Dark Harvest

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

About Thaddeus Howze

Thaddeus Howze was a New York native and found his way to the West Coast as a consequence of his military service. He's a California-based technology executive and author whose non-fiction and online journalism has appeared in publications such as The Enemy, Black Enterprise Online, Urban Times, the Good Men Project, and Astronaut.com. Thaddeus Howze has published two books, Hayward's Reach (2011) and Broken Glass (2013). He maintains a nonfiction blog on science and technology at A Matter of Scale (bit.ly/matterofscale). He writes speculative fiction at hubcityblues.com.


  1. From CafeMom: ‘Cannibal’ Cop Arrested for Plotting to Kidnap, Cook & Eat 100 Women
    Posted by Adriana Velez on October 25, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    So here’s a horror story to keep us all up at night: NYC cop Gilberto Valle III was just arrested for plotting to kidnap, cook, and eat 100 women. Yeah, I’ll let that sink in a moment. Police and the FBI caught him emailing an unnamed co-conspirator (there were two) about their plans to catch, kill, and eat their first victim.
    So here’s the fun part: Police found computer files of women he was planning to (shudder) consume. With names. And photographs. And he was using police databases for surveillance. HO LEE SHITOLEY. There is so much disturbing information here I’m not sure how to process it all.

    Everyone wants to think of fiction as just fiction. Sometimes real life is far more terrifying.
    Partake of the rest of this grisly tale at CafeMom: http://bit.ly/SS59a5

  2. Continuing my research on the topic of human trafficking, I listened to a brilliant speech on how embedded human trafficking in within the infosphere. So much so, the speaker Julie Ruvolo suggests the only way to stop it is to either create an effective barrier to porn and its attendant possibility of human trafficking or to just burn down the Internet all-together.

    The speech was part of the Personal Democracy Forum 2012 on June 11-12 in New York City. The conference was called “The Internet’s New Political Power.” You can read more about the conference at: http://personaldemocracy.com/conferences/nyc/2012

    You can watch the speech in its entirety at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vj2AHe-HFVE

  3. The first step to solving a problem is to realize that there is one. There are many dark and terrible practices that go on in this country without even considering what is going on in the rest of the world. This story is an example of the things that could go wrong if we continue to ignore the prejudices, injustices, violations to human rights, an indecencies that abound in our community. Invasions of privacy and the lack of laws to protect women might very well encourage someone with a sick mind to attempt to use information in such a fashion. I shudder to think that often art imitates life and visa versa, especially when these days the only goal seems to be whether it makes someone rich. All men suffer when good men do nothing.

  4. From Smarter Planet: What Facebook knows about you. An article discussing how much of your personal information is available to agencies other than you: http://smartplanet.com/blog/thinking-tech/features/11813

  5. This piece has generated a few comments. I suspect it would generate more but most people are likely to say, nothing like this could ever happen or exist in today’s world. A conference of evil, you say, where they discuss how to better use technology to make profits off of our shared human resources and shared human suffering? Seems so unlikely, right?

    On to the questions and statements:
    What does this piece of fiction have to do with the Good Men Project?
    What does this piece of fiction mean in the overall scheme of things?
    Why should we worry about human trafficking, it’s not that serious of an issue, right?
    All stories like this do is make more laws restricting the freedoms of the Internet.
    All stories like this one do is give people ideas how to use the Internet for evil.
    All stories like this one do is cause the government to crack down on prostitution which may or may not be a problem, in and of itself.
    There is no data substantiating the nature of human trafficking and its effect on the lives of the people being trafficked.

    I could go on but it disgusts me that I should have to. For as long as there has been technology in whatever forms it has taken, it has been used for both good and evil; subjective terms to be sure, but let’s say that good means we make an effort not to harm people and evil mean we don’t care who is harmed as long as we’re enriched by our efforts. It is not the technology that’s to blame. It’s how the technology is used.

    My story is not about social media. It is about the loss of privacy. It is about the nature of our current world that promotes mindless interactions without a thought to the consequences of those interactions. My story is about a world where people have always sought advantage over their fellow man and this technology only provides another avenue for that to take place. My story takes place in a world suspiciously like this one, but I do not claim for certain that it is. If you don’t believe in human trafficking, you may not believe in Santa either, but in this particular instance, one of those things is actually real. Happens every day on nearly every continent on Earth. Not believing in it does not mean it will stop happening.

    Yes, it may lead to more oppressive internet laws like PIPA, SOPA, ACTA, CISPA, and their ilk. But those laws are not to stop human trafficking, they are to find another way of controlling human behavior as suggested in the eerie parable of our age, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I do not condone government controls or invasions of privacy any more than I do the idea that when we sign up to use a website or technology we waive the right to tell advertisers of products I don’t want to bite me. Unfortunately, most of the EULAs (documents you sign when you first join a particular webservice) say exactly that you are, whether you have read the fifty page document or not, giving away your rights to your personal information to third parties who can use it in whatever fashion they see fit. Don’t believe me? Find a webservice you enjoy and read the EULA. If you find at the end of it you are in complete agreement with everything it says and the loss of privacy doesn’t bother you, you are under the age of twenty-five and have no idea of what your personal privacy is worth to you. You are also under the impression you have real freedom, too. But you don’t. That is another discussion for another time.

    I am not giving license to anyone to use the net in the fashions mention in this story. They already exist. Every technology mentioned in this story already exists. I did not have to invent any of them. Every digital camera connected to the Internet can be hacked. Every social media tool you are using can be watched, read and analysed for content. We live in a surveillance society where the bulk of the Internet traffic is digital streams of information being used for cameras watching something; maybe even you. The very least you can do, is not allow your phone to report where you are every minute of the day. The very least you can do is not to broadcast over an open channel that you will not be at home this week. The very least you can do is look up while you walk down the street so you don’t fall into an open manhole while you send that next status message saying “Walking down Main Street.”

