Scroogled (2007) – Cory Doctorow
Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him. (Cardinal de Richelieu)
Greg landed at SFO at 8PM, but by the time he made it to the front of the customs line it was after midnight. He had it good — he'd been in first class, first off the plane, brown as a nut and loose-limbed after a month on the beach at Cabo, SCUBA diving three days a week, bumming around and flirting with French college girls the rest of the time. When he'd left San Francisco a month before, he'd been a stoop-shouldered, pot-bellied wreck — now he was a bronze god, drawing appreciative looks from the stews at the front of the plane.
In the four hours he spent in the customs line, he fell from god back to man. His warm buzz wore off, the sweat ran down the crack of his ass, and his shoulders and neck grew so tense that his upper back felt like a tennis racket. The batteries on his iPod died after the third hour, leaving him with nothing to do except eavesdrop on the middle-aged couple ahead of him.
“They've starting googling us at the border,” she said. “I told you they'd do it.”
“I thought that didn't start until next month?” The man had brought a huge sombrero on board, carefully stowing it in its own overhead locker, and now he was stuck alternately wearing it and holding it.
Googling at the border. Christ. Greg vested out from Google six months before, cashing in his options and “taking some me time,” which turned out to be harder than he expected. Five months later, what he'd mostly done is fix his friends' PCs and websites, and watch daytime TV, and gain ten pounds, which he blamed on being at home, instead of in the Googleplex, with its excellent 24-hour gym.
The writing had been on the wall. Google had a whole pod of lawyers in charge of dealing with the world's governments, and scumbag lobbyists on the Hill to try to keep the law from turning them into the world's best snitch. It was a losing battle. The US Government had spent $15 billion on a program to fingerprint and photograph visitors at the border, and hadn't caught a single terrorist. Clearly, the public sector was not equipped to Do Search Right.
The DHS officers had bags under their eyes as they squinted at their screens, prodding mistrustfully at their keyboards with sausage fingers. No wonder it was taking four hours to get out of the goddamned airport.
“Evening,” he said, as he handed the man his sweaty passport. The man grunted and swiped it, then stared at his screen, clicking. A lot. He had a little bit of dried food in the corner of his mouth and his tongue crept out and licked at it as he concentrated.
“Want to tell me about June, 1998?”
Greg turned his head this way and that. “I'm sorry?”
“You posted a message to alt.burningman on June 17, 1998 about your plan to attend Burning Man. You posted, 'Would taking shrooms be a really bad idea?'”
It was 3AM before they let him out of the “secondary screening” room. The interrogator was an older man, so skinny he looked like he'd been carved out of wood. His questions went a lot further than the Burning Man shrooms. They were just the start of Greg's problems.
“I'd like to know more about your hobbies. Are you interested in model rocketry?”
“No,” Greg said. “No, I'm not.” Thinking of all the explosives that model rocketry people surrounded themselves with.
The man made a note, clicked some more. “You see, I ask because I see a heavy spike of ads for model rocketry supplies showing up alongside your search results and Google mail.”
Greg felt his guts spasm. “You're looking at my searches and email?” He hadn't touched a keyboard in a month, but he knew that what you put into the searchbar was more intimate than what you told your father-confessor. He'd seen enough queries to know that.
“Calm down, please. No, I'm not looking at your searches.” The man made a bitter lemon face and went on in a squeaky voice. “That would be unconstitutional. You weren't listening to me. We see the ads that show up when you read your mail and do your searching. I have a brochure explaining it, I'll give it to you when we're through here.”
“But the ads don't mean anything — I get ads for Ann Coulter ringtones whenever I get email from my friend who lives in Coulter, Iowa!”
The man nodded. “I understand, sir. And that's just why I'm here talking to you, instead of just looking at this screen. Why do you suppose model rocket ads show up so frequently for you?”
He thought for a moment. “OK, just do this. Go to Google and search for 'coffee fanciers', all right?” He'd been very active in the group, helping them build out the site for their coffee-of-the-month subscription service. The blend they were going to launch with was called “Jet Fuel.” “Jet Fuel” and “Launch” — that'd probably make Google barf up model rocket ads. Not that he would know — he blocked all the ads in his browser.
