Planet

Safety Glass


This story is the first of a series of fictionalized snapshots of the future. It was originally written to summarize ideas generated at the Prospective Protective Futures Security Workshop, a look at Canada's security future held in Ottawa in March of 2006. "Safety Glass" is an attempt to put many different lines of thought into a single scenario, but while capturing something of the flavour of the workshop, in no way does it represent the participants' consensus view of 2020 A.D. It merely shows one constellation of (maybe Orwellian, maybe Utopian) future possibilities.

————

The car’s heads-up display was flashing: pull into the next checkpoint. Achala frowned and pressed the green “Okay” button, returning her attention to the map on her PDA. Outside, damp pines whipped past, slowing, and then with a slight bump the car found its way off the highway and rolled to a stop. Achala looked up, noticed that someone was walking toward the car—a real person, not a bot or simulation—and put down the PDA.

The guard looked apologetic as he gestured at her window. Achala rolled it down and stuck her head out into the light mist that was falling. “What’s up?” she asked.

He wore the uniform of some security group or other; through the blurring of the rain she wasn’t sure whether it was private or public, national or provincial. “Excuse me, Ma’am,” he said, “but you’ve filed an unusual itinerary. Driving into the woods south of Cultus Lake? Our system flagged it.”

Achala grimaced. “I’m a biologist. I’m tracking an unusual cluster of seagull deaths. That’s where the bodies are.”

The guard squinted at her. “You’re a Canadian citizen.”

“I guess. I’m really a citizen of The Cities. Cascadia.” She nodded past the trees, which hid the vast sprawl of urbanized land that stretched from North Vancouver to well south of Seattle. The RFID tag in her arm held all her citizenship information and would have been sensed as her car drove under one of the highway sensors. That invisible, inaudible blip of information should have told this guy all he needed to know about her. She could travel between any of the world’s megacities without any hassles, as a citizen of Cascadia able to walk the streets of Shanghai or Mexico City freely and, to all intents and purposes, invisibly. Yet this security guard was complaining about her driving a few miles south of a local lake?

He sighed. “Ma’am, the place in question is inside the United States.” Now she spotted the U.S. Customs patch on his shoulder.

“Ooooh.” She grinned sheepishly. As a citizen of The Cities she could travel anywhere within the Seattle/Vancouver corridor; it seemed all one place and it was easy to forget that there was a national border bisecting the city. Different realities held out here beyond the suburbs.

“So you want to inspect my car? See if I’m smuggling or something?”

He caught the look on her face and chuckled. “Don’t look so put out. This sort of inspection happens every time you cross the national border inside the city. You just don’t notice it because the sensors are hidden.”

“So what do I do?”

“Nothing. Your car was sprayed with smart dust when you rolled in here,” he said. “We’re completing the analysis now. But I need to ask you a little more about what you’re going to be doing out there.”

She handed him her PDA. “See? It’s a public website--the blog of the Ekaterina

Group B seagull flock. The smart dust on the seagulls monitors them in realtime and posts information on their health and position and stuff on the website. The site flagged an unusual cluster of deaths over the past week. We’re wondering whether it’s just predation, or whether it’s a sign of the new flu.”

“The dust can’t tell you?”

Achala scoffed. “You can’t put a whole bio-analysis lab in a smart dust chip. That would be... science fiction.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He glanced in the back seat, saw the roll of plastic sheeting, the box of disposable latex gloves. Then he tilted his head at that odd angle people tended to use when their hands-free headset was talking to them. “Okay, Ma’am, you check out. Have a nice day.”

Achala managed to smile casually enough at him, but her hands were trembling slightly as she manually drove back to the on-ramp. Switching the car back to automatic drive, she thumped her head back in the seat and blew out a heavy sigh. Then she pulled out her phone and hit speed-dial.

“I just got stopped. By the border police, no less.”

“Nothing to do with you,” said the man on the other end of the line. Then, he paused. “Do you still want to go through with this?”

She laughed tightly. “Yeah. It just seems... more real now, that’s all.”

The car settled into its lane and sped up. To distract herself, Achala flipped down the visor screen and tuned to a news channel. This was a customized channel she’d built for herself; it filtered newsfeeds from all over the world and organized, translated and subtitled them, presenting her with a daily menu of items. There were the usual items, she saw:

  • Rebels fighting the decolonization of old growth rain forest had burnt another section of old growth. The U.N. and various NGOs were decrying the act as a crime against humanity.
  • Schematics that would allow you to build a fuel/air bomb using your home 3d printer had started circulating on the net. This was worrisome, but since the internet’s fragmentation after the two-tier pricing of network services, items like these plans couldn’t propagate all around the world in a matter of hours anymore, like they used to. --Of course, neither could your email.
  • There were riots over the cutting of more services to the Florida shanty-towns that had grown up in the wake of the submerging of the everglades.
  • It was rumoured that an international terrorist ad-hocracy organized and run through on-line shared worlds was trying to acquire biological weapons.

Watching this last item, Achala felt her pulse start to race again. She shut off the screen and leaned back. Don’t think about what you’re doing, she told herself. That’s the best way to get through it.

It had taken her a year to get to this point, after all; ever since she had filled out that first on-line form on the WikiSecurity web site, Achala had been determined to follow through on whatever eventually came of her application. Her assignment, when it came, had turned out to be deceptively simple.

Drive into the forest and return with some dead birds.

