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High Tech and Secret Identities

Clem had a question in the Suggestion Pot [1]:

Supers gaming: In a world with ubiquitous security cameras, DNA analysis that can identify someone from a skin cell scraped from their knuckle by an evildoer’s five o’clock shadow, image and profile matching software, huge fingerprint and medical ID databases, easy wiretapping and bugging etc.; how does an enterprising vigilante protect his/her/their/its secret identity?

I just finished an interesting book, Superpowers [2] by David J. Schwartz. A lot of the book has to do with the difficulty in keeping a secret identity. It is set in the Summer of 2001, when a lot of today’s investigative technology exists, but before the widespread popularity of CSI and some of the more recent changes to information gathering law and practice.

The shallowest answer is to hand wave it away as not a problem. Just as Clark Kent’s glasses are enough to throw everyone off, maybe no one thinks to use technology to unmask the heroes. This will work in a game until someone brings it up… then it will feel like a plot hole. A way to counter this is to explicitly discuss secret identities before the game; if everyone agrees that they want secret identities to be generally effective and that it’s not an interesting complication to deal with, then you’re set. For specific plots you can reverse this, but the underlying assumption is that it’ll basically work and no one will look too closely.

A variation of the shallow answer is to just define the PCs as unidentifiable. If the PCs share a common origin (like magic or mutation), a side effect of their condition might destroy their identifying markers. Maybe one of the PCs has an ultra violet blast that sanitizes the fight scenes, or the mage knows a cantrip similar to Shadowrun’s sanitize spell that instantly cleans the scene of hair, blood, and other common identifiers.

Another option is to use realistic science, but bend things in favor of the PCs keeping their identities. Use those depressing newspaper stories about contaminated crime labs, mixed up bloodwork, and laboratory funding cuts, to explain away the researchers failure to break the IDs. Realistic limits might mean that they only have time to identify a couple of common genetic markers instead of sequencing the PC’s whole genome, that the fingerprints are taken and compared to paper records… there’s no money to computerize everything. Or that the partial prints have 11,000 “potential hits” and no one is willing to do the drudge work when there are more important crimes to solve. You can go so far as to play this for laughs; one week the intrepid reporter notes that one of the heroes has dog genes in their DNA (thanks to sloppy blood gathering), the next week she reports that “eye witness reports place the vigilante as a while male 5′-8″ to 6′-2″ tall”, the third week her expose reveals a 0.12% chance that the masked crusader is related to the Hapsburg line.

If secret identities are important, then maybe it’s time for the PCs to stack the deck. A friend in the crime lab can explain why the blood samples are never pure enough for analysis. It works for Nick Knight [3]— why not find your PC a Natalie? Someone on the supernatural investigations division of the local police might make for a good contact/DNPC. Take advantage of the fact that the PC needs something from the NPC and make it a dynamic relationship. Do you want to stand up the only person who can lose your DNA sample because you have another dinner scheduled?

PC skills and powers can provide good backstory reasons for the security of their secret IDs. A computer hacker character could have a virus lodged deep in the FBI that deletes any fingerprints or other identifying characteristics for the PCs. A shapeshifter might shift finger prints whenever they change forms. Special gloves might be a side effect of one PC’s genius, or Lancelot dresses up in plate armor in the 21st century just to prevent those blood splatter problems. Who knows what damage is done to hair and blood when they pass through a force field?

If you enjoy the idea of beating security systems as a major subplot, mention that you’ll use realistic surveillance and crime scene technology during character generation. Knowing that they’ll have to deal with realistic snooping might alter their choices about techniques and tools. Little Brother X [4] is a great novel that deals with modern surveillance and keeping your identity concealed. Beating the surveillance state might provide an interesting constraint on their actions; like Marcus, they’ll have a handful of pebbles on hand to alter their gait when it’s necessary.

Those are some of the solutions I see for Clem and his group. Do you see some good ideas I missed? What flaws are there in the things I suggested? Could you keep a secret ID if you allowed the NPCs to have the supertech of comic books and CSI?

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "High Tech and Secret Identities"

#1 Comment By Micah On July 23, 2008 @ 8:00 am

The most realistic scenario is the sloppy lab work / poor funding one. In real life, people are being set free all the time due to new DNA evidence. But, it’s not like one day they just solved all the cases. Instead, there’s a huge backlog and no one can get to it.

Plus, unless the PCs have prior criminal records, their fingerprints probably aren’t on record. The same is true for DNA. If they’re not registered sex offenders (hmm…strange concept for a superhero PC) then their DNA is probably not on record either. Of course, this assumes a somewhat libertarian society. In an authoritarian one, everybody has a file. In that case, destroying that file should be the first order of business.

