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The Privacy Inferno (with apologies to Dante)

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Ever wondered what horrors of hell are in store for the privacy invaders? Simon Davies and Edward Allnutt take inspiration from Dante’s Inferno to give you the inside scoop.

PROLOGUE

There was no earthly reason why I had suddenly appeared in the bleak centre of this strange and soulless city – or how I had come to be here.

Around me were great satanic blocks of the seediest conglomerates. Countless CCTV cameras winked and hummed, while infrared beams swept inexplicably across the street. Remote security sensors blinked green and amber in the darkness. From invisible loudspeakers, a dire warning was issued: “These measures have been enabled for your own protection”. A helicopter hovered loudly. My spine shivered

Dante image 1Behind me in this dark, narrow alley stood a security checkpoint staffed by grim and armed officials, and ahead in the distance was a giant billboard showing a terrified old woman being pursued by a gang of crack-addicted hoodlums. The caption read: “This could be your mother. We will protect her at any cost”.

I felt trapped and surveyed, threatened and compromised, and – beginning to despair of both the rock behind me and the hard place ahead – I was relieved to see a familiar figure before me, glittering in the dusk. It was my irritating old friend, the Microsoft Paperclip.

Hiya!” it began in a soulless, metallic voice, “So, where do you want to go today, buddy?”

Anywhere!”, I began, hastening to join this new ally.

I started to tell him a little of my thoughts that fateful evening, namely that I had begun to despair for the prospect of privacy in the age of Big Data, to fear the dangers of monetizing and aggregating personal data, the blindness of governments, of meddling officials, of amoral cops, of corporate thuggery, of unrelenting security and the impending age of total control over humanity.

As I continued with untiring zealotry in this vein, the paperclip stopped me with a conspirator’s wink and motioned me towards a huge door that dominated one side of the tallest, ugliest block on that damned street.

Well, how about I do some troubleshooting for you! You can either refer to my FAQ pages, or you can visit” – and here his voice plummeted two octaves – “THE PRIVACY INFERNO!” As this was a simple choice between FAQ pages and a trip to Hell, I begged him instantly to take me to the Inferno’s most fiery depths. He pointed towards the aforementioned door, and now I discerned an inscription above it in cast iron, dark and intimidating:

“ABANDON ALL LIBERTIES, YE WHO ENTER IN”

So it was that with trepidation, I pushed through this great black gateway and entered the Privacy Inferno. For it was here that I would witness the fate of those who had destroyed our freedoms

*   *   *   *   *

Presumably I had passed out with fear of the sudden dark and stench, for the next thing I knew I stood on a small boat alongside my guide, on a glimmering river looking out over a vast, endless, grey and white field that hummed and crackled. My paperclip guide at once began with an introduction.

THE FIRST CIRCLE — SHEEPLE

This is the first circle. Here are punished those who cheerfully sacrificed privacy and liberties for the illusion of better security.”

As I looked about I realized this field was in fact a sea of sheep, crushed tightly together and stretching into infinity, each beast chewing at dead grass barely visible beneath their heaving bodies, jostling for the few remaining, decaying roots. As strange as this was, I almost laughed:”But these are sheep!”

dante image 6 “No, these are the souls of blind consumers”, the paperclip said, “trapped in the bodies of earthly beasts of the ovine genus.”

“What was their crime?!” I exclaimed, looking out across the expanse of lost souls, “Not to have fought for something they did not know existed?”

I felt a sudden poignant pang. When had I ever stood up for such rights?

“They let their governments steal away their freedoms”, the paperclip continued, “and yet they bleated mindlessly about the sanctity of their so-called democracy.”

At a funereal pace we left these unfortunate bastards, then my guide added, “But come, this is but the beginning, the lowest of the low classes.”

THE SECOND CIRCLE — PIGS

Our boat hummed down the thin, silver channel and, passing two great, soot-black telecom towers, we came to what I guessed to be the second circle of the Privacy Inferno.

Here, in row upon row, were great shelving units, stacked right at the very top with unreachable delicacies and shimmering consumer items – luxuries from illustrious household brands. Floating as we were over the crest of a hill I could see, beneath these shelves, hordes of screaming people, gazing up at these wonderful vittles, clambering over each other; desperately struggling in futility to reach them with grasping, emaciated hands. dante image 9

Tell me, then”, I asked my guide, “what is this place, where the poor and starving may not eat?”

Here”, he informed me, “are those who sinned by appetite and sold their and everyone else’s privacy for small convenience. They welcomed government-issued ID cards to expedite their purchase of liquor, and they let Google into their soul in the hope of a better user experience.”

“Take me away from here!”, I implored, “I have seen enough.”You have seen nothing yet”, replied my anthropomorphically improbable guide, and he winked evilly as we descended with a roller-coaster jolt into the next circle.

THE THIRD CIRCLE — JUNKIES

Here in the third circle was a great blue plain, and all around it tiny white boxes whizzed back and forth. Some of the men and women here were chased by them, while others ran terrified away, and these groups switched from pursuer to pursued as the countless bright boxes blinked in and out of existence in the strange blue light.

For what sin are these people punished?”, I asked my guide.

