New fiction: 'Penny For Your Thoughts'


A sketch on the terrifying possibilities of surveillance technology


The young man emerged from his communist block apartment building onto a street teeming with cars, trucks, scooters, rickshaws, and people - a vast sea of people. Even after a year of living in the city, he was still overwhelmed by its scale and indifference. Towers of concrete and glass loomed over him, dull knives stabbing impotently at a filthy corrupted sky, which looked down with disdain. Most of the people wore masks as a flimsy shield against the smog, which was particularly heavy today. All the chemicals and particles made his eyes sting, and his breath drag in his chest. After arriving at the station, he performed the shift handoff with the previous driver. Before he set out on his first route, he made sure to pull his uniform cap down tightly onto his head, as he had been instructed in the training sessions. 

The cap didn’t look any different than before, except if you looked closely at the band, you could see that it was slightly thicker now. That there must be where they put the battery and the sensors, he thought to himself. He knew what these things were, but not how they worked - much of this technology, like the train he was responsible for driving, were a mystery to him. This hadn’t stopped him from learning to operate it, since he was a quick study - his parents had known from a very young age that he was bright and needed some education, though in their provincial poverty they had little idea of how to pay for it. Therefore he was grateful for his technical training, though meager, and a job that allowed him to send home some money, though not much. 


Driving the subway train from one busy station to the next, he made it through the day with difficulty. The heavy air, the noise, the constant motion - all of it conspired to make him feel even more fragile and anxious than normal. The cap stood silent vigil, detecting fluctuations in his brain waves and sending the signal wirelessly to a central processing server. Once there, it was preprocessed in several stages, converting it to a standardized form of input for the neural network. This network, consisting of many interconnected layers of varying type and connection scheme, accepted the input data and, step by step, modified the values according to both predefined functions and weights learned during the training process. After many stages, the resulting output was a group of values representing probabilities of particular psychological states - sleepy, frustrated, excited, and the like. The probability that his brain activity represented frustration and anxiety were particularly high several times that day - both over .9, or 90%, for several minutes or longer at a time. These measurements of his psychological state were recorded, and a brief report sent to his manager. At the end of his shift, the manager asked him if everything was alright, and offered to change his hours around if it would help. Chu wondered, for a fleeting moment, how the man had known, but he seemed very understanding about it, and appeared reassured that he had just been worried about his parents, so he didn’t think any further of the brief conversation.

Up to this point, the analysis had all taken place on the subway operator’s employee monitoring system. But because it exceeded threshold values for certain metrics, and because of his sensitive role as a train operator, his psychometric profile triggered a hand-off to the wider, government-operated surveillance network. This system centralized many different types of data - cell phone location, metadata, and call content, email, employment status, criminal history, social credit status, and many others. Chu’s data history was examined by various algorithms for signs of disloyalty or troublemaking, and his status was elevated to a higher level of data collection, so that a fuller social, psychological, and behavioral profile could be constructed. 


The next day, after work, he decided to visit a friend. As soon as he had sent the first text message, the system had predicted several possible routes that he would take. As he walked the twenty blocks to Meilin’s apartment, cameras scanned the streets, facial recognition algorithms detected his presence, and a map of his route was updated in real time. As he passed from the range of one camera to the next, the system tracked his exact path, logging the times and geolocations. Over the next few days, he exchanged messages and visits with a few friends (acquaintances, really) and coworkers. Because of their link with Chu, however tenuous, each of these persons also became the subject of automated assessment. None of this had required any human intervention - it had all been done automatically. An investigative agent, notified of the new activity, had performed some minimal supervision, and made minor changes to the surveillance tasking here and there, but these were mostly busy work. The agent’s caseload was large, and he didn’t have much time to spend on any one case.

One of Chu’s friends heard his frustrations out, and responded with an animated speech about the oppression of laborers, the perversions of ‘communism’ under the current system, and some other things that Chu didn’t really understand. This friend mentioned meetings of a group he was helping to organize, encouraged Chu to attend, and instructed him in how to use a special app to discuss them. Talk of secret meetings made him very nervous, but his friend was so passionate, and seemed so understanding of his plight, that he didn’t have the heart to turn him down. Living in the city had made him so lonely, he was glad to be asked to participate in something. He decided to be noncommittal, and to put off going to any meetings so he wouldn’t be actively involved. They exchanged a few messages, but the encryption was purely a window dressing. Superficially, the app offered encryption, but all companies were required to provide the government a backdoor to decrypt messages. The messages were processed using sentiment analysis and other newly developed methods which had not been published in the open literature, and their content was flagged as likely being antisocial and possibly subversive.