Finally, the thing to remember about all this technology is that it attempts to match one person to another (heroic identity to secret identity). If either one is not on record, then the match can’t be made. So, since it might be hard to avoid leaving evidence as a hero, perhaps the secret identity should be more careful about staying off the radar. No speeding tickets, always wears gloves, no public photo ops, none of that.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 23, 2008 @ 8:13 am

Another route is that the technology to do these things isn’t just lying around. OK, so the feds know that Kurt Schneider is Telas the Midnight Blogger. So what? Occasional plots may involve this information getting leaked, but you can handwave that all known secret identities are subject to Double Secret Security Procedure Alpha, and privy to only a handful of individuals.

(After all, if hundreds or even thousands of federal agents can cover up the JFK assassination conspiracy, the faked moon landings, and the Roswell alien crash site, they should be able to handle a few secret identities, right?)

#3 Comment By Alan De Smet On July 23, 2008 @ 11:18 am

I’d handle this one of two ways, depending on what I wanted in a particular campaign:

1. As Kurt suggested above, accept that the modern world is very different from the past. Build on top of it instead of fighting it. Maybe all supers are registered with the government, so they know anyway but accept the secrecy for some reason, benevolent or malevolent. Maybe the Powers That Be have reasons to suppress the information.

2. Move to an era when it’s not a problem. There’s no harm in, say, setting your game in the 80s. It was a nice decade. This is useful if there are other modern elements (cell phones, cell phone cameras, the internet) that are problematic for the type of game you want to run.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On July 23, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

Thanks for expanding on the sloppy lab work idea Micah– that will be very useful to the GM going to the grab bucket of explanations for why they can’t make the link.

I like the setting it before technology becomes a problem like you suggest Alan. Heading back to a less intrusive past makes it a lot easier to get around snooping technology. If you’re playing in an alternate timeline, you could retard the development of problematic technologies too- keep the parts of the 21st century that you like, but cross it with less ubiquitous security cameras and 30 year old progress in biology.

I hadn’t even considered the idea that Kurt and Alan suggested– that your secret ID is broken for limited purposes (to the government), but that it’s secret to everyone else. That’s another strong way of defanging the problem.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 23, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

I saw Clem’s suggestion in the Pot, and couldn’t get past “Handwave it because it’s not usually part of the genre” myself. Nice job covering the topic from every angle, Scott!

Clem, you seem to write magnetic suggestions — you’ve had more turned into posts than anyone else at this point. 😉

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On July 24, 2008 @ 9:33 am

Though I’d love it if you’d pop back in the thread, Clem, and let us know how we did. Did this hit the nail on the head, or did you have something different in mind? Will this work in your campaign?

#7 Comment By Luke On July 24, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

I wanted to add that the fact that we have technology doesn’t mean the information to ID the superhero may just not be there.

For example, the police may lift fingerprints they believe belong to Super-Joe. However Super-Joe’s secret identity Average Joe is just an ordinary citizen. He was never arrested, and never served in the military so his fingerprints are not available in any forensic database. They can run queries for months and try to find matches but the fact is that his fingerprints are just not there.

Similarly, police and press may have photos and videos of our hero but there is no single national database of head shots they could query. The only picture of Average Joe on file might be his low-resolution grainy driver’s license pic – and that may not be enough to run a facial recognition match. Especially if Super-Joe uses some sort of mask obscuring part of his face.

Same goes for DNA. Most of us don’t have any DNA records lying around. Police may gather a blood sample, but it will not give them much to work with if they can’t match it against anything.

Most of the forensic techniques are used to rule out whether or not a suspect is the man you are looking for. But you must have a suspect first. So if Average Joe lays low and keeps out of trouble, Super-Joe may conceal his identity for an indefinite amount of time.

The science in CSI like TV dramas is usually more fiction than science and real life cases are never so clear cut. What superheroes have going for them is that in most western nations there is a big emphasis on personal privacy. In US citizens are not required to be fingerprinted, they do not need to posses any national form of ID, and unlawfully sampling their DNA would be a breach of privacy. Hospitals and doctor offices will not release any identifying info (such as blood samples) to the police without a court order.

So really, identifying an average law abiding citizen based on few flakes of skin, few hairs or a tiny speck of blood is very, very difficult. Secret identities are not as hard to maintain as CSI would make you think.

#8 Comment By Kaelbane On July 25, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

In a recent government inquiry, IN THE REAL WORLD, the Defense Department couldn’t justify all of its spending because of an outdated computer system.
I think a vigilante (or hero group) could easily bypass most government security protocols.

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