“These are those who sinned by gluttony and addiction. They became so attached to their social media sites that they forgot to keep their data safe, and gave up their right to be forgotten. The boxes you see are status updates, tweets, reddit posts, indiscreet blog entries and mindless videos of themselves and their loved ones. These authors are now doomed to flee from memories of their misdeeds, or run after the fleeting presences of friends and family. For all eternity.”

“But what about them?” I asked, pointing out a few sorry people who hopped around as if they had trodden on hot coals while constantly pursued by vicious little demons.

As one of the demons came nearer, I heard it squeak in a horrible tinny voice at its victim — “Afternoon tea with Aaron at the Grand; Ooh isn’t it hot today #sun; Feeling a bit low right now :(“

My guide explained: dante image 10“Those unfortunate things are the souls of those who felt the need to constantly bombard the world with the banalities of their everyday lives via social media sites. Now they are haunted for all eternity by having their meaningless imbecilities repeated to them in an annoying squeaky voice. For all eternity.”

“Sharon and Carla bffs XXX”, the demon squeaked as we sailed onwards.

THE FOURTH CIRCLE — PRYING EYES, BUSY THUMBS

We continued along a stream that ran through the centre of a blackened room that looked like one of the larger train stations of the West Coast. Here, men and women sat at little desks, scribbling frantically. In bemusement, I turned to my guide.

“Is that it now? Have we left the Inferno?”

“Left?! We are entering the fourth circle!”

I snorted with derision, “But what kind of punishment is this?”

“All around are those who exploited privacy for personal gain. These are private detectives, data brokers, online marketing peddlers and snooping government officials. Their sin was prying into people’s lives to make an easy dollar.”

“But they just sit there writing! What kind of a punishment is that?”

“You misunderstand. Their punishment s to fill out official forms.”

“But what happens when they finish them?”

Here my paperclip guide gave a paperclip’s best impression of a wry smile and indicated a vast adjoining room that I had not noticed before:

“Those in the distance are doomed to create endless rules and regulations on threat of agonizing torment. Those in this room are destined on threat of hot embers to comply. They will perform these tasks for all eternity with endlessly escalating fear and desperation.”

THE FIFTH CIRCLE — TROLLS

Before I could respond, we had sailed straight through the opposite wall of the atrium into near darkness. Around us I perceived tiny concrete prisons, each no more than a meter squared, arrayed in a circle around a vast, luminous eye whose pupil followed us as we went by. From each of these upright coffins came an indistinct (but distinctly sinister) murmuring.

“What is this place?”, I asked, dropping my voice to a whisper for fear of waking whatever might be in solitary confinement here. dantes inferno

“We have come to the fifth circle. In each of these prisons there reside the Anonymous Coward’s who sinned with anger and vitriol. Here are the flamers, trolls and cyberstalkers of the Internet. They are each alone in their cells, always watched, and haunted by insidious; almost imperceptible whispered threats, like those they made to innocent strangers.”

THE SIXTH CIRCLE — MASS DEBATING

As my stomach was now churning I was thankful that the boat sped up on our bright white stream, leaving the trolls to the fate of their own creation.

So it was we crashed once again through the darkness into a windowed gallery made of pure crystal. After the silence of the fifth circle’s panopticon, the roar of voices in this room almost threw me overboard, and looking through the glass each side of me I saw a vast parliament, filled to its dusty rafters with bewigged, uproarious individuals, each raising hands, shouting hoarsely and competing to make a point above the next. Nowhere could I see a speaker or chair who might calm the dreadful din. I shouted to my companion:

“What is this place of government doing in the sixth circle of your Inferno?”

“Place of government!” the paperclip exclaimed, “No, here are those who were heretics to the values of privacy. These are MPs and senators, elected officials who sacrificed the rights of their constituents on the altar of popular but illusory security. They are condemned to argue a public interest debate that will never cease.”

“Good God! What kind of a debate would never cease?”

“Any debate really”, said my guide, “but”, and he winked, “in this specific instance it is whether one should wipe one’s arse frontwards or backwards in the pursuit of public safety.”

He smiled cruelly and winked his horrible wink. “For all eternity.”

My guide explained that the political leaders of these people had a much more horrible fate in store, but that this Sixth level was dedicated to elected opportunists and idiots, of which there were many.

Having traversed the clamorous gallery we arrived at a lobby, still on our silver rivulet, where a group of men and women resided in various contorted positions, all naked from head to toe. Around them, cruel, unimaginable machines with horrid implements relentlessly poked and probed and ran hot lasers over body parts.

“Wh..?” I began, but my guide forestalled me.

“Border control officials”, he explained, and my questions were put at ease.

THE SEVENTH CIRCLE — BAD NEIGHBOURS

Gloom came quickly over us again, and soon we were passing through a small village, surrounded with fields that gleamed with gold and silver bushes. People went about wearily, picking through this brightly colored foliage. One man stood half collapsed against the door of a house, banging his fist against the thick wood and crying in agony. This, by my count, was the seventh circle.

“What sin did these people commit?”, I asked.