They were in the home stretch when the carved man found the Hallowe'en photos. They were buried three screens deep in the search results for “Greg Lupinski,” and Greg hadn't noticed them.
“It was a Gulf War themed party,” he said. “In the Castro.”
“And you're dressed as —?”
“A suicide bomber.” Just saying the words in an airport made him nervous, as though uttering them would cause the handcuffs to come out.
“Come with me, Mr Lupinski.”
The search lasted a long time. They swabbed him in places he didn't know he had. He asked about a lawyer. They told him that he could call all the lawyers he wanted once he was out of the Customs sterile area.
“Good night, Mr Lupinski.” This was a new interrogator, a man who'd wanted to know about the reason that he'd sought both night diving and deep diving specialist certification from the PADI instructor in Cabo. The guy implied that Greg had been training to be an al-Qaeda frogman, and didn't seem to believe that Greg had just wanted to do all the certifications he could, pursuing diving the way he pursued everything: thoroughly.
But now the man with the frogman fantasy was bidding him a good night and releasing him from the secondary screening area. His suitcases stood alone by the baggage carousel. When he picked them up, he saw that they had been opened and then inexpertly closed. Some of his clothes stuck out from around the edges.
At home, he saw that all the fake “pre-Colombian” statues had been broken, and that his white cotton Mexican shirt — folded and fresh from his laundry-lady — had a boot-print in the middle of it. His clothes no longer smelled of Mexico. Now they smelled of airports and machine oil.
The mailman had dropped an entire milk-crate of mail off at his place that day, but he couldn't even begin to confront it. All he could think of, as the sun rose over the Mission, turning the Victorian houses they called “painted ladies” vivid colors, was what it meant to be googled.
He wasn't going to sleep. No way. He needed to talk about this. And there was only one person who he could talk to, and luckily, she was usually awake around now.
Maya had started at Google two years after him, but had gotten a much bigger grant of stock than he had. She knew exactly what she was going to do with it, too, once she vested: take her dogs and her girlfriend and head to Florence, for good. Learn Italian, take in the museums, sit in the cafes. It was she who'd convinced him to go to Mexico: anywhere, she said, anywhere that he could reboot his existence.
Maya had two giant chocolate Labs and a very, very patient girlfriend who'd put up with anything except being dragged around Dolores Park at 6AM by 350 pounds of drooling brown canine.
She went for her Mace as he jogged towards her, then did a double-take and threw her arms open, dropping the leashes and stamping on them with one sneaker, a practiced gesture. “Where's the rest of you? Dude, you look hawt!”
He took the hug, suddenly self-conscious of the way he smelled after a night of invasive googling. “Maya,” he said. “Maya, what do you know about the DHS?”
She stiffened and the dogs whined. She looked around, then nodded up at the tennis courts. “Top of the light standard there, don't look, there. That's one of our muni WiFi access points. Wide-angle webcam. Face away from it when you talk. Lip-readers.”
He parsed this out slowly. Google's free municipal WiFi program was a hit in every city where it played, and in the grand scheme of things, it hadn't cost much to put WiFi access points up on light standards and other power-ready poles around town. Especially not when measured against the ability to serve ads to people based on where they were sitting. He hadn't paid much attention when they'd made the webcams on all those access points public — there'd been a day's worth of blogstorm while people looked out over their childhood streets or patrolled prostitution strolls, fingering johns, but it had blown over.
Now he felt — watched.
Feeling silly, he kept his lips together and mumbled, “You're joking.”
“Come with me,” she said, facing squarely away from the pole.
The dogs weren't happy about having their walks cut short, and they let it be known in the kitchen as Maya fixed coffee for them — barking, banging into the table and rocking it. Maya's girlfriend Laurie called out from the bedroom and Maya went back to talk to her, then emerged, looking flustered.
