to the Museum,” the course is led by Matthew Battles. It’s only open to Harvard students, alas, but if that accurately describes you then give it a shot.

A Burglar’s Guide to TV

I’m finally back from several weeks of travel and wanted to post some recent news I was particularly thrilled about: my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, is being developed for television by CBS Studios. From Variety:

The drama, which landed a put pilot commitment, hails from writer Paul Grellong (“Scorpion,” “Revolution”) and exec producers Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, Danielle Woodrow, and Justin Lin, who is attached to direct the pilot.

A Burglar’s Guide to the City follows a team of modern-day Robin Hoods, led by a brilliant architect with a troubled past, that uses their unique skills to gain access to any stronghold in order to steal from rich criminals and give to those that have been wronged by a corrupt system.

The potential series is based on Geoff Manaugh’s non-fiction book. Manaugh, repped by Manage-ment and Marc Van Arx, will serve as a consulting producer on the TV project. Nate Miller and Dan Halsted of Manage-ment are also producing, along with Aaron Baiers of Secret Hideout.

I can’t say more about the show at this point, other than to point out that I am absolutely, genuinely over the moon about this, but I am very much looking forward to bringing burglary and architecture to a small screen near you…

If you haven’t checked out the book, meanwhile, consider picking up a copy; many reviews and blurbs can also be found at burglarsguide.com.

A Burglar’s Guide to London

[Image: From London’s Hatton Garden heist; photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service].

For anyone near London next week, I’m looking forward to speaking with Rory Hyde, curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on Monday night, September 26th. We’ll be discussing infrastructural vulnerabilities, subterranean heists, electromagnetic getaways, ubiquitous police surveillance, and many other topics found in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Things kick things off at 7pm, at Libreria, a great new bookshop run by the folks at Second Home, in a space designed by Selgas Cano. The event is free, but here are some details to RSVP.

Stop by—and join us for drinks afterward to continue the conversation.

A Burglar’s Guide to Denver

burglars

If you’re near Denver, I’m excited to be doing an event there next week with novelist Nick Arvin. Arvin, you might recall, was previously interviewed here on BLDGBLOG about his novel The Reconstructionist, including Arvin’s previous, real-life job simulating car crashes for the insurance industry.

We’ll be discussing A Burglar’s Guide to the City at the David Adjaye-designed MCA Denver on Wednesday night, July 20, 6pm, in something called the Whole Room.

You can check-in on Facebook—although no RSVP is required—and the only fee is general admission to the museum ($2.50). Hope to see you there!