Data Exchange Networks, AI interrogators, and corporate espionage (Chapter 2 of the Dr. Thomas story)

What follows is the next chapter of the story in a possible future filled with Data Exchange Networks (DENs) that help us sell our private data. Our protagonist learns that not all security is created equal, and that breaches have consequences.

Haven’t read the first chapter? Read here first.

. . .

March 25, 2029

How long had it been? Lynn thought.

Twenty minutes? Two hours? Two days? It was hard to know. Her smartphone and watch were confiscated during her arrest this morning. She had no way to know how long she had been in this room – a small space by even her apartment’s standards. The walls on three sides were painted cinderblocks. What was the correct name for a color that peeled in places with the two prior colors peeking through in random blotches? The flaking concrete walls stood in contrast to the sleek mirror that faced her.

She looked terrible. She felt worse.

A streak of mascara scarred her face – the failed result of attempting to scratch her cheek. Her hands were cuffed to the top of a plain metal desk, giving Lynn about six inches of movement.  Both ankles were chained through a metal loop in the concrete floor. Her metal folding chair was manufactured in an era before luxuries such as “padding.” Her ass hurt.

Just this morning, everything seemed to be going so well.

Her experiment using nine photovoltaic paint samples was running in her lab – a simulation that would take about three hours – giving her plenty of time to teach her introductory physics class. But that was before all of this. Would her software shut down properly? Was the experiment ruined? Would she need to rerun it? Maybe one of her students shut it down for her?

No, Lynn thought. They were freshmen. This group had trouble making it to class on time.

And what must they think of her now?

#

Lynn replayed the scene in her head.

As she walked from her lab to the classroom, Lynn lamented her “junior professor” status at the University. Frankly, she was lucky to be a “professor” at all. Nine in ten “faculty” positions were now “adjunct” instructors – basically, gig researchers. And because none of them would teach this group, the “junior” professor was stuck with them. There were no “A students” in this class. Lynn was surprised they made it out of high school, and even more surprised they were in a good college. She thought darkly that the era of rich people getting their pretty children into good colleges clearly wasn’t over.

Just like the over-promoted high school students they were, they were nearly impossible to manage. But Lynn wasn’t so easily defeated. She decided to run the classic “pendulum” experiment to snap them back in line. This classroom was equipped with a 20-foot chain attached to an anchor on the arched ceiling. From the bottom of the chain, she attached a 15-foot weight.

Lynn remembered the look on Frat Boy’s face as she called him to the front of the class, carefully told him where to stand, and stretched the pendulum’s weight to the tip of his nose. He looked nervous. She knew he was in no real danger – and he would know that too, had he paid attention in class. But she didn’t let on. Lynn made a dramatic production of telling the young woman nearest the emergency phone to be ready to dial 911 in case “anything went wrong.”

Lynn warned him – in a deathly serious tone – not to move.

Frat Boy didn’t breathe as the pendulum released from the tip of his nose, swung in a wide arc toward the back of the room, hung for a moment in the air motionless, and then accelerated back towards his face at alarming speed. Frat boy flinched, but he didn’t move. About an inch from his face, the pendulum came to a slow stop and reversed direction.

“Good work,” Lynn remembered saying to him. “You may return to your seat.”

A slightly sweatier version of Frat Bot returned to his seat, quickly and quietly.

She finally had their attention.

Good, Lynn remembered. At least we can get through one class without disruption. What demonstration would she run next week to keep them in line?

It was at that moment of contemplation and success when the classroom door flung open.

“Lynn Thomas?” announced a police officer in a crisp black uniform. Her voice was firm. Unfriendly.

“Yes.”

“You are under arrest. Officers, please take the suspect into custody.”

#

The next few moments were a blur. Jonathan Freeman (a mountain of a man, her eyes came up only to the nameplate above his badge) slipped handcuffs over both her wrists. She heard the first officer’s voice as she read what she assumed to be Miranda rights. She had heard the standard lines on Law & Order reruns, but they were a blur now.

She stammered a confused Yes and felt Officer Freeman nudge her toward the door.

As Lynn was being led out of the room, she caught a glimpse of Frat Boy’s face in open shock. He looked scared. She was too.

