The man with no name: a story about online filtering

The story that follows is, I am reliably informed, a reasonably accurate chronicle of events due to take place in at least one of an infinity of possible future universes. We are privileged to have this advance warning courtesy of a wormhole in time that, as best we can calculate, tracks forward to somewhere in early 2015. Though for obvious reasons, there is nothing we can do to verify it beforehand and afterward…well, afterward there will be other difficulties.

* * * * * * * * * *
2.38am – Cabinet Office

“That’s weird”.

“What is”

“This briefing for the PM. I’ve sent it three times now and each time its bounced.”

“Server down?”

“Nope. It goes to everyone else OK. Just says ‘user not recognised’.”

“Its a glitch. Send it to the permanent sec and chase it up in the morning.”

“Sure.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

3.02am – Student digs, somewhere in Cambridge

“When did Cameron become leader of the Conservative Party?”

“I dunno. 2008? 2007? Just look google it.”

“I did.”

“And…?”

“Its never heard of him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Have you checked your spelling?”

“Yes.”

“Let me take a look…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

3.27 am – Daily Mail overnight newsdesk

“What do you mean, our front page has disappeared?”

“I mean its gone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous: I OK’d it just twenty minutes ago..”

“I know. I watched you do it. Only now its gone. Totally.”

“Well, find it! And while you’re finding it, put something else up. Go with the Farrage scandal: people can read what our prime minister thinks of Nick Clegg later.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

4.02am – Cyber Security Overnight Watch, just outside Cheltenham

“Oh, shit!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

4.35 am – Prime Minister’s appartments, 10 Downing St

“You really want to wake him at this ungodly hour?”

“I think so, yes.”

“He’s not going to like it.”

“He’s not going to like what i have to tell him, either.”

“You knock.”

“No, you…”

* * * * * * * * * * * *
6.42 am – Control room for the Western Isles regional area BT broadband network

“So we just decouple the block list from the ISP routers…”

“That easy?”

“Yes – and then reboot. Simple.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *
6.50 am – the control room for the Western Isles regional area BT broadband network

“Rebooting, that’s…”

“Are the lights meant to be going out?”

“No. The two aren’t connected in any ….”

“Oh, my God!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

8.30 am – Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA): a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee has been convened. Atending: the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Senior Police and army officers – and GCHQ

“Good morning.” Outwardly amiable: good-natured. But tight-lipped.

“I don’t understand, exactly, why we needed to convene this meeting. The gentlemen from GCHQ seem to think we have a national emergency. Because, apparently, they can’t find my name on google. I trust someone is going to explain to me what is going on.” The Prime Minister is quietly furious. The only reason he isn’t shouting is – he hasn’t yet figured out who he should be shouting at.

“Its…its not just google, sir.” An earnest young chap with a haircut four weeks past its sell-by date re-arranges his papers and licks his lips. “Its every search engine. And as far as we can tell about 98% of all servers.”

“And? In English, please.”

“Its…you’ve been erased, sir. Anything online that references you has disappeared. Any website that tries to mention you is instantly silent blocked. Invisibled.

“As best we can tell, someone – one of these online libertarian groups, we think – has hacked into every major blocking software in existence and added a list of terms, the most common terms, used to refer to you. Cameron. David Cameron.

“And common mis-spellings.

“The ‘Decameron’ has vanished: and we’ve had the Cameroon President on the phone: he’s furious. Thinks we’re responsible.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
8.42 am – A cash machine in Croydon

Dennis Cameron, an estate agent on his way in to work after a seriously wild night out on the town is seeking to top up his funds for the day.

“What the…?”

The screen flashes its cold refusal: “Account not recognised”.

It refuses to return his card, advising him, instead to speak to his branch.

Dennis texts his boss to say he is going to be a little late to work today – and fumes.

* * * * * * * * * * *
8.45 am – Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA), as before. The Prime Minister is becoming more visibly less patient.

“So? Just un-erase me. Ring the companies who run these things and ask them to remove my name. Or put up a new list. Or whatever they do.”

“Its not that simple…”

“How,” the Prime Minister flashed, angrily “can such a thing not be that simple?”

“For starters, they’re mostly not British. Fixing this will cost them serious money and they won’t want to foot the bill. We’ve already taken informal soundings and mostly, they’re not being co-operative. Reckon we asked for it, we need to deal with it.

“We could decouple their software over here – but that would mean taking down every piece of child protection we ever put in place.”

“If it’s a choice between national security and child protection…”

“Its still not that simple.

