“What are the weakest ports of entry to the United States?”

“How much for a fake social security number?”

“Caribbean to the U.S. without documents…”

NSA spies could be forgiven for pegging me as a human trafficker. A scan of web queries from my IP address in the last year would reveal that someone with access to my password-protected router routinely Googled for information about sneaking into the U.S. I’m somewhat surprised that a black suited agent in dark sunglasses hasn’t come to check out my basement.

I’m not shocked, however, that my questions all had answers buried in the recesses of the web.

Google is to information what Ali Baba’s imaginary, magic cave was to treasure. It’s almost unfathomable how much data is stored and searchable by the internet giant. At least 295 exabytes of information have been kept—much of it in query-able form—since 1986, according to a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Google has one of the biggest publicly accessible caches with an estimated 15 exabytes, according to Randall Munroe, a cartoonist and former NASA roboticist. (Munroe based his assumption on a bunch of math formulas and an analysis of Google’s electricity consumption, among other things.)

An exabyte is tons and tons of data—literally. One exabyte is a million terabytes. When I was a tech reporter at BusinessWeek years ago, a prominent chief data officer told me that terabytes are transported by truck. Another way to look at an exabyte is that it’s a billion gigabytes. The base model iPhone 6 has 16 gigs of storage. Imagine just under a billion iPhones stacked from end to end. Better yet, picture a ring of iPhones traveling from the coast of Maine to California about 22 times.

All those internet-accessible exabytes basically mean that, yes, someone has looked into whatever question my writer brain can invent and has published their take on the web.

I learned plenty about getting into the country without documents for my latest thriller, The Widower’s Wife (Crooked Lane Books. Aug. 9, 2016). The novel’s protagonist, Ana Bacon, is the American-born daughter of since-deported undocumented immigrants. When the story starts, she has fallen overboard from a cruise ship, leaving her 3-year-old daughter as the beneficiary of her multi-million dollar life insurance policy. Insurance investigator Ryan Monahan is looking into whether Ana may have done something to void her benefits before her death, such as commit suicide or perish as the result of a botched fraud attempt. The story alternates between Ryan’s perspective and Ana’s first-person viewpoint three months prior to her fall.

One of the facts gleaned from my research is that most people who sneak into the United States don’t ever go to a smuggler—aka “coyote.” They overstay a tourist visa. However, since that fact was not sufficiently dramatic for the purposes of my mystery, I investigated the myriad of other ways people come into the country without documents.

Aside from hiring smugglers to cross the Mexico border, another popular avenue was once to sneak into the U.S. via cruise ship. The New York Times did a special report in the 1990s called “Loophole at the Pier” showing how would-be immigrants from the Caribbean would slip onto day cruises between Miami and the Bahamas. Human traffickers would also smuggle drugs and people via “go-fast” boats, ferrying folks between the islands and the U.S.’s South Eastern coastline. The cost of passage in the ’90s was often 15,000 dollars and a suitcase full of drugs. No doubt inflation impacts human trafficking.

Terrorist concerns caused authorities to crack down on many of these illicit avenues into America. But weaknesses at the border still persist, enabling me to create a believable fiction based on real research.

I deliberately chose to portray a method of getting into the U.S. that may not exist anymore post 9/11. I wanted to write a mystery not a how-to manual on smuggling people and drugs into the United States. Keeping my novel solidly fiction meant choosing not to reveal some of the things learned when delving through the web for answers to “how to get into the country without documents?” At least once, a page that I’d found by traveling down a rabbit hole of research links led to a site blocked by the U.S. government.

When I hit on the blocked site last year I thought, “great, now I’m on some terrorist watch list.” However, since no NSA agent has shown at my door, I’m guessing that the government has figured out how to separate those looking to break laws from authors seeking to write interesting plots. Besides, I’ve Googled “how to market your mystery novel” enough times that digital powers that be should know exactly with whom they’re dealing.



erased backgroundCatherine “Cate” Holahan is the author of The Widower’s Wife (Crooked Lane Books, August 9, 2016) and Dark Turns (Crooked Lane Books, 2015). She is also an award-winning journalist and former television producer. Her articles have appeared in Businessweek, The Boston Globe, The Record and on websites for CBS, MSN Money, NorthJersey.com and CNBC. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, ages 6 and 4, and dog.