“These are former bailiffs and debt collectors. Their sin was against people and their property, which they often violated by way of threads, lies and intimidation. All the gold and silver foliage from here to as far as the eye can see, is made up of single keys. Each one in this near-infinite expanse is different, and the houses you see are replicas of the houses these sinners lived in.”

I was a little confused by this revelation, but my guide continued:

“Sometimes these evildoers can look through their windows and discern a family photo, a familiar book, or the back of a loved one’s head. But they will never find the key to their home, and will spend eternity desperately striving to find it in the foliage.”  

THE SEVENTH CIRCLE – DEBT ENFORCERS

Deciding I would not lose much sleep over the fate of the bailiffs, we continued our procession into the next field. In this murky place, all I could see were solemn graves, with little pools of light by each magnificently carved headstone. From every grave came a slight buzzing. “Surely people are not buried here in the seventh circle?!”

dante image 2Yes”, said my guide, “but they are not dead. Here, beneath the earth, lie the junk text operators and spam merchants. Within their graves they try in futility to sleep, but constantly they are woken by the vibrating of a phone, which lies atop each grave, a reminder of the phones belonging to people whose patience they frayed while they went about their mortal business.”

Despite myself I smiled inwardly at the ingenuity of this punishment, as our boat pursued its unswerving path.

THE EIGHTH CIRCLE — NETWORKING A distant chattering grew to a cacophony as we came to the eighth circle, and ahead was a room reminiscent of a Wall Street foyer. Around its floor, men and women in sharp suits were circulating constantly, all talking at each other, endlessly introducing themselves before introducing those around them with crazed eagerness.

“What is this racket?” I asked over the din.

“Here in the penultimate circle”, replied my guide, “are those guilty of deceit and hypocrisy. These are the PR people and the lobbyists for great conglomerates, who sold snake oil privacy settings and traded on false security. They twisted words and facts with honeyed charisma. Therefore their punishment is never to stop talking, and they will mingle forever, talking themselves hoarse with marketing jargon until their throats go numb and bleed. Then they will talk endlessly more. For all eternity.”

In revulsion I saw that the throats of these ill-fated suits were red and varicose, their eyes wide in horror, but their mouths unable to stop the unending verbal flow.

“Please, let’s leave this place”, I begged, and the boat rolled on its bright course towards the final circle.

THE NINTH CIRCLE — THE ONE PER CENT

It struck me immediately that, after the obvious hell of the former circles, we now entered into more mundane surroundings: the centre of a small industrial town, quite the picture of northern English suburbia. A thin drizzle was setting in, though storm clouds threatened over the chimney stack of a looming factory, while a stream of workers dribbled from that direction towards the terraces.

dante image 8Just as I was beginning to think I had been mistaken thinking there was another circle, I recognized one of the workers, splattered with filth, clad in a boiler suit and entering a house. Then I recognized another, and yet another!

There was a former President, here was the head of a big social networking site, then a prominent Conservative politician, and there was a pre-eminent author – all exhausted, tormented, caked in filth and dressed in work clothes. And each, as I noted with horror seeing their zombie-like gapes, had their tongues cut out.

The paperclip pre-empted my many questions:

“This is the ninth circle. Here is punished the gravest sin against civil liberties. These are the world’s leaders, alongside the richest men and women, who committed treachery against privacy. Because of their importance they took on a duty of care to the people, and they failed to fulfil it. Now they must suffer the greatest of punishments: they live the ordinary lives of blue-collar workers in Blackburn, Lancashire.” My guide grinned. “For all eternity.”

I almost fell back, my legs buckling under the weight of the awfulness of this fate. Steadying myself, I managed:

“Is that it? Is that the end of this horrible place?”

“No. Now we must enter the centre of hell.”

THE CENTRE OF HELL – MACHINA EX DEUS

I felt faint. Here – if my knowledge of Dante served me correctly – would be the fallen angel, nemesis of all that is holy — Satan.

The little boat sped forwards as the factory loomed vast and black, then passed straight through its outer wall. The paperclip ushered me off the boat as I looked around at an unending, low warehouse room that was filled with the hum of…

“But this is a -“

“That’s right. A server room.”

From where our boat had stopped to the far horizon little lights blinked and flashed; huge boxes blew cool air through the rafters and neatly arranged cables connected everything to, well, everything.

This is where all of your data is aggregated”, my guide explained. “Look beneath you.”

He gestured downward and I followed his gaze to what I had all along thought to be a river of water. As I bent to inspect it now, I saw that it was, in fact, made up of hundreds of thousands of fiber optic cables open to view, and where the river ended they ran into a million relays throughout the vast operation.

“The data stream”, my guide observed, “it flows through every device on this planet, and it flows through every piece of flesh in the Inferno and above it; it has many names: some call it the “Internet of Things”, others call it ‘Beelzehub’.”

There was no Satan here, no arch-nemesis. I walked up and down row upon row of machine, each tidily and efficiently counting its amassed wealth of knowledge, cross-referencing it, profiling each thing and each person on the planet, assigning each a particular role in its own Hell. And reeling with the horror, then bursting into daylight as my guide showed me a side exit from the room, my only thought was that if this was the Hell that data aggregation had created, I dreaded to think what might be its Heaven.