This all went into an automated case history. A narrative of what had happened and why, along with a summary of the evidence and suggestions of which criminal statutes had been violated, was sent to the assigned detectives. Though it was constructed in well under a second, the report was thorough, logical, and written in natural language, as if a person had spent a few hours on it. By the time the case officers were assigned, there wasn’t much left to do. The evidence that had already been collected would be enough to justify administrative punishments, at least. Chu was arrested at his apartment building as he arrived home from work, a week after he had first raised the attention of the monitoring network. Two men in plain clothes met him, and asked if he would provide some information. The short heavyset one introduced himself as Wu, and the taller lanky on as Tam. At first he didn’t realize that they were police, and their polite manner was disarming. It seemed they just needed his help in clearing up some matter that he might know about.

When they got to the station, and took him to a small, bare, brightly lit room, the mood changed. They started asking him questions about his activities in the last week. They made it plain that they had a detailed report on everything he had done. At first he didn’t know what to say - how could he make them understand that it had been trivial, that nothing had really happened?

“Why did you and your collaborators use encrypted messaging?” the fat one demanded. 

Chu hesitated for a moment, and he felt the detective’s eyes burning into him. “I wished to have some privacy,” he finally answered, still not quite certain in his own mind.


Wu scoffed. “What is this ‘privacy’ you speak of?” he asked disdainfully. “If you have done nothing wrong, why try to hide it?” Chu didn’t have a good answer to this question. He had an indistinct sense that there were things that still belonged to him and were not for the authorities to know, and that this was not wrong, but he knew that these men wouldn’t think much of such a notion. The fat detective sat back and crossed his arms, nodding triumphantly, as if Chu’s silence was itself an admission.

”Look, we want to help you,” the thin policeman said. “Things aren’t very bad for you right now. But if you refuse to help us, it will make things a lot harder for you.” There was a note of sympathy in his voice, and Chu wanted to believe him, though there was also something in all of this that seemed practiced, and he knew they had the advantage of him. The man slid a piece of paper across the table and offered him a pen in his other hand. “Just sign this, and we’ll recommend that the judges go easy on you.” What judges? Were they talking about a criminal case against him? It was all happening very fast, and he didn’t have much time to think. 

“What does it say?,” he asked. He tried to read over the page as quickly as he could, but the thin man wouldn’t let him pull the paper any closer, and he could only catch scattered words and phrases - ‘conspirators’ and ‘agitation’ and ‘threat to public safety’ - which were a legalese that he couldn’t really understand.

“It is a statement admitting that you indiscretely exchanged certain messages with others, but you intended no harm and promise not to engage in any similar activity in the future.” His eyes, scanning nervously, tried to find those words on the paper, but couldn’t quite locate them. This explanation eased his fears a bit, though, since they seemed to realize that his part in whatever had happened wasn’t of much consequence.


“Well… I don’t want to get anyone else in trouble. My friends didn’t do anything wrong,” Chu responded with hesitation.

“We already know who they are…” the fat one began agitatedly, but the other detective interrupted with a sidelong glance at his partner. “Signing this doesn’t affect anyone else. We just want to clarify your case,” he said with a bland smile. At that, Chu felt better. These men were police officials - surely they couldn’t just lie to him.

At that point his fate was sealed, though his case would still take some time to play out, because it was necessary to preserve some semblance of due process. Chu was lucky to receive only five years’ imprisonment under Article 105. The most active protest organizer, well known to the authorities, was arrested for show but quickly released. There was no one left, from the most recent incident, that could report their suspicions of his being a provocateur - they had all been sent up as well.

The detectives smiled smugly and patted each other on the back. This new technology seemed too good to be true. “This will make our jobs so much easier!” Wu crowed. “Maybe we’ll get a real vacation this year!” Tam replied. Of course now they would be busier than ever, with the automated system delivering so many new cases, but that hadn’t sunk in yet. Wu remained an investigator for two more years, until his thoughtcrimes were similarly discovered. Tam had better luck - he stayed on the force for a long time to come, until events beyond his or anyone’s control made the world change, seemingly overnight.