Everyone uses the Internet. Email, file transfers, online transactions, browsing...
Now it's being used to take profiling to the next level. A secretive private agency is monitoring online communications on a massive scale to create a societal profile, invading the privacy of millions of unsuspecting Internet users.
Palm Sunday is a technological thriller about the unholy intrusion into the unseen infrastructure that carries our every private communicated thought. It's fiction, but it's real.
Humans have a love-ignorance relatonship with technology. Send is just a button to most users, but in reality it is the launch pad to the universe of electronic intrusion. To press or not to press, that is the question, but the real question is whether or not to give your information away, because Send does just that.
It is important in technological fiction to derive a connection between what happens technically and the the underlying technology itself. Palm Sunday is not simply a technofest. The story is equal parts human interest and hard core technology, with a smidge of mystery, romance, and adventure thrown in. Dialogue is the mechanism through which information changes brains, and interpersonal relationships are the systems wherein that dialogue resides.
As information about the internet infrastructure is imparted to other characters, the reader acquires technical information as well, and this information is relevant not only to the story, but to the real world of the reader. The intent is that the story will flow, information will be imparted, and thus the reader will emerge both entertained and informed. The story provides a context that is based on technical fact, completing the feedback loop into the reader's real world.
Hidden from View
The real threat to online privacy does not occur at the desktop. Viruses, hacks, spam—these are all potentially destructive and troublesome, but the real threat is less visible.
The information motherlode is buried deep in the infrastructure of the Internet, and to access this data one must tap into that infrastructure. Once successfully mined, that mass of data can then be stored in huge databases, where it can be thoroughly analyzed. But to what end?
In Palm Sunday a "societal profile" is a snapshot of the online conversation. It is a barometer of citizen concern, engineered as an early warning agains the collapse of the empire. Originally intended as a mechanism to predict when the United States might be in peril of losing its place of preeminence, the process can be used for other purposes.
In the age of the Patriot Act, FISA courts, and the war on terrorism, analysis of online data is a key method for acquiring information. Clues can be deeply buried in the mountain of communications that flow non-stop across the Internet. The only way to find the nuggets is to first get the data, then do the analysis. It happens in Palm Sunday, it happens in the real world.
Unlimited access to virtually all online communications through a hidden technology is too much to resist for a government agency. When that technology has been transferred from govenment to private control, it is subject to the whims of a power hungry leader with his own peculiar agenda.
What is good? What is right? These questions are easily answered, but when the mind is warped, the answer can be, too. The end can justify any means if the end is thought to be just by a warped mind. When that mind belongs to someone in a position of power who has access to powerful technology, the result can be...unpleasant.
Although the plot is in the now, Palm Sunday is fiction, written fifteen years ago.
In the story, a ten-year-old boy finds a handheld device and brings it home. His father, a computer programmer, tries to find out who owns it so it can be returned. The security on the device is nearly impenetrable, which piques the interest of the father.
His efforts to hack the device are detected, making him a target. He and the owner of the handheld are looking for each other, but neither knows it, and not everyone plays nice. Unknown to the father, the device is a window into the clandestine activities of the agency which owns the device and their secret data mining of everything.
Fiction can help bridge the gap between technology and the non-technical reader, and can also bring to light real world issues that the reader may experience in their own life, or in society at large.
As Benjamin Franklin famously said:
"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Although he actually wrote this in regards to a tax dispute, the sentiment certainly applies to modern day communications, and it would behoove us all to at least be aware that stuff happens when we press Send.
As a former computer programmer, author, and citizen, I wrote Palm Sunday for both entertainment and education, but it also comes with a warning: They know what you're saying...
The inexorable flow of data across the centuries has progressed from leaflets, to books, to copper wires, to fiber optics and beyond. This flow requires an infrastructure, and in today's world that means the Internet.
When you think Internet infrastructure, think wires, controlled by private companies, carrying millions of bits of data just like yours. Even though you may be using a cell phone or tablet to access the Internet, and this uses a wrireless signal, ultimately your data is passing over physical wires, be they copper or fiber optic.
So what happens to your data when you press Send?