“Whoever did this has been clever. They’ve been backing these filters up for months, maybe a year – and behind the filters they’ve infiltrated a worm.”

The Prime Minister glares in disbelief: “a worm?”

“Like the stuxnet worm that, um, America and Israel officially had nothing to do with. Its constantly checking to make sure the filters are operating, with the new blocks in place: when its triggered, it takes down every major infrastructure system that’s also online. Power. Health. Police. Communications.

“We tried to switch the filters off earlier this morning. In Scotland. We thought it safer to test it out somewhere less populated. And that’s the last we heard from them: we expect fatalities.”

* * * * * * * * * * *
9.03 am – A bank, also in Croydon

“Mr Cameron, there is no need to take that tone with me.”

“I need some money – and I want my card back. Now.”

“I’m sorry – but according to our records you don’t have, never have had, an account with this bank.”

“My card…”

“Your card is a very good forgery. However, since it links to a non-existent account and there is no record of a Dennis Cameron anywhere in our system, its clearly not one that we have issued.

“This is ridiculous. I want my card back now. If you won’t give it to me, I’m calling the police.

“Mr Cameron. I am sure this can all be sorted out. And no need to call the police. We’ve already done that. If you’d like just to sit over here and wait.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
9.15 am – Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA), as before.

“Would it help if we killed someone?”

“No, general. That would almost certainly make matters worse. Since the worm is checking constantly that certain key terms are still contained in our online filters, it is highly likely that it is also checking for the continued online presence of one or more of the group that created it.

“Given the devastation the worm has already caused when we tried to fix this in one small corner of the British Isles, the damage it do if we took down its creators is unimaginable.

“We should pray that none of those behind this has a heart attack any time soon.”

* * * * * * * * * * *
9.43 am – Outside a bank in Croydon. Police are easing a middle-aged estate agent into a squad car.

“Sir, Mr Cameron, whatever your name is: there’s no need for that language. You are under arrest for threatening behaviour, and for obstructing a police officer by refusing to give a correct name when asked. One last time: what is your real name?”

“But Cameron really IS my name”.

“Thank you. Perhaps we can sort this down at the station: now, mind your head!”

* * * * * * * * * * *
9.45 am – a tea room in the House of Commons

“I don’t get it. Word is that the PM has been locked away with COBRA since half eight this morning – but there’s not a sniff of a story about what’s up on any of the morning’s bulletins.”

“Haven’t the faintest: but a little Home Office bird tells me that something big is going down: major security breach. National emergency. That sort of thing.”

“Ah: his Falklands moment! I expect he’ll be hoping that if he handles it well, his name will go down in history.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
9.55 am – Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA), as before.

“So, we’re agreed: no direct action on this filtering thing until we’ve got a clearer idea of what we’re dealing with. I want a joint NCA/GCHQ task force on it immediately: any problems, refer to the cabinet secretary, now designated COBR platinum command. Minutes out to all present, plus department heads.

“Any questions? Or can we all get on with the rest of our day?”

“I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but…” A nervous voice interjects from the edge of the room: “there don’t appear to be any minutes to send round”.

“What are you talking about?”

“I typed them. I saved them. I know I saved them, but…they don’t appear to be anywhere on the Cabinet server”.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
10.42 am – A police station in Yorkshire

“Sergeant: what am I supposed to do with Peter Cameron.”

“How about charging him?”

“What with?”

“You could try skipping bail, for starters: that’s what he was brought in for last night.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Only now I think maybe there’s been a mistake.”

“Mistake?”

“Yes: he’s not on our system. His prints aren’t in the DNA database. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t got a parking ticket to his name.”

“Only one thing to do, then.”

“Yes?”

“Apologise profusely and let him go…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
10.42 am – Front desk, Croydon police station

“Last chance, sir. Full name. Address. Place of birth. And if you say Derek Cameron one more time…”

“But my name IS Derek Cameron!”

“I haven’t the time for this: lock him up.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *
12 noon – Prime Minister’s Questions House of Commons

The House is in uproarious mood.

“Order! Order! I will have order.”

“…to ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements….”

“Point of order, Mr Speaker! On examining the online record of proceedings of this place, I can find no record that the Prime Minister has previously spoken in this House. Should we therefore treat this as a maiden speech and expect this morning’s session to be uncontroversial and relating only to constituency matters?”

“That is not a point of order. That is frivolous interruption, I would ask that you allow…”

“Point of order! Since the traditional sanction of this House is to name any member in breach of its rules, how does the Speaker propose that the House discipline any member who cannot be named”.