“It started with China,” she said. “Once we moved our servers onto the mainland, they went under Chinese jurisdiction. They could google everyone going through our servers.” Greg knew what that meant: if you visited a page with Google ads on it, if you used Google maps, if you used Google mail — even if you sent mail to a gmail account — Google was collecting your info, forever.
“They were using us to build profiles of people. Not arresting them, you understand. But when they had someone they wanted to arrest, they'd come to us for a profile and find a reason to bust them. There's hardly anything you can do on the net that isn't illegal in China.”
Greg shook his head. “Why did they put the servers in China?”
“The government said they'd block them if they didn't. And Yahoo was there.” They both made a face. Somewhere along the way, Google had become obsessed with Yahoo, more worried about what the competition was doing than how they were performing. “So we did it. But a lot of us didn't like the idea.”
She sipped her coffee and lowered her voice. One of the dogs whined. “I made it my 20 percent project.” Googlers were supposed to devote 20 percent of their time to blue-sky projects. “Me and my pod. We call it the googlecleaner. It goes deep into the database and statistically normalizes you. Your searches, your gmail histograms, your browsing patterns. All of it.”
“The search ads?”
“Ah,” she grimaced. “Yes, the DHS. So we brokered a compromise with the DHS. They'd stop asking to go fishing in our search records and we'd let them see what ads got displayed for you.”
Greg felt sick. “Why? Don't tell me Yahoo was doing it already —”
“No, no. Well, yes. Sure. Yahoo was already doing it. But that wasn't it. You know, Republicans hate Google. We are overwhelmingly registered Democrat. So we're doing what we can to make peace with them before they clobber us. This isn't PII —” Personally Identifying Information, the toxic smog of the information age “— it's just metadata. So it's only slightly evil.”
“If it's all so innocuous, why all this cloak-and-dagger stuff?”
She sighed and hugged the dog that was butting her with his huge, anvil-shaped head. “The spooks are like pubic lice. They get everywhere. Once we let them in, everything suddenly got a lot more — secret. Some of our meetings have to have spooks present, it's like being in some Soviet ministry, with a political officer always there, watching everything. And the security clearance. Now we're divided into these two camps: the cleared and the suspect. We all know who isn't cleared, but no one knows why. I'm cleared. Lucky me — being a homo no longer disqualifies you for access to seekrit crap. No cleared person wants to even eat lunch with an un-clearable. And every now and again, one of your teammates will get pulled off your project 'for security reasons', whatever that means.”
Greg felt very tired. “So now I'm feeling lucky I got out of the airport alive. I suppose I might have ended up in Gitmo if it had gone badly, huh?”
She was staring at him intently, her eyes flicking from side to side. He waited, but she didn't say anything.
“What I'm about to tell you, you can't ever repeat it, OK?”
“Um, OK? You're not going to tell me you're a deep-cover Al-Quaeda suicide bomber?”
“Nothing so simple. Here's the thing: the airport DHS scrutiny is a gating function. It lets the spooks narrow down their search criteria. Once you get pulled aside for secondary at the border, you become a 'person of interest,' and they never, ever let up. They'll check the webcams for your face and gait. Read your mail. Log your searches.”
“I thought you said the courts wouldn't let them —”
“The courts won't let them indiscriminately google you. But once you get into the system, it becomes a selective search. All legal. And once they start googling you, they always find something.”
“You mean to say they've got a boiler-room of midwestern housewives reading the email of everyone who ever got a second look at the border? Sounds like the world's shittiest job.”
“If only. No, this is all untouched by human hands. All your data is fed into a big hopper that checks for 'suspicious patterns' and gradually builds the case against you, using deviation from statistical norms to prove that you're guilty of something. It's just a variation of the way we spot search-spammers” — the “optimizers” who tried to get their Viagra scams and Ponzi schemes to come to the top of the search results “— but instead of lowering your search rank, we increase your probability of being sent to Syria. And of course, they google all of us, everyone who works on anything 'sensitive.'”
“Naturally,” Greg said. He felt like he was going to throw up. He felt like never using a search engine again. “How the hell did this happen? It's such a good place. 'Don't be evil,' right?” That was the corporate motto, and for Greg, it had been a huge part of his reason for taking his fresh-minted computer science PhD from Stanford directly to Google.