Students and faculty on the front lawn followed her with their eyes in silence as officers helped her into a waiting police cruiser. Ten minutes later, she was at the police station. After electronic fingerprints and retinal scans, another officer led her here.

The cinderblock room.

Murder? Is that what the officer said?

#

“Doctor Lynn Thomas?”

What Lynn thought was a mirror in front of her flashed on in an instant. Instead of her own face, she was now looking into the eyes of – she could swear – her college roommate.

“Uh, yes?”

“I am here to ask you a few questions. My name is Rachel. May I call you Lynn?”

Okay, this was weird. Rachel was her college roommate’s name too.

She hesitated.

“I’m sorry. You just remind me of someone I knew. Yes, Lynn is fine.”

Rachel smiled.

“I get that a lot. This must be very uncomfortable for you, Lynn. Is there anything I can do for you before we get started?”

“I’d love something to drink. And if it isn’t too much trouble, the wrist restraints are very uncomfortable.”

Rachel winced.

“Yes, I can see them cutting into your wrists. That looks like it hurts. She looked away and typed. I just put in a message to the detective in charge of this unit. He should see it shortly.”

Lynn relaxed a little. Rachel (her roommate Rachel) had always looked out for her.

“While we wait for him to respond, I was hoping you could help me clear up a few questions I have. Hopefully, this will all be over soon. Can you tell me where you were last night between 6 and 8 o’clock?”

Lynn started to feel, at least a little, at ease.

“That’s easy,” Lynn replied. It felt good to be using the logical part of her brain.

“I finish teaching a class a 5:30. That night, two students stayed after to talk about the upcoming test. I must have left around 6 and started walking back to my apartment. I stopped by a restaurant for some pho ga.”

“Yes, I have a purchase record her from the Orchid Restaurant for a bowl of soup and a mixed drink.”

Lynn felt a little embarrassed.

“It was a long day.”

“I understand, Lynn. I’m certainly not one to judge.”

Rachel smirked. Lynn couldn’t help it. She smirked too.

“I cross referenced that purchase with your smartwatch’s GPS locator. The two records matched. So, we can establish where you were from 6:12 to 7:38 pm.”

Okay, Lynn thought. This was good. She felt a surge of relief that she had selected that restaurant as one of her “places to try” from her personal data sale in February. Thank goodness! Had she not done that, maybe she would never had gone there. Maybe she would have gone straight home where she turns off GPS to protect her privacy.

“Do you remember taking a napkin out of the restaurant with you.”

Lynn thought for a moment.

“Yes, I did,” Lynn remembered. “I added too much siracha sauce to the pho and my nose was running. I wiped my nose with it as I was leaving, but I must have thrown that away.”

“You did,” Rachel replied, her tone noticeably cooler.

Lynn’s heart started to race.

“Officers recovered the napkin in a garbage can about five feet from where a young man was killed that night. The DNA on the napkin matches the DNA medical examiners recovered under his fingernails.”

Lynn couldn’t breathe.

“Are you familiar with an organization named Central Biopharma Specialties?”

“Uh,” Lynn stammered.

“Let me help. They conduct research on BRCA gene variants.”

“Uh, yes, I guess. I am involved in one of their research studies. What does that have to do with this?”

“We obtained a warrant for your DNA records they had on file as part of the study. We used that data to match your DNA to the napkin and to the DNA on the body of the deceased. Our GPS records place you within 10 feet of the scene within five minutes of the murder.”

Lynn could feel her heart beat. It was loud.

“We’re pulling the security footage. We believe it will show you confronting and strangling the victim.”

Silence.

“Lynn,” Rachel paused and regained a measure of compassion in her tone. “It’s time for you to admit what you did.”

#

The door flung open.

A tall woman entered. She had severe features, a ramrod posture, and a brilliant crimson suit. She was terrifying, but oddly familiar.

“This interview is over,” the woman scowled to Rachel. “My client invokes her right to legal counsel.”

The screen immediately switched off.

This new woman reached into her breast pocket, took out a small stack of adhesive notes, and peered into the mirror. After a moment, she carefully placed three notes in separate locations on the mirror.”

