Huxleyed Into the Full Orwell
The First Amendment Area was a good 800 yards from the courthouse, an imposing cage of chicken-wire and dangling zip-cuffs.
Art by Koren Shadmi
The First Amendment Area was a good 800 yards from the courthouse, an imposing cage of chicken-wire and dangling zip-cuffs. The people inside the First Amendment area were weird. I mean, I include myself in that group. After all, I vacuformed my own Guy Fawkes mask mold. That is not the action of a sane woman. Shandra was weirder, though. She'd thought up the whole demonstration, socialed the everfuck out of the news, rallied a couple hundred weirdos to join her in the chicken-farm, shouting impotently at the courthouse, ringed by cops scarily into their Afghanistan-surplus riot-gear.
"Shandra, how is this supposed to work again?"
"Like this," she said, and powered up her—weird—device. It started life as a compact projector, the kind of thing you use for screening dull-ass presentations in school auditoriums. But then she'd added a hydrogen-cell that she wore in a backpack, and a homebrew steadicam rig that she strapped to her front, making her look like the world's most overburdened suicide bomber. I could tell that she was already freaking out the cops on the other side of the chicken wire, and they snapped into palpable alert when a beam of light emerged from the projector. I could only imagine how many tasers, sniper-rifles and gas-grenades were trained on her at that moment. But she didn't give any sign that she noticed or cared.
Instead, she used both hands to adjust the keystoning and focus of the huge test-pattern she was now painting on the face of the courthouse, the picture a little faint in the weak light of a November. "It was considerate of them to put Kitty on trial on such a dark day," she muttered. I noticed that her nail-stencils—little blue atoms with different numbers of electrons—were chipped. She'd chewed down one thumbnail to the painful pink quick beneath.
"Go," she said, and wrangled her tablet some. It was a burner, without a SIM. Shandra was one of those people who kept her phone in a faraday pouch until she wanted to make a call. The huge display flickered and then a picture of a middle-aged guy sitting in front a webcam appeared. It was captioned DMITRY SKLYAROV, THE FIRST PERSON JAILED UNDER THE DMCA. He did look Russian—not shiny tracksuit Russian, crazy chess-player Russian. He smiled. A pretty teenaged girl who was *very* Russian peeked over his shoulder, made Japanese vee-fingers, winking as he shooed her away. He spoke. There was no audio, but there were subtitles.
HELLO. IT IS AN HONOR TO SPEAK TO YOU TODAY.
"Mic check!" Shandra shouted. We hadn't gotten an amplification permit. They were like unicorn hairs or NYPD press-passes: rare, possibly imaginary. This People's Mic stuff was cornball, ten years old and so passé that no one even made fun of it anymore, but it had this going for it: everyone knew what it meant.
"Mic check!" we hollered back.
"Hello! It is an honor to speak to you today!"
Once we'd repeated it in a top-of-voice roar that echoed up the skyscrapers and overpowered even the car horns, she tapped her tablet and DMITRY SKLYAROV unfroze to speak his next line. We did it again, for his whole speech, which was mercifully short.
WHEN THE FBI ARRESTED ME IN 2001 FOR TELLING PEOPLE HOW TO UNLOCK THEIR EBOOKS
PEOPLE THOUGHT IT WAS ABOUT COPYRIGHT
BUT IT WAS ABOUT FREE SPEECH
THE RIGHT TO TELL PEOPLE HOW THEIR COMPUTERS WORK
AS KITTY HAS SHOWN US TODAY
This was pure Shandra: weird theater that you could literally spot from an airplane. Or a drone. Curious reporters meandered from the courthouse talk to us, because weird stuff is linkbait. And boy, did she have a demo for them.
"It's probably easier if I show you, rather than trying to explain," she said. I'd met Shandra at a senior year job-fair, five years before. We'd both landed work as junior researchers at Wackylabs, which, despite the terrible name, was a DOD spin-out with some heavy clients who'd pay us to destruct-test their stuff to limit their risk from hackers and crackers and spooks and creeps. Shandra was the smart one, the one who could spot—with a perfect mix of cold intellect and animal instinct—the hinky thing lurking in the code. I was good, but Shandra was great, and the fact that she wouldn't let anyone headhunt her away from Wacky made her beloved, if not entirely understood, by our bosses, who gave her a team. With me on it.
Shandra was one of the world's great demo-ers. Discovering a vital flaw in your product is like discovering you have cancer, and Wacky's clients went through the five stages of grieving, starting with denial, before they'd admit that they were going to have to spend serious bank to patch things up again. Shandra's specialty was to rig up a demo so bloodcurdling that it would just annihilate any denial it confronted. The reporters who'd crowded around the fence were in for a good one.
"Anyone who wants to see this, hit this URL." She held up a sheet of paper with a URL neatly printed on it. She could have used a QR code, but everyone thinks of those as malware vectors. Anything written on a post-it in sharpie was too homely to present any real risk.
A couple of the journos held back, but several loaded it up. She'd already stuck a SIM into her tablet. A second later, she turned it around.
At first, the reporters couldn't figure out what they were seeing. It was a grid, showing low-rez, shakycam video-feeds of surprised looking faces. Their faces. She'd just pwned all their phone cameras and was now receiving a video-stream off of each one.
"The bug that Kitty revealed was part of the Netflix stack, which you'll find in pretty much every browser on earth. It operates inside a framework specified by the World Wide Web Consortium, meaning that it can be zero-click installed on anything with a browser interface, from your thermostat to your car.
"But because it's part of a DRM system that's supposed to protect copyright—to preserve the illusion that Netflix is somehow able to send you a 'stream' that's not an actual 'download'—it's against the law to tell you that every device you own is sitting out there, waiting to be pwned by the NSA or just a garden-variety creep. That's what Kitty is in jail for: giving a presentation on this issue at a technical conference.
"Just think for a moment about all the things you control with that phone. Any of you have an implanted defibrillator? A bluetooth hearing aid? Think about the mischief I can make now that I control your phone. Lucky for you, I'm nice." She tapped her tablet. "I've just nuked my installation, as well as your Netflix plugins, which'll auto-reinstall the next time you hit their site. Technically, I just committed about twenty felonies. But Netflix? They're in the clear, even if you lose the contents of your bank account and the alarm-code for your house because you got pwned by their plugin.
"And for what? A little light entertainment? Dudes, we are Huxleying our way into the full Orwell."
It made great news, led all over the world. Even Netflix's news-shows covered it. John Oliver made it the centerpiece of his monologue that night and *crushed it*.
When they came for her, she was already streaming video: everything from the no-knock battering ram to the dogpile of huge armored men to the cruel bite of zip-cuffs on her wrists. Later, her defense lawyer published logs from her firewall that showed they tried to infect her network with a commercial product that would let them take over everything from her computers' cameras to her door-locks. The vulnerability they used for a vector was unpublished. I did the analysis and published it myself.
They haven't come for me. Yet. Maybe because I was never as bright as Shandra, maybe because I have a reputation for being a bit of a plodder, that girl that Shandra insisted on having on her team though no one could figure out why. Maybe they think I'm just no threat.
But Shandra's going on trial tomorrow, just a bail hearing, and I'm going to be in the Free Speech Zone. The day's supposed to be overcast, and I've got the projector all charged up.
This dispatch is a part of Terraform, our new online home for future fiction.