Maya's laugh was bitter and cynical. “Don't be evil? Come on, Greg. Don't you remember what it was like when we started censoring the Chinese search results, and we all asked how that could be anything but evil? The company line was hilarious: 'We're not doing evil — we're giving them access to a better search tool! If we showed them search results they couldn't get to, that would just frustrate them. It would be a bad user experience'. If we hadn't lost our don't-be-evil cherry by then, we surely did the day we took that one.”
“Now what?” Greg pushed a dog away from him and Maya looked hurt.
“Now you're a person of interest, Greg. Googlestalked. Now, you live your life with someone watching over your shoulder, all the time. You know the mission statement, right? 'Organize all human knowledge.' That's everything. Give it five years, we'll know how many turds were in the bowl before you flushed. Combine that with automated suspicion of anyone who matches a statistical picture of a bad guy and you're —”
“Thanks, Maya,” he said. “Thanks anyway.”
“Sit down,” she said. The dog that had been bumping at his legs was at it again. Maya took both dogs down the hall to the bedroom and he heard her muffled argument with her girlfriend. She came back without the dogs.
“I can fix this,” she said in a whisper so low it was practically a hiss. “I can googleclean you.”
“But you're under constant scrutiny —”
“By DHS agents. Once they fired all non-native-born Americans from the DHS, it got a lot fatter and stupider. I can googleclean you, Greg.”
“I don't want you to get into trouble.”
She shook her head. “I'm already doomed. I built the googlecleaner. Every day since then has been borrowed time — now it's just a matter of waiting for someone to point out my expertise and history to the DHS and, oh, I don't know. Whatever it is they do to people like me in the War on Abstract Nouns.”
Greg remembered the questioning at the airport. The search. His shirt, the bootprint in the middle of it.
“Do it,” he said.
The ads were weird. He hadn't really paid attention to them in years. The blocker got rid of most of them, but Google changed its code often enough that their little text ads showed up on a lot of his pages. They stayed subliminal mostly — only clunkers like that Ann Coulter ringtone ad made it past his eyes into his brain.
Now the clunkers were everywhere: Intelligent Design Facts, Online Seminary Degree, Terror Free Tomorrow, Porn Blocker Software, Homosexuality and Satan. He clicked through a couple of these and found himself in some kind of alternate universe Internet, full of weird opinions about the evils of being gay, the certainty of the young Earth, the need for eternal national vigilance.
Then he started to notice something weird about the search results themselves. After unpacking his suitcase and opening his mail, he spent two weeks sitting at home on his ass, surfing. His pre-Mexico belly was reemerging, so he decided to do something about it. No burritos for lunch today — he'd go to that holistic place Maya had told him about. Vegan low-fat cuisine couldn't possibly be as gross as it sounded.
“Did you mean 'Hungarian Restaurants'?”
He snorted. No, he'd meant “holistic restaurants,” you dumbass search-engine. It nagged at him. He pulled up his search history and went back through the results, printing out the pages. Then he logged out of his Google account and went back through the same searches, comparing the results to the logged-in pages. The differences were striking. A search for “democratic primary” pointed to anti-Hillary rants on angry blogs when he was logged in, and to information on volunteering for the DNC when he was logged out. Searching for “abortion clinic” while logged out listed the nearest Planned Parenthood office; searching while logged in gave him information about Campaign Life, ProLife.com, and the ProLife alliance. Good thing he wasn't pregnant.
This was Maya's googlecleaner at work. It was like the stories of people who asked their TiVos to record an episode of “Queer Eye” and then got inundated with suggestions for other “gay shows” — “My TiVo thinks I'm gay,” was the title of one article he remembered. Google had been experimenting with “personalized” search results before he left the country — here it was, in all its glory.
Google thought he was a conservative Christian Republican who supported the War on Terror and many other abstract nouns.