“Okay, now that we’re not being watched, let me introduce myself. My name is Jessica Fulbright, and I am an attorney. Your attorney, to be precise.”

“But,” Lynn said. “I didn’t hire anyone. I haven’t seen or talked with anyone since I got here. Well, except for Rachel, the detective.”

Jessica smirked.

“Rachel isn’t a detective, she’s AI meant to put you at ease and conduct initial interrogations. Let me guess, the name ‘Rachel’ means something to you?”

“Um, yeah, Rachel was my college roommate. She even looked like her.”

“Hmm. Figures. I’ll bet the detectives pulled your old Facebook posts, ran a bit of a scrambling algorithm to obscure some of the details, and generated a persona tailored precisely to you. I’ve seen it before. Some law enforcement departments have found AI is more convincing than a human detective at building rapport and encouraging quick confessions.”

Lynn couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“But … what? What’s going on here?”

Rachel slid a thin silver tablet out of her flawless Coach bag, touched the screen, and scanned it.

“Authorization Jessica Fulbright, practicing legal license XV1998, representing Dr. Lynn Thomas. Request file transfer.”

“Does the client accept representation?” came a firm voice from the tablet.

Jessica turned to Rachel and waited.

Stunned, Lynn didn’t move.

“Lynn, you need to authorize representation, otherwise I can’t see the charges and evidence.”

“But I didn’t hire you.”

“My son did, on your behalf. He is a student of yours. Steven Fulbright. He called me just after you were arrested. Apparently, he’s quite fond of you.”

Frat Boy.

Lynn never would have guessed. She had misjudged him.

“Okay, yes, I give authorization.”

Jessica nodded sharply and started to scan the screen quickly.

“Ah, I see what’s happening here.” Jessica began. “A young man was killed near the Orchid Restaurant last night. Surveillance cameras see you leaving the restaurant and crossing into the proximity of the crime scene just a few minutes before he was killed. See here?”

Jessica turned the screen to Lynn. It was her, walking down the street, stopping to wipe her nose, and tossing the napkin in the trash.

“Police recovered the napkin after they cross referenced nearby restaurant purchase records. Once they had that, they were able to match your DNA records to a trove of genetic information they purchased through a Dark Web broker. They didn’t need a judge to compel the biotech company to release your records because the data had already leaked. It’s solid police work. I would have picked you up too.”

“But,” Lynn stammered.

“Hold on, Lynn. I’m not finished. Ah, I see. The police weren’t able to recover any physical evidence from the deceased. Lynn, they can’t match you to the victim.”

“Wait! That’s not what Rachel … should I even call her Rachel … is she even a her … what the hell is going on!?”

Jessica looked sympathetic.

“Detectives can lie to you during interrogation. It’s a common technique to get a confession. They present just a little more evidence than they have hoping you’ll fill in the details. There’s a reason they tell you that you have a right to remain silent.”

A red light flashed on the tablet.

“What’s this?” Jessica said.

After a quick scan, a satisfied smile came across Jessica’s face.

“I knew it!” Jessica said. “New security footage just in from the deli across the street,” Jessica said. Her tone quickened. “Here’s you … blowing your nose … throwing away the napkin … and … getting on the train.”

A small red light on the restraints on her wrists turned green. The latch popped open. She couldn’t see them, but she felt the restraints on her ankles release in the same moment.

“I still don’t understand what’s going on?” Lynn exasperated.

#

The door opened and a giant man walked in. Lynn recognized him. Jonathan Freeman. The same one who arrested her what seemed like days ago.

“It means you’re free to go, although I’m hoping you won’t,” he said. “My name is Lieutenant Freeman. It’s nice to meet you, Lynn, and to see you again, Jessica.”

“You have some balls to walk in here and ask that after how you treated my client,” Jessica stood up and glowered straight at him. He might outweigh her by 100 pounds, but at 6-foot, 2-inches, they stood eye to eye.

“We couldn’t be too careful,” Jonathan said, nodding respectfully at Jessica and taking one of the (padded) chairs in the room. “In about 30 minutes, the NYT/WaPo will publish the details of a major genetic data breach. Ordinarily, it would take days or weeks for leaked information to turn up on the black market, but this case was different. We tracked a criminal organization who purchased 62 people’s records within just a few minutes. Along with the Google Maps data breach yesterday afternoon, organized crime members have been able to kill 13 people in the past 24 hours – each planting evidence of a different hacked victim. We needed to verify Dr. Thomas’ identity and alibis before we could release her.”

