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Future Tense 

Today's computer conveniences could be the tools of tomorrow's totalitarianism

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
OUR PLAN WAS SIMPLE: TURN OLD TECHnology against the new. It was a little naive, but we were desperate. We called ourselves the Second Underground Railroad, though we came to be known as UR2 -- ironic, because a soulless acronym was the perfect symbol for what we stood against.

Like the Underground Railroad of nearly 200 years past, our mission was one of emancipation. Not from physical bondage but from corporate scrutiny. Since 2022, when the Consortium on Networking Solutions (CONS) cast the first successful GlobalNet1, privacy had become antiquated. Of course, GlobalNet alone could not have placed the planet under a microscope. Surveillance chips, first in machines, then in people, laid the groundwork for the corporate combine's scheme of interconnectedness -- a plan that rivaled Teilhard de Chardin's early-20th-century visions.

De Chardin was the prophetic priest who wrote of a living web that would envelop the planet. His ideas were optimistic and spiritual, CONS's were anything but. The cells in CONS's living web were trillions of microchips2, each unique3, all interconnected in a derma of networked satellites. Thousands and thousands of networked satellites4, pole to pole, running 24/7, enclosing humankind in a noose of data.

The chips initially were placed in machines to make work easier: automobiles, appliances, free computers5 . . . People were uneasy at first, but when they saw their refrigerators ordering groceries, and their cars anticipating breakdowns -- and lining up mechanics to fix them -- the apprehension faded. Dissidents were silenced by the deafening convenience -- and CONS propaganda.

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THEN CAME THE BIOLOGICAL EQUIVALENTS. Medical implant chips6 were used to monitor pacemakers and subdural insulin generators. A medical satellite network (MedSatNet) communicated with the chips to check the patient's vital signs and to predict when the implant needed replacement or repair. If an emergency developed, simple satellite triangulation would pinpoint a patient's location almost instantaneously.

The medical chips worked brilliantly -- so much so that they soon became commonplace. Baby has a fever? Feed her a chip so that MedSatNet can monitor her temperature and heart rate overnight. It didn't take long for CONS to see the wisdom of inserting chips in all citizens at birth. No more Social Security numbers, driver's licenses, passports . . . just cradle-to-grave surveillance, and swift apprehension for anybody who stepped out of line.

Data piled up at a stupendous rate: consumer transactions, locations, preferences. All legal, of course: Web sites had been compiling similar files for decades7, just more, and faster -- way faster8. But it wasn't enough for CONS.

The superpower embedded bugs in computer applications and files. The first were simple in concept, like pressing a key to clay. They imprinted memory from the host computer, then broadcast a backup record to the corporate network. The transfers were seamless. If you noticed them at all, you'd think they were harmless computer glitches9. The bugs ate files and multiplied -- and the consortium tore away the last shreds of our global veil of privacy.

That's where we came in. Late-20th-century technicians had left behind radio-wave Internet transmitters10. This junked equipment gave birth to UR2.

The Railroad went online four years ago with six members, including myself. The service we offered was safe, anonymous transport of digital information. The tools of our deceit were aliases11, bounced signals and giga-bit encryption12.

From that small start, our numbers grew to nearly 10,000 -- a spit in the ocean compared to GlobalNet but still enough to attract the attention of CONS and its government stooges. We got the attention of a lot of kooks and scumbags, too. As long as they weren't agents, we didn't care. Our mission was not to pass moral judgment, but to reclaim a universal human right that had passed into oblivion.

With higher traffic came close calls. (As I mentioned, the idea of UR2 pissed off some powerful people.) Citing arcane FCC regulations, CONS sent in the dogs -- or robots, as it were. Micro-machines13 were planted in one of our transmitters about a month ago; luckily, we covered our tracks before the little bastards fully activated. Some of the intruders recorded information; the rest tore the place to hell.

Two days ago, we were preparing to broadcast information on a newly uncovered plot. CONS had hidden instructions in its latest commercial software to commandeer home processors during downtime and integrate them into the consortium's network14. Free processing times a million -- totally ingenious, totally wrong.

To illustrate our Webcast exposing the scheme, we were including a photograph of the CONS president. A snapshot, delivered by a safe source. There he was, the smug trillionaire. Age spots didn't erase his boyish expression, and even though corrective eyewear hadn't been necessary for generations, the son-of-a-bitch was still wearing those ugly glasses.

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