He logged out of Google — that was simple. Five minutes later, he logged in again. His entire address book was in there. He logged out again. Logged back in. His calendar — when was his parents' anniversary again? Logged out. Logged back in. Needed his bookmarked locations in Maps. Logged out.
He stopped trying. Google was where his friendships lived — all those people he stayed connected to on Orkut. It was where his relationships lived: all that archived email, all those addresses in his address-book. It was his family photos, his bookmarks. Hell, his search history — his real search history — was like an outboard brain, remembering which parts of the unplumbable Internet he cared about, so that he didn't have to remember it the hard way, with the meat in his skull.
Google had a copy of him — all the parts of him that navigated the world and the people in it. Google owned that copy, and without it, he couldn't be himself anymore. He'd just have to stay logged in.
Greg mashed the keys on the laptop next to his bed, bringing the screen to life. He squinted at the toolbar clock: 4:13AM! Christ, who was pounding on his door at this hour?
He shouted “Coming!” in a muzzy voice and pulled on a robe and slippers. He shuffled down the hallway, turning on lights as he went, squinting. At the door, he squinted through the peephole, peering at — Maya.
He undid the chains and the deadbolt and yanked the door open and Maya rushed in past him, followed by the dogs, followed by her girlfriend, Laurie, whom he'd last seen at a Christmas party at Google, in a fabulous cocktail dress and an elaborate up-do. Now she was wearing a freebie Google Summer of Code sweatshirt, jeans, and a frown that started between her eyebrows and intensified all the way down her face.
Maya was sheened with sweat, her hair sticking to her forehead. She scrubbed at her eyes, which were red and lined.
“Pack a bag,” she said, in a hoarse croak.
“Whatever you can't live without. A couple changes of clothes. Anything you're sentimental about — shoebox of pictures, your grandfather's razor, whatever. But keep it small, something you can carry. We're traveling light.”
“Maya, what are you —”
She took him by the shoulders. “Do. It,” she said. “Don't ask questions right now. There's no time.”
“Where do you want to —”
“Mexico, probably. Don't know yet. Pack, dammit.” She pushed past him into his bedroom and started yanking open drawers.
“Maya,” he said, sharply, “I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on.”
She glared at him and pushed her hair away from her face. “The googlecleaner lives. I shut it down, walked away from it, after I did you. It was too dangerous to use anymore. But I still get buginizer notifications when new bugs get filed against it, I'm still in B as the project's owner. Someone filed eight bugs against it this week. Someone's used it six times to smear six very specific accounts.”
“Who's using it?”
“Well, I'll give you a hint. Let me tell you who's been cleaned this week —” She listed six candidates, four Republican and two Democrat, who were all in the running for the primaries.
“Googlers are blackwashing political candidates?”
“Not Googlers. This is all coming from offsite. The IP block is registered in DC. And the IPs are all also used by Gmail users. And those Gmail users —”
“You spied on gmail accounts?”
“I'm leaving in two minutes, with or without you. You can interrupt me to ask me questions, or you can listen.” She gave him another look. Laurie stood in the door of the bedroom, holding the dogs by the collars and looking down at the floor.
“Good. OK. Yes. I did spy on their email. Of course I did. Everyone does it, now and again, and for a lot worse reasons than this.
“It's our lobbying firm. The ones who invented the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Remember them? It was a stink when we hired them, but Google couldn't afford to be 'that company full of registered Democrats' forever. We needed friends in Congress. These guys could do it for us.”
“But they're ruining politicians' careers!”
“Yeah. They certainly are. And who benefits when they do that?”
Laurie spoke, at last. “Other politicians.”
He felt his pulse beating in his temples. “We should tell someone.”
“Yeah,” Maya said. “How? They know everything about us. They can see every search. Every email. Every time we've been caught on the webcams. Who is in our social network — you know that if you've got more than fifteen Orkut buddies, it's statistically certain that you're no more than three steps to someone who's contributed money to a 'terrorist' cause? Remember the airport? Imagine a lot more of that.”