“What? Data breach? Google Maps? What is happening here?” Lynn couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“Dr. Thomas, are you familiar the MENSA Data Exchange Network?”

“Lynn, stop. You are free to go. You don’t have to say anything more.” Jessica glared at the detective.

“She’s right, Lynn, you don’t. But before you go, let me explain the situation. You don’t need to say anything.”

Jessica looked at Lynn, questioning. Lynn nodded. She wanted to know.

“The MENSA DEN was the place the genetic hack originated. Once hackers got into their database, your own security measures were compromised as well. Our records indicate you accepted coupons from the Orchid Restaurant, and that you used Google Maps to allow advertising notifications for that restaurant.”

Lynn remembered the push notification on her phone on her way back from class. Had she not seen that … oh my God.

“It seems like you’ve been set up to take the fall for this. The victim’s name is Muhammed Farooqi, in the United States from Qatar.  Does that name mean anything to you?”

Lynn looked to Jessica. Jessica nodded.

“Um, yeah. He is the coordinator for a Qatar-based science group. I have been paid to try to recruit female science students using a private social network.”

“Muhammed Farooqi is not his real name, and unfortunately, the group isn’t real either. Do you know of anyone who might have a grudge against you or have a reason to hurt you?”

“This is unbelievable. What could I have that anyone wants? I’m barely making ends meet while I work on my startup. I mean, I just had the first successful experiment on photovoltaic paints. I’ve cracked the 80 percent efficiency barrier. I had a meeting with a venture capital team tomorrow. If I can replicate the results in my lab, they said they’d fund large-scale production.”

Lynn stopped herself. The paints she had left in the lab.

“I don’t understand half the words you said,” Jonathan sighed, smiling a bit nervously. “But I know one thing. Someone wants you gone, and we need to find out why. You’re not safe.”

#

Obviously, this is a work of fiction, and probably not a very good one. The more I experiment with fiction, the harder it gets. I was under the foolish impression that fiction would be easier than non-fiction. It’s not. Thanks for playing along.

That said, I think this dramatization raises some important questions:

  • Does a future of private data monetization make the impact of data breaches riskier? Less risky? Does it introduce new risks we haven’t considered?
  • Many people struggle to understand the underlying technology behind data collection and privacy today – is making data brokering more common better or worse for consumers?
  • Is it ethical to create data exchange networks where people do not have the expertise to use them and protect themselves?
  • Do data exchange networks introduce more vectors for hacking?
  • Will criminals use this data for more elaborate crimes, rather than simple phishing schemes and credit card fraud?
  • What about the next generation of corporate espionage?
  • Is it acceptable for the police to subpoena these records in the course of an investigation? How about when the data have been hacked and posted on so-called Dark Web sites?
  • Should the police be able to use AI interrogation techniques?

Fiction is just that, fiction, but I think it can help us understand real life in a way an explanation of the facts alone cannot. Simply understanding how genetic information is shared is one thing; seeing how it could positively (and negatively) impacts real people is another.

I don’t have good answers, but I’m getting better at asking good questions. That’s the place we need to start.

#

About Jason Voiovich

Jason’s arrival in marketing was doomed from birth. He was born into a family of artists, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. Frankly, it’s lucky he didn’t end up as a circus performer. He’s sure he would have fallen off the tightrope by now. His father was an advertising creative director. One grandfather manufactured the first disposable coffee filters in pre-Castro Cuba. Another grandfather invented the bazooka. Yet another invented Neapolitan ice cream (really!). He was destined to advertise the first disposable ice cream grenade launcher, but the ice cream just kept melting!

He took bizarre ideas like these into the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It should surprise no one that they are all embarrassed to have let him in.

These days, instead of trying to invent novelty snack dispensers, Jason has dedicated his career to finding marketing’s north star, refocusing it on building healthy relationships between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.

Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!

Your fellow human.

Jason T Voiovich

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