    Will government crack down on prostitution? Likely, it has been done over the centuries and yet it still exists because that which causes suffering persists. Yes, there are people who choose prostitution. They have the option if that makes them happy. However, there are many, many, many more who do not, did not, and absolutely would have never chosen the lifestyle of a slave prostitute. Those are the people I am talking about. Will a crack down take place? Yes. Will it matter? Probably not in the places we need it to matter most.

    “Why should we care about human trafficking? It’s not a problem where I live.” Just because you don’t see a thing does not mean it’s not there; only that you don’t see it. We, as good men and women, should care about human trafficking and forced labor for only one reason. It is wrong to make your fellow man or woman or child, suffer for your aggrandizement, your wealth, your power, your piece of mind, your piece of ass, your ability to maim, kill or destroy the life of another person, simply because you can.

    Can we do anything about it? Change is within the purview of any individual who does not like the status quo and is willing to do what it takes to make a difference. Human traffickers persist because they count on the very fear of the concept to make you turn away. They count on their fear of their ability to be violent, to harm you, to punish you, to make you look away while they do their terrible work. Indeed, it is the very nature of criminals to use fear to make good men do nothing; the fear of loss of goods, of life, of family, of livelihood. This fear is not relegated to only criminals, but any group in power that wants to stay that way. Take that statement any way you like. It’s probably the right way.

    Can we make a difference? Certainly. We can opt to stop sharing our data. We can opt to tell companies who want to sell our personal information to unknown third parties, no, I am not cool with that. We can say to our governments, no, I would not like (ACTA, PIPA, CISPA or other four letter repressive government data-collection scheme) used to invade my privacy and overturning Constitutional laws which only seem to matter when we want to oppress someone (yes, NSA, I am talking to you.)

    If we can step away from our technological ennui caused by the ability to stream video everywhere (do I really need the ability to stream video to the fishmarket? Comcast ad writers, I am talking to you…) Yes, we can make a difference, if we stop wasting billions of hours of productive life sitting down playing mindless games on the same social media we claim doesn’t affect the lives of anyone and isn’t harming anyone, and ultimately its just me playing a game. Except when its not. We need to step away from our collective, twittering, facebooking farmvilling masterbation and remember there are still problems in the world that need solving.

    Let’s close with the quote of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Okay, it is not certain he said this but I have another quote I’m certain he said and I agree with far more. ) “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” –Edmund Burke 1770, Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents.

    If you want to know more about human trafficking and forced human labor that you may not be able to see in your particular neighborhood and that may or may not have legal standing, depending on where you live, but that I can assure is IS going on, read some of these articles for enlightenment:

    Wikipedia’ overall entry on Human Trafficking: No its not authoritative, it’s Wikipedia, but it does give you a good place to start and has excellent sources at the end of the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking

    The PROTECT Act of 2003 (PDF): Kind of bland reading, but it does show why government is as slow as it is making change regarding child exploitation. Lists all of the laws and challenges to the exploitation of children, worldwide: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-108publ21/pdf/PLAW-108publ21.pdf

    “Forced Labor and Human Trafficking: Estimating the Profits” . Cornell University ILR School. 2005-03-01. Retrieved 2011-06-25.: http://bit.ly/KKMUzg

    The Daily Beast – Today’s Hidden Slave Trade: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/06/28/world-s-hidden-slave-trade-includes-forced-labor-in-u-s-military-contracting.html

    This is the tip of a very scary iceberg. There are many, many more. The search engine is your friend, until it’s not.

  6. Anthony Deluca says:

    I think that I agree that social media can hurt our privacy. I also think the story was well written. I am just not sure what this article means in the context of the GMP. I feel like it is emphasizing a problem (human trafficking) that is not really as widespread as people make it out to be. The article also emphasizes the role of social media in the problem. The tale is labeled as cautionary but I am not sure how we are supposed to react to this caution. I don’t think what the story talks about is going on now. So in my opinion reacting to it may just lead to bad things and restrictive laws (internet limits/more crackdowns on prostitution). Maybe this was not how the story was intended and I apologize if I am projecting my own biases.

    I would be interested in hearing how you think we should respond to this caution.

    • It is stillw ise to have the conversations “before” it becomaes more wide spread. Also it is not an hidden in other countires as it is in the west.
      This is a steadily growing problem. I know people why say “Show me the data, and then I will beleive you” But in an industry that hides in the daylight you will not often find the numbers to support. Once the industry is finally cracked the number then become staggering to behold. Look at the recent cases of missing children beiong found 10+ years later.

  7. Thank you for the kind words. However, I did not censor your words, nor am unaware of why they were censored. I believe moderation is done on this site to ensure that challenging topics such as this one around human trafficking do not draw unwanted attention or use language that could be considered less than polite.

    I wrote about the topic because I believe strongly in the idea that social media and our surveillance society have the potential to make us more vulnerable, not more safe as so many are inclined to report.

    I never depend solely upon the better nature of individuals, I am inclined to consider their self interests because almost all people will work toward those. I think individuals need to consider their own self interests when they provide so much information to their social media tools, not knowing who or how that information can and will be used. It’s only prudent to consider not everyone will have your best interests at heart.

    Privacy may be dead, but we do not have to help bury it.

  8. Anthony Deluca says:

    Presumably this will also be edited:

    If you are going to censor what I say please do not just leave the nice part. Just delete it. Also I see no reason to not post my thoughts as I wrote them.

  9. Anthony Deluca says:

    It was a nice peice of writing.

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