A cautionary tale of technological excess
The conference hall was brilliantly lit.
As we waited for the first speaker of the day to deliver the keynote address, I marveled at the fantastic location for the conference. This was the first conference of this type and they spared no expense to buy the entire building for a day. They hired their own catering companies, with food from twenty five different countries, had a personal security force with sophisticated support services for all technology, incoming and outgoing. Nothing was left to chance. As far as anyone could tell this was just another dental conference in the middle of downtown San Francisco.
The first speaker was a tall man, possibly from Norway, his blondish white hair was stylishly combed and his suit was impeccable. Once he spoke, his accent was a crisp and cultured German but his English was completely able to be understood. He had learned to speak English in America and I suspected he could make his accent completely disappear if he wanted to. It was the nature of everyone here. We were all able to be more than we appeared to be.
“Good morning, everyone.”
“Good morning,” the audience responded. I looked around at the room and saw an unexpected diversity in the crowd. The room was filled with the old and young, the obscenely wealthy (whose clothing gave them away) and the absurdly radical (like me, wearing whatever crossed our path). Every color of the human rainbow and from every social group on the planet. I could personally recognize at least thirty different facial/social groups in the audience from where I was sitting. Facial recognition was my specialty. I wrote software that could recognize faces from nearly any quality of video. I had auctioned the technology and the client wanted to meet here to contract me for further work. He felt we were kindred spirits and would mutually benefit from the conference.
“My name is Lars Ulfrich, and I am here to lead into a series of discussions regarding our product. We are at a crossroads in our work. Government agencies have decided to take greater steps to monitor and track our individual efforts. One hundred and seventeen nations have come out against what we do.” Lars directed our attention to the screen and listed the nations who were opposed to our work.
“While most governments disapprove,” he began again, “they have no way to effectively track or deal with our business model. Indeed, missing people have simply become a fact of life in most major cities. With that said, even government will eventually get their act together, and the threat of that has kept our opportunities small, but manageable. It has come a time for us to begin to recognize both our vulnerabilities and our potential opportunities that could come from our pooling our efforts. It is also time to talk about some of the newest capabilities taking place in the world of software.”
Lars turned back to the monitor behind him and the screen lit up with three words I had come to hate so much. ‘Privacy is dead.’
“Ironic isn’t it. These three words ushered in a new age in communication a few years ago when social media was becoming the future of human communication. People were told they did not need to be private any longer. ‘Share yourselves with the world, place your photos online, talk about where you’re going, tell everyone what you’re doing once you get there.’ These words were uttered by privacy pundits everywhere and people believed it. No greater bounty has come our way since the invention of the handcuff and the taser. With the tools of social media, we can effectively transform our industry in ways scarcely conceived of at the turn of the century when the term ‘shanghai’ was used to describe our early twenty century habit of acquiring ‘manual labor.’”
Using his remote, Lars turned on a video feed of a techno-geek in a lab with six monitors, assorted computers on the floor and a central screen that used a gloved interface. Nice, kind of geeky. The room was dark and the images on the side windows were of a variety of data streams from a number of modern social media programs.
“This is our future.” Lars waved his hands expansively toward the screen and the technician raised his hand without turning around as if to say he was aware of our existence. “Imagine, if you will, the ability to have a client request a particular desire.”
On the right side of the display, a number of older men’s faces appeared, with the occasional woman’s face appearing among them. The technician then moved to the left side of the screen displays and air-typed a command. “Let’s start with a client searching for a subject who is sixteen to twenty-five, fair skinned, dark haired, middle America, five feet, five inches to five feet ten inches. Our technical staff would access the largest social media tools and having written a series of programs that query the site, can pull approximately sixteen thousand names matching those criteria across the United States. He would then parse the list, reducing low quality subjects, or subjects whose criteria would put them on the periphery of desirability. The second pass would reduce the number of potentials to two thousand. He would then look for subjects who could meet any extenuating desires of the clients such as linguistic expertise, cultural awareness, or extraordinary physical attributes. This reduces the list from two thousand to two hundred. The remaining two hundred would then be cross-referenced with a list of ‘acquisition agents’ who are all vetted and experienced in collecting subjects. The collection agents locations or travel radii would determine the suitability of the subjects, as well as outstanding bulletins which would reduce an areas potential, depending on the effectiveness of the local constabulary.”
