Short story by Iris Carden
I started my holiday unpaid internship at Big ISP, with no real idea what I’d be doing. I really didn’t expect I’d be doing this.
Today, I’m reading a woman’s personal journal. It’s one of those apps that you share across your devices, so it’s stored on the cloud, which means the ISP gets hold of it. It’s pretty boring reading, and I’m not a hundred percent sure what I’m looking for. A bot has flagged it as needing attention, and pushed it up the line. I’m the next level up from a bot, the lowest-level human in the chain.
It’s just a diary. She talks about her cat, and her on-again off-again boyfriend who cheats on her. I want to write, “Just dump him already! You can do better.” I can’t do that of course. I’m not to alter documents, just read them and flag anything important. What’s important in someone else’s diary anyway?
Oh, wait. I’ve found something.
I call my supervisor over. Let me tell you about my supervisor. Word in the break room is she’s one of the executive. Apparently, not long before I started here, the last supervisor leaked something about our work to the media. I’m not sure what that something was, apparently the story was stopped somehow. When that supervisor disappeared overnight, this woman from the executive took over, because our area required a “firmer hand.” So she’s here, wearing shiny high-heeled shoes and an expensive business suit while we’re all in jeans and tee shirts because we’re lowly-paid or, like me, unpaid, IT nerds. She looks exactly like she belongs in the boardroom, and she’s really out of place here.
I tell her what I found. “This woman killed her parents for a five million dollar inheritance.”
“Excellent,” my supervisor said, her tight blond bun bobbing as she nodded. “Put a flag on it, a green one, low-level. Up-line can use that.”
“Murder is low-level? Are they going to report it to the police?”
The supervisor laughed. “Five million is low level. The police couldn’t use the information even if we did give it to them. They can only use information they get with a warrant. They can’t get a warrant unless they know the information exists. No, the Big ISP will use it.”
“Use it how?”
“We will charge her a fee to have he information not leaked publicly.”
“Blackmail? All this monitoring is just about blackmail?” I was shocked.
“Oh you poor innocent child,” my supervisor says, “no it’s not just about blackmail. That’s just what this room is working on, just ordinary people who might have done something they want to keep secret.”
I looked around the large room, where 200 people sat at 200 tiny desks, reading other people’s personal information.
“This room is the lowest level. There’s another room that monitors engineers and scientists who are working on major medical and technological breakthroughs. We let most happen unhampered, but the big ones, the ones that are going to make a fortune, we will take their information, lock them out, and submit patents before the researchers can. Then there’s the espionage room that watches the encrypted messages of governments and intelligence agencies, and sells the good stuff to other governments and their spy agencies. Then there’s the organised crime room, that gathers information about criminal organisations to sell to other criminal organisations.”
“Isn’t all that illegal?” I ask dumbfounded.
“Oh of course, but knowledge is power. No-one is going to bring charges against us.”
“Why not?” I ask, probably stupidly.
“Because we have everyone’s secrets, and when I say “everyone’s” I mean everyone’s. We control governments.”
“How can you control governments?”
“The bosses choose who they want in government. Embarrassing things about the other side find their way to the internet. Embarrassing things about the chosen government just disappear. Abuse, financial mismanagement, illicit activities, it can all be discovered and it can all be made to disappear. If we ever go over to on-line voting, we won’t even have to bother with that work. We’ll just do it directly. There’s a plan in place for that.”
“But all of that’s illegal. What if the police find out? What if they raid the place? Would we all go to jail?”
“The police use the internet too, as do security agencies, as do everyone from your grandmother to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Actually, we make a good profit, notifying certain people when police are planning raids. But look, even if police did manage to make a case against us totally off-line, we own all the judges anyway.”
I just shook my head. “I never knew.”
“Not too bright were you?” She answered. “Look kid, it’s like this: you made a good choice doing your internship here. Since we bought up all the other ISPs, we’re really the only game in town. You get on well here, get hired, toe the line and you’re set for life. I like you. You remind me of me ten years ago. I think you can go a long way. I’ll even help smooth the path for you You can have a great future with us.. Cross us. or try to blow the whistle on us, your life is over.”
Many of my stories begin with a “what if”? What if Harold Holt was abducted by aliens? What if Douglas Adams was wrong and the missing biros don’t go to a biro planet and live happy biroid lifestyles (I’d give a reference here, but I honestly can’t remember which of his Hitchhikers books it was from), but instead they, along with the missing socks, that one earring from the set and all kinds of other things were stolen? What if we had a colony on the Moon and used it as a stepping stone to go further into space?
Most of these come to me as a result of the weird dreams produced by a mix of constant pain and lupus medication.
The one that led to this story came after a social media conversation that followed on from my suggesting that a certain billionaire’s strange comments about the Ukraine War had been a tad insensitive.
Note for the podcast, there is a screenshot here of a social media exchange, where I’m accuse of not being very bright because I don’t assume that someone who owns an ISP doesn’t spy on their customers.
So, I’m “not to (sic) bright”, but at least I didn’t accuse someone who can afford the world’s best defamation lawyers of espionage.
This conversation left me with the most delicious set of “what ifs”.
What if ISPs really did habitually break privacy laws and those pesky little laws against international espionage, to access all of their customers’ information? How would they undertake such a massive operation? Why would they do it? There would have to be a commensurate payoff for the cost. If they were breaking the law anyway, would they go on to break further laws? That’s how I came up with the ISP as criminal organisation in this story.
So thank you Mr Social Media Mansplainer for the great idea.