“That is not a point of order. I will have an end to these frivolous interventions. If any other member wishes to disrupt proceedings in this way, they may not be happy with the result. I call the Prime Minister…”

Hon Members: “Who?”

* * * * * * * * * * * *
12.42 pm – BBC newsroom

“I don’t get why you think it’s an issue. This afternoon’s number one story is the PM being unceremoniously gutted by the opposition and then hung out to dry by his own party. I’ve just spoken to the lobby: half his backbenchers are baying for his blood; the other half have even less of a clue than usual as to what is going on.

“There’s even whisperings of a leadership contest. That’s news!”

“Yes: that’s news. It makes for brilliant television. Radio, too. However, according to our online team, its not useable. Every time we put up a page explaining what’s going on, it disappears. They can sort of see that the page is there: they just can’t navigate to it.”

“So you’re telling me that unless we can report it online, then its not really news any more?”

“I think I am…”

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * *
3.57 pm – a tea room in the House of Commons

“Run that past me one more time: there is no online record anywhere online to say the PM exists or ever existed.”

“By George, he’s got it!”

“Well they’d better fix that one soon. I can’t see us going into a general election being led by the man with no name.”

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * *

    Day two:

1.30 pm – joint NCA/GCHQ task force, meeting under COBR command

“Its worse than we thought: the worm is learning.”

“Learning what?”

“Oh: just about any alternative phrase or nickname we might set up to refer to our esteemed PM. The public worked it out by themselves, about three hours after we did. For a while, they had a bit of a laugh – discovering all the places the PM could no longer be found. Then social media took over: ‘#manwithnoname’ was trending late last night.

“This morning it was blocked.”

“You blocked it?”

“Absolutely not. Why would we do that? No: the filters seem to have updated of their own accord, overnight. Its possible the people behind this intervened directly – but our feeling is not. That’s too risky.

“Which means the worm is learning – using semantic context to identify any circumlocutions the public may create – and adding them to its list of terms.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Remind me, when all this is over, to explain to you about heuristics and learning algorithms. Otherwise, the short answer is: yes.”

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * *
4.30 pm – an emergency meeting of ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers)

“We’re doing the best we can: collating incidents on paper; not putting anything near our computer systems. Its sheer chaos. I mean how do you trickle down an urgent national policy if every time you send out an e-mail describing it, the e-mail disappears?”

“We’ve set up a special command to deal with all Cameron-related reports. Someone tracked down half a dozen old-fashioned typewriters – and we’ve found operators for them.”

“No-one under 40!”

“And since yesterday morning, we’ve logged about 1700 crimes committed by individuals claiming their name is David Cameron – and about 300 further reports of individuals claiming to have lost access to large amounts of money that their banks say they never had.

“We have no idea, right now, how many in either category are genuine”

“Spartacus: its that damn film, Spartacus all over again!”

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * *

    Day four:

1.07 pm – a Conservative club, somewhere in the Home Counties

“It can’t go on. Half the official party website is still down. There’s not been a mention of him in the printed news since Wednesday.”

“I know: yesterday afternoon, I canvassed the Astley Ward. Knocked up some floating voter who proceeded to tell me what a nice man the Prime Minister was.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

“Our Prime Minister, Mr CLEGG?”

“Ah. Not so good.”

“It can’t go on. Not in an election year it can’t.”

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * *

    Day seventeen:

11.05am – Student digs, somewhere in Cambridge

“Have you heard? The Prime Minister has resigned!”

“Really. How did you find that out?”

“There was a piece on the morning news. Nothing on the net.”

“Of course. Did you ever find out when he was elected.”

“Nah. If its not on the net, its not real anymore, is it?”

“Suppose not. I wonder who the history books will put down for the last five years? My money’s on Clegg.”

“Osborne! I mean, there’s no way they can claim the Lib Dems actually ran anything.”

“Good point.”

“Wonder what David Cameron will do now.”

“No idea. Someone said he’s changed his name.”

“That’d make sense. Pity about the Western Isles.”

“Yes, pity.”

— ends —

Footnote; (no, really, this is a real footnote). Someone just asked about citing this. Its an original piece, but undoubtedly a teensy bit influenced by 70’s novel Shock Wave Rider… which is not terribly literary, but very worthy in terms of the computer concepts it exposes some 20 years before the net arrived – and also, probably, where the word “worm” was first coined.

About janefae

On my way from here to there
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The man with no name: a story about online filtering

  1. toffer99 says:

    Loved it. Thanks for publishing.

  2. *chortles* Oh but that’s brilliant! Charlie Brooker levels of satire, and it amused me no end🙂

    xx Dee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s