Bringing the audience back to him for a moment he dims the display and turns back to facing the audience. He began, “At this point we have not even ventured out of the office yet and have already been able to search through a pool of thousands of prospective subjects who have all willingly given out everything we need to be able to find them, monitor their activity, their physical location during the course of a day and what their habits, entertainments, and filial relationships might be. Photographs of their cars reveal their home via a quick DMV scan. Geotagging their photos gives us a pattern of potential locations and with a couple of days of regular tracking we can begin to set up a pickup point. We can scout locations ahead of time to ensure no effective security cameras or personnel will be in the area when we are ready to pickup.”
On the monitor, we are watching as our technician has been watching his custom designed data engine propagate potential points of retrieval from a subjects geomapped information from social media tags, text messages, and photos, and cross-referencing against a map of citywide surveillance. Three different blind locations are available and set along with the subject scans, a variety of photographs to potential clients who might be interested and a cost to acquire and ship the subject.
Lars looks back to address the room. “What makes this set of new opportunities most appealing is the data being collected is in the public domain, so we are not forced to randomly appropriate subjects, risking surveillance, accidents or dumb luck. Using this process, we will eliminate any random chance by planning far ahead enough and leaving no incriminating clues. Yes, the local governments are also trying to use social media to understand and potentially track subjects who could be criminals, but what they are looking for is almost impossible for people to be able pick out of the background noise of our world. We have a major advantage, we know what we are looking for. They don’t realize we can change our selection process, targets, locations, and methodologies. Constantly rotating, we would make it difficult for them to get a pattern.”
Turning off the monitor and turning up the lights, Lars smiles a gleaming white band of teeth and says “Hah? What do you think of that? Can you see the potential? Last year, we unofficially made approximately $32 billion, by the estimates of the FBI. Our numbers indicate we were able to make twice that easily. With the continued development of our social media tools, which give greater and greater veracity to the information being collected, plus with our recent technological acquisition of software and technicians, many of whom were once on the government payrolls before being thrown to the wolves, we have the potential to triple our numbers without any increased sense of risk on our parts. Clients from the developed world fetch the highest prices. With social media only growing more prevalent, it is only a matter of time until the next generation doesn’t even know or care what the word privacy means.”
Lars tossed the remote to someone in the orchestra pit and turn again to the crowd. “We will be breaking into smaller groups in just a few minutes, many of them will have conversations discussing in greater detail how each individual process will be integrated into the greater whole. We invite anyone who is interested in further opportunities with this new process to begin to sign up for the coursework and head to the forum areas to continue their training. I expect our new year to be prosperous. Remember those three words that have changed our methodology and will make us richer than we have ever imagined.”
A man dressed in dark clothing is seen coming through the back door of the stage, dragging a blond young woman about eighteen years of age. Her face is immediately familiar and I get a sick feeling as I realized who she was. She is being half dragged, half carried to the center of the stage. She was every bit as beautiful as her photos suggested. “To show you the speed and effectiveness of our new process, this young woman was picked out before this seminar started, right here in the Bay Area. From start to finish, the entire operation once the technical aspects were done, was less than an hour. She has been plucked right out of her day and will not be missed for nearly six hours. She will be on her way to Hong Kong in less than four. I hope this presentation has been informative. My name is Lars Ulfrich, thank you for coming.”
The room was dead silent as he dragged the girl away. The hungry stares of the audience seemed to drink in her pain and suffering. Then she whimpered for just a second, a sad sound. If I had a heart it would have been breaking right then. I looked away in shame.
Then the lights went out indicating the end of the presentation. The applause was deafening.
Dark Harvest © Thaddeus Howze 2012, All Rights Reserved
photo: keoni101 / flickr