The Internet is not really one thing. It is a collection of interconnected networks, some very small, like the one in your own home, and some very large. Through connections between networks, you can reach any other point on the Internet, whether it's a web page, an email address, or something else.
The largest of these commercial networks are called backbones, and they carry an enormous enormous amount of data. In the United States these large backbones are owned by only seven companies. They are:
Although there are many smaller players beneath the level of these few giants, to gain access to the larger online world requires that you join their network, so there is a degree of centralized control of the path of the data flow. More importantly, the streams are actually gushing rivers, a torrent of data conveniently funneled into a few massive pathways. When one is mining a valuable commodity, having that commodity available in known veins of never-ending ore is optimal.
If you have ever used a computer, watched a television program, or lived on Earth, you have probably heard the word database. In a general sense most people understand that this means a place where information is stored, but what exactly is a database, and why should you care?
A database is in fact a place to store information, but this information is stored in a very specific way. A database is constructed of tables, which consist of rows, which contain columns. Those columns contain the data.
A database table looks very much like a spreadsheet, with rows and columns. The difference is that a database table's columns are predefined as to type and length, whether or not they can be empty, and other criteria. Once defined, data stored in a column must conform to the column definition. A database can, and usually does, contain many tables, some of which relate to each other to make it easier and more efficient to look up data. Computer programs can reference database tables to process transactions, search for specific bits of data, or to otherwise read or manipulate the data.
There are many different database products, but the most prevalent are Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, and Informix, to name a few. Cost and performance are considerations when choosing which databse to use, and some are free, while others are quite expensive, both to purchase and maintain. Many organizations use more than one database system.
Once populated, a database can be searched very quickly. The language used to search a database is called Structured Query Language, or SQL, and a typical SQL statement might look something like this:
Where Lastname = 'Smith';
This search would return the last name, first name, and telephone number for everyone with the last name Smith that is stored in the table called Table_01. The search could be done manually by a person, or by a computer program, and can be far more complex, limited only by the data contained in the database, and the expertise of the people extracting it.
Populating a database with data from the Internet backbones would provide an ongoing source for searches for specific keywords, phrases, or any combination to find conversations of interest. Although searches that dig into the domestic communications of U.S. citizens are strictly regulated by law, we cannot know what we cannot see.
If all that is required is a database and some SQL queries, then what is to prevent someone with access to the tools and a desire to snoop from digging into the data mine? A mine, incidentally, that contains your information, and mine.
Two things. First, the law. However, even that is less of a protection than it once was, with the advent of the Patriot Act as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enabling statutes that give the government the right to surveil the Internet.
The second is encryption. Much of the traffic on the Internet is encoded with password protection, but cracking that code may not be as hard as once thought. Some have suggested that the National Security Agency (NSA) designed the pseudorandom number generator widely used for generating algorithms used in encryption, and know its weaknesses. If true, this would allow for easier government decryption of intercepted Internet traffic.
Logically, why would the government collect all that data if they couldn't decrypt it anyway? Further, if the technology is in the hands of the government, how far off is its transfer to private entities? Such secrets do not remain secret for long.
If you have a smart phone, and who doesn't, you may think that you can avoid the data stream of the Internet when you browse online. In fact, although you connect to the Internet either through your cell network or a wireless access device, your data is still ultimately traveling across the internet infrastructure. The wireless aspect offers convenience, but as far as the Internet is concerned, it is still just a way to get to the wires.
Communications are now largely Internet based, with much of the data travelling across a limited number of high traffic backbones, which may be susceptible to surveillance. Database technologies exist that facilitate rapid accumulation and mining of vast quantities of digital information, a difficult to resist source of raw data.
Social freedom is a democratic imperative, but if privacy of communication is violated on a national scale, that freedom is at risk. The hidden nature of the Internet infrastructure places it out of sight and out of mind, but if we are at least aware of the potential, it may be a first step in perserving our treasured privacy.
Palm Sunday is the fictional account of a private agency that is secretly monitoring the Internet. They are in the business of culling massive amounts of data from the private communications of ordinary people, without their knowledge. They do this by tapping into the underlying infrastructure of the Internet in order to create a "societal profile".
Written by a former programmer.