on the run and under surveillance

When I started writing Zero Days, I had very little of the plot mapped out – I just knew that I wanted to write about a pen tester who was accused of the murder of her husband, and chose to go on the run rather than gamble on the police believing her story.

 I already knew a fair amount about pen testers from my research (you can read more about their work here [link to pen tester blog]) but I quickly realised that I knew almost nothing about the other important aspect of my plot: how to successfully go on the run in modern Britain.

 When I spoke to police officers about how best to research this, they all gave me the same advice: watch Channel 4’s Hunted, which turns out to be a surprisingly accurate picture of how difficult it is to evade capture. Hunted, which is still going, has run for six seasons (plus four celebrity seasons) so far, and the premise is a deceptively simple one: a dozen or so ordinary people go on the run and try to survive a set amount of time before making it to a pre-determined extraction point. Those who make it are considered to have won. They can work in pairs, or as individuals – and those in pairs can split up, if they want. On the opposing side are a team of police and surveillance experts who can use all the tools of the state available to the real police – right down to searching the fugitives houses for traces of what they were planning, combing their social media for clues, bribing accomplices, and even putting out public appeals to try to track down their prey.

 Although the series has transferred to the US and Australia, neither has so far had more than one season, perhaps partly because neither country has the unique challenges (and advantages) of the UK. The thing about the UK is that it isn’t a physically daunting environment – with basic precautions, you’re fairly unlikely to be frozen to death of die of heat stroke, and you won’t be attacked by bears, snakes or spiders.  Distances are small, and we have a good public transport network, so contestants don’t have to rely on cars unless they want to. On the face of it, the UK is a fairly ideal place to be a fugitive.

And yet – the UK is one of the most difficult countries in the world to evade detection in, and that’s never been more true than in 2023. Part of the issue is that increasingly, retailers won’t accept cash, and ATMs and card use can be monitored in almost real time, making money one of the most pressing concerns of most contestants. Mobile phone use can of course be tracked, and it takes a degree of knowledge to access the internet without leaving a traceable footprint. But the real issue is that the UK has one of the most joined up and extensive systems of CCTV surveillance in the world, capturing everything from faces to car numberplates. You cannot walk across a major UK city without your image being captured many, many times by CCTV, and you cannot drive on a major road without your car number plate registering on one of the many traffic enforcement cameras. All of that means that it’s very, very hard to stay off the radar.

Part of the fascination of the show is the very different way the contestants handle the same situation, and what each person finds hard. Most quickly become quite paranoid, convinced that complete strangers are out to get them, and that every car hides a lurking police officer. Many of them find it impossible to cut contact with friends and family, and make risky, seemingly illogical decisions to phone home (sometimes, even to go home). But the ones who are successful often share one characteristic – they are nice, personable people, who find strangers who are willing to help them.

Again and again I was astonished by the willingness of random members of the public to give lifts to contestants, offer them beds, give them money or food, generally help them out in a way that runs counter to the narrative the contestants are often telling themselves. And this was the case even before the show became well known, when the only thing the good Samaritan had to go on was the tale the fugitive was telling. Ultimately, even now the show is more famous, people have no way of knowing whether a hitchhiker is telling the truth when they say “I’m on the run – but I haven’t committed a crime. I’m on Hunted!”

Because of Jack’s job, I felt that she would be able to handle some of the things the contestants on Hunted find most difficult – she already has an understanding of CCTV and knows enough about technology to manage to keep in touch with her family without being traceable. And obviously the stakes for her capture are much higher – she doesn’t care about her own safety, so much as finding out the truth about who killed her husband, which for her is really life or death.

But the frequent generosity of ordinary people was something I tried to reflect when writing Zero Days. Jack feels, increasingly, that the whole world is against her – that she’s utterly alone, and can’t trust anyone. And in some ways it’s true – she’s lost the love of her life, the police are hunting her, and her options are fast running out. But again and again, it’s the kindness of strangers which saves her. And perhaps that’s something that should hearten all of us.