The seagull flock whose members had died was just one of thousands that had websites. Most pods of whales had them now, as did wolf packs, prairie dog cities and even a few murders of crows. The sites were a way to monitor the health of the ecosystem, and in return the animals often carried sensors that transmitted valuable information about local weather and air quality conditions. It was rumoured that some security agencies had eyes on rats and birds throughout Cascadia.

After about a half hour, the car pulled off the highway and took an old logging road through a roofless tunnel of trees. Achala chewed her fingernails and glanced around nervously. Had another car just pulled off the highway behind her? It was hard to see through the grey rain.

Her own car stopped and bonged politely. This was the place.

It’s not as if I’m really alone, she told herself as she stepped into the chill. Her smart clothing was monitoring her health and relaying her status back to Cascadia. The web of private and public security monitoring systems that watched over her would keep her safe, she reminded herself even as she heard tires on gravel crunch to a stop somewhere up the road.

She entered the trees, carrying a cardboard banker’s box. She visited each of the GPS coordinates from the seagull flock’s website, one by one. This was strictly for show: there were no dead birds out here. Three birds lay in the box; she’d brought them with her from Cascadia.

At the third site she knelt and listened. If anyone was around, they were moving very quietly. She took out her phone and dialed. “Got them. Coming in,” she said. Then she stood, feeling very exposed, and stalked back to the car.

Anything could happen now. “But it probably won’t,” they’d told her. “These people know how well individuals are monitored these days. The birds are their target, not you.” She repeated those words under her breath as she half-ran back to the car. It was getting dark. With relief she climbed in and slammed the door.

Now for the next stage of the plan.

Two weeks ago, she’d sat down in a plain office in downtown Cascadia and listened as a nondescript man outlined the operation to her. “We don’t have the manpower for this kind of thing,” he’d said. “Nobody does. So we enlist the public. Yours is just one of hundreds of honeypot operations we’re running simultaneously. Some are criminal investigations—neighbourhood watch situations. Some are military, some, well, frankly some are espionage. And some are counter-terrorist.”

“It’s the birds,” she’d guessed. “The new strain of bird flu. That’s why you picked me, isn’t it?”

He had half-smiled. “Maybe. This is a game of deception, bluff and counter-bluff, Achala. To find these people we have to trick them into revealing themselves. We try all kinds of things to do that. This is just one feeler we’re putting out.”

“But why?” she asked. “How do you know this will work?”

He shrugged. “We don’t. Someone’s been surfing the bird-flock websites in a suspicious pattern—that’s all we know. So we’ve invented a set of fake dead birds. They won’t be labeled as having died of the new flu, but anyone watching closely will find the pattern interesting. They won’t be able to get the GPS coordinates, but they’ll see your name associated with them. The birds are the bait, you’re the trap,”

This was wiki-security: the entire operation consisted of some website shuffling, and that conversation with her. The sheer number of possible security risks nowadays would swamp any conventional intelligence apparatus; as a result many operations were outsourced, distributed among thousands or even millions of cooperative citizens. For the government, the costliest component of this particular operation was the birds and the monitoring equipment that would track them.

Achala glanced back at them once as she pulled over to a rest station near the Cultus Lake resort. She made sure she parked the car at back of the lot, under the shadow of some trees. As she slammed the car door she glanced down the road; a pair of headlights wavered there. Resolutely she looked away. Then she walked into the tiny restaurant and back to the lady’s room.

She stayed there for ten minutes. About half-way through that period, the lights flickered and went out, then came on a few seconds later. She’d been warned this might happen; her phone was dead when she tried to use it. Somehow, knowing what was happening—that she wasn’t just play-acting—calmed her down. She was able to count out five more minutes before she strolled out and went back to her car.

Another car’s tracks deeply indented the mud; the tracks swept into the lot, passed her car, and then threaded back out.

The passenger’s-side window of her car had been shattered. The banker’s box was gone.

Achala smiled, and took out her phone. Oh, yes, of course it was broken--its electronics fried by the same EM pulse that had taken out the rest-stop’s surveillance cameras. It didn’t matter. The transmitters in the birds were hardened; even now, they were being tracked.

“Won’t they detect the tracking signals?” she’d asked the nondescript man in the downtown office. He had shrugged.

“Sure. But probably not before we find out who they are. And then it’ll be too late. The ripples will spread out from there—their identities will lead us to their compatriots—if they have any—and from those people we’ll identify other nodes in the network. The men whom we identify will have been neutralized by being placed under automatic scrutiny; they know now that we know what they’re trying to do. In all likelihood nobody will be arrested, nothing dramatic will happen. But something very dramatic will not happen now, and it will be because you helped us.”

“No bird flu for you,” she said to the tracks that led off into the darkening mist. Then she brushed safety glass off the seat of her car and climbed in.

Comments

There's an intriguing tension between the vision of fluidly-coordinated security and "knowing the big picture". If you don't know how your actions contribute toward overall progress, you're essentially concentrating decisions in the source nodes of this fluid web of cooperaters, which could make the web as a whole easier to coopt (and less open to external feedback about its overall strategy).

"She could travel between any of the world’s megacities without any hassles, as a citizen of Cascadia able to walk the streets of Shanghai or Mexico City freely and, to all intents and purposes, invisibly." This is another interesting one - positive to extend the ease of travel between Canada and Europe to other parts of the world, but how much surveillance would it require in return?

Good story, Karl!

Posted by: Hassan Masum on November 17, 2006 10:43 PM