“Maya,” he said, carefully. “I think you're over-reacting. You don't need to go to Mexico. You can just quit. We can do a startup together or something. Or you can move to the country and raise dogs. Whatever. This is crazy —”
“They came to see me today,” she said. “At work. Two of the political officers — the minders who monitor our sensitive projects. And they asked me a lot of very heavy questions.”
“About the googlecleaner?”
“About my friends and family. About my search history. About my political beliefs.”
“They were sending me a message. They were letting me know that they were onto me. They're watching every click and every search. It's time to go — time to get out of range.”
“There's a Google office in Mexico, you know.”
“Are you coming, Greg? We're going now.”
“Laurie, what do you think of this?”
Laurie thumped the dogs between the shoulders. “Maya showed me what Google knows about me. It's like there's a little me in there, a copy of me. Like I'm pinned down under a jar with a ball of ether. My parents left East Germany in '65 — they used to tell me about the Stasi. They'd put everything about you in your file — even unpatriotic jokes. Lately I've been feeling...watched. All the time. Like I can't live without leaving a trail. Like I'm throwing off a smog of data and it can't be gotten rid of.”
“We're going now, Greg. Now. Are you coming?”
Greg looked at the dogs. “I've got some pesos left over,” he said. “You take them. Be careful, OK?”
She looked like she was going to slug him. Then she softened and gave him a ferocious hug. “Be careful yourself,” she whispered in his ear.
They came for him a week later. At home, in the middle of the night, just as he'd imagined it. Their knock was nothing like Maya's tentative, nervous thump. They went bang-bang-bang, confident, knowing that they had every right to be there and not caring who else came after them.
Two men. One stayed by the door and didn't say anything. The other was a smiler, short and rumpled, in a sports coat with a small stain on one lapel and a cloisonné American flag on the other. “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,” he said, by way of introduction. “'Exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct having obtained information.' Ten years for a first offense, ever since the PATRIOT Act extended it. I have it on the best of authority that what you and your friend did to your Google records qualifies. And oh, what will come out in the trial. All the stuff you whitewashed out of your profile.”
Greg had been playing this scene out in his head for a week. He'd had all kinds of brave things to say, planned out in advance. He'd even written some down, to see how they looked. It had given him something to do while the knots in his stomach tightened, while he waited to hear from Maya.
“I'd like to call a lawyer,” is all he managed. It came out in a whisper.
“You can do that,” the man said. “But hear me out first.”
Greg found his voice. “I'd like to see your badge.”
The man's basset-hound face lit up as he hissed a laugh. “Oh, Greg, buddy. I'm not a cop. I work for —” He named the DC firm in Google's employ. The inventors of swiftboating. “You're a Googler. You're part of the family. We couldn't send the police after you without talking with you first. There's an offer I'd like to make.”
Greg made coffee. It gave him something to do with his hands while he tried to find that bravery he'd been honing all week. “I'll go to the press,” he said. “I've written this all up. I'll go straight to them.”
The guy nodded as if thinking it over. “Well, sure. You could walk into the Chronicle's office in the morning and spill everything you need. They'd try to find a confirming source. They won't find it. Maybe you'll try to show them what your profile looks like today? Well, tell you what, it looks just like it looked the day you landed at SFO. Greg, buddy, why don't you hear me out before you start trying to figure out how to fight me? I'm in the win-win business. I'm in the business of figuring out how to get all parties what they need. I'm very good at it. You don't even want to know what I'm billing Google for this little tete-a-tete. By the way, those are excellent beans, but you want to give them a little rinse first, takes some of the bitterness out and brings up the oils. Here, pass me a colander?”
Greg watched in numb bemusement as the man took off his jacket and hung it over a kitchen chair, then undid his cuffs and rolled them up, slipping a cheap digital watch into his pocket. Then he poured the beans back out of the grinder and into Greg's colander and did things at the sink.
He was a little pudgy, and very pale. He needed a haircut — had unruly curls at his neck. It made Greg relax, somehow. This guy had the social gracelessness of a nerd, felt like a real Googler, obsessed with the minutiae. He knew his way around a coffee-grinder, too.
“We're drafting a team for Building 49 —”
“There is no building 49,” Greg said, automatically.
“Yeah,” the guy said, with a private little smile. “There's no Building 49. And we're putting together a team, with its own buginizer, to own googlecleaner. Maya's code wasn't very efficient. Every time someone runs it, it clobbers the whole farm. And it's got plenty of bugs. We've asked around and there's consensus on this. You'd be the right guy, and it wouldn't matter what you knew if you were back inside —”
“No, I wouldn't,” Greg said. “You're on crack.”
“Hear me out. There's money involved. Good work, too. Smart colleagues. A direction for your life. A chance to participate in the political life of your country —”
Greg gave a bitter laugh. “Unbelievable,” he said. “If you think I'm going to help you smear political candidates in exchange for favors, you're even crazier than I thought.”
“Greg,” he said, “Greg, you're right. That was dumb. No one is going to do that anymore. We're just going to — clean things up a little. For some select people. You know what I mean, right? Every Google profile is a little scary under close inspection. Close inspection is the order of the day in politics. You stand for office and they'll look at your kids, your brothers, your ex-girlfriends. Now that your search history is available to so many people, it won't be that hard to look into that too. Your Orkut network, your old Usenet messages, your searches, all of it.” He loaded the cafetiere and depressed the plunger, his face screwed up in solemn concentration. He held out his hand and Greg got down two coffee mugs — Google mugs, of course — and passed them to him.
“We're going to do for our friends just what Maya did for you. Just give them a little cleanup. Preserve their privacy. That's all — I promise you, that's all.”
Greg sipped the coffee, but didn't taste it. “And whichever candidates you don't clean —”
“Yeah,” the guy said. “Yeah, you're right. It'll be tough for them.”
“You can go now,” Greg said.
“Oh, Greg,” the guy said. He plucked his jacket off his chair-back and shrugged it on, felt in the inside pocket and produced a small stack of paper, folded into quarters. He smoothed it out and put it on the table.
Greg looked quickly and saw the rows of results he'd seen on the DHS man's screen, back at the airport, when this all started. “I don't care,” he said. “Tell the world about my search history. Go ahead. In five years, everyone will have had their search history ruptured. We'll all be guilty.”
“It's not your history,” the man said. He divided the stack into two piles, and pointed to names on the top sheet of each. One was Maya's. The other was a candidate whose campaign Greg had contributed to for the last three elections.
“You get five weeks' vacation a year. You can go to Cabo for the SCUBA. The options package is very generous, too.”
The man sat down and drank some coffee. Greg tried some more of his own. It didn't taste so bad. It was, in fact, more delicious than anything that had ever come out of his kitchen. The man knew what he was doing.
The best years of Greg's life had been spent at Google. Smart people. Amazing work environment. Wonderful technology. Nothing in the world like it. When you worked at G, you had the best model train set in the universe to play with. Organizing all of human knowledge.
“You can pick your team, of course,” the man said.
Greg poured himself another cup of delicious coffee.
The new Congress took eleven working days to pass the Securing and Enumerating America's Communications and Hypertext Act, which authorized the DHS and the NSA to outsource up to 80 percent of its intelligence and analysis work to private contractors.
Theoretically, the contracts were open to a competitive bidding process, but within the secure group at Google, in building 49, there was no question of who would win those contracts. If Google had spent $15 billion on a program to catch bad guys at the border, you can bet that they would have caught them — governments just aren't equipped to Do Search Right.
Greg looked himself in the eye that morning as he shaved — the security minders didn't like hacker-stubble, and they weren't shy about telling you so — and realized that today was his first day as a de facto intelligence agent in the US government.
How bad would it be? Wasn't it better to have Google doing this stuff than some ham-fisted spook?
He had himself convinced by the time he parked at the Googleplex, among the hybrid cars and bulging bike-racks. He stopped for an organic smoothie on the way to his desk, then sat down and sipped.
The rumpled man hadn't been to the G since Greg went back to work, but it often felt like his influence was all around them in building 49. He wasn't any less rumpled today — he could have been wrapped in saran-wrap on the day he brought Greg back to work and refrigerated for all that he hadn't changed a hair.
“Hi, Greg,” he said, sliding into the chair next to his. His podmates stood up in unison and left the room.
“Just tell me what it is,” Greg said. “Just spit it out. You want me to pwn NORAD and start World War III, right?”
“Nothing so obvious,” the man said, patting his shoulder. “Just a little search-job.”
“There's a person we want to find. A person who's left the country, apparently headed for Mexico. She knows certain things that are, as of today, classified. She needs to be briefed on her new responsibilities.”
Greg stood up. “I'm not going to find Maya for you.” He pulled on his jacket.
“There are plenty of people here who will. It's up to you, though. You can work here with her, being productive, or you can find out just how rotten life can get — while she works here, being productive with your co-workers.”
Greg stared at him, his hands balled into fists.
“Come on,” the rumpled man said. “Greg, we both know how this goes. When you said yes to me in your kitchen, you lost the option of saying no. It's not so bad, is it? Who would you rather have doing the nation's intelligence: you and your pals here in the Valley, or a bunch of straight-edge code-grinders in Virginia?”
Greg turned on his heel and left. He made it all the way to the parking lot before he stopped and kicked a wall so hard he felt something give way in his foot.
Then he limped back to his desk, hung his jacket on his chair, and logged back in.
It was a week later when his key-card failed to open the door to Building 49. The idiot red LED shone at him every time he swiped it. He swiped it and swiped it. Any other building and there'd be someone to tailgate on, people trickling in and out all day. But the Googlers in 49 only emerged for meals, and sometimes not even that.
Swipe, swipe, swipe.
“Greg, can I see you, please?”
The rumpled man hadn't shaved in a couple of days. He put an arm around Greg's shoulders and Greg smelled his citrusy aftershave. It was the same cologne that his divemaster in Baja had worn when they went out to the bars in the evening. Greg couldn't remember his name. Juan-Carlos? Juan-Luis?
The man's arm around his shoulders was firm, steering him away from the door, out onto the immaculate lawn, past the kitchen's herb garden. “We're giving you a couple of days off,” he said.
Greg felt a cold premonition that sank all the way to his balls. “Why?” Had he done something wrong? Was he going to jail?
“It's Maya.” The man turned him around, met his eyes with his bottomless basset-hound gaze. “It's Maya. Killed herself. In Guatemala. I'm sorry, Greg.”
Greg seemed to hurtle away from himself, to a place miles above, a Google Earth view of the Googleplex, looking down on himself and the rumpled man as a pair of dots, two pixels, tiny and insignificant. He willed himself to tear at his hair, to drop to his knees and weep.
From a long way away, he heard himself say, “I don't need any time off. I'm OK.”
From a long way away, he heard the rumpled man insist.
But one-pixel Greg wouldn't be turned aside. The argument persisted for a long time, and then the two pixels moved into Building 49 and the door swung shut behind them.
This one came as a commission from Radar magazine — now defunct, a casualty of the 2008 crash, but in 2007, this was the most widely circulated “lifestyle” magazine in the US. They asked me to write about “the day Google became evil.” I didn't want to cheap out and just write about the company selling out to some evil millionaire. If Google ever turned evil, it would be because a) evil had a compelling business-model and b) evil lay at the end of a compelling technical challenge.
I spent a lot of time talking off-the-record to Googlers, who are, to a one, the nicest people I know (OK, one exception springs to mind, but let's not air our dirty laundry in public, right?). I also had an incredibly productive conversation with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kevin Bankston, a profound and sharp-witted privacy lawyer.
I wanted to capture a company that was full of good people who do bad. There are lots of these. For example, all the Microsoft employees I know are fantastic and smart and caring and principled. But ethically and technically, most of what comes out of Redmond is a train-wreck. It's anti-synergy: a firm that is far less than the sum of its parts. I could easily see Google turning into that. I wish I understood how groups of good people trying to do good can do bad.
Picture: Google 2019 corona (CC BY-SA 4.0)