Future Tense

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.

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.  

We were still laughing about old four-eyes when the photo was placed in the scanner. Almost instantly the words "processing watermark" appeared onscreen15. Blood drained from my face and my gut twisted like a rag as we scrambled to shut down the system. It was too late; already the crawlers16 had traced our position and were uploading data to GlobalNet satellites.

We carried what we could, and did a half-assed sabotage on the rest. Everybody agreed to split up and contact one another in 24 hours. That was 48 hours ago. My colleagues are unreachable. I've got to keep moving. I've been using a makeshift signal-jamming device, but each time I resurface, the agents get a lock on me. I'm meeting with a surgeon who can remove my chip implant. I'll have to go completely underground, live in a world I've only read about. It's that or institution time -- lots of it17. Not much of a choice. They're coming for me . . .


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It's a Wired Wired Wired Wired World

Some 101 million Americans have used the Internet, accessing more than 59 million Web hosts on 3 million active Web servers worldwide. The global estimate is 179 million people -- and the number is growing exponentially.


Chips Ahoy!

Microchips are getting smaller, cheaper and faster (see sidebar 9); someday they'll run the world, many predict. The first signs of what forecasters are calling "ubiquitous computing" are wireless PDAs (personal digital assistants) and wristwatch pagers. On the horizon are smart appliances, self-navigating cars and MIT Media Lab's prototype PennyPCs -- computer chips small enough to be embedded into paper and cloth, and cheap enough to throw away.


I'm Not a Number

Since 1935, when Social Security numbers were first assigned, we've grown accustomed to -- if not cozy with -- numerical identities. It shouldn't have come as a shock, then, when Intel Corp., ostensibly to enhance e-commerce security, engineered a unique serial number in each of its new Pentium III chips (as well as some Pentium IIs the company didn't tell us about). The chips, found in many home computers, can identify a navigator to a Web site without his knowledge. Intel responded to the furor over invasion of privacy by proposing to shield the numbers. But Zero Knowledge Systems has written software that can penetrate all Intel's fixes. See also Aliases sidebar [No. 11].



U.S. Space Command counts 2,609 satellites in orbit today. A ring of them encircles the Earth, bringing us digital phones and satellite TV, but also Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that can pinpoint your location anywhere on the planet, and Microsoft's Terraserver (, which displays exquisitely detailed satellite photographs of the U.S. If you look, you might see your house.


Free Hardware

Internet service providers like MSN, AOL and FlashNet, and computer manufacturers like Micron, are offering free computers with long-term Internet-access contracts. It could be a sales gimmick -- but remember how expensive cell phones and satellite dishes were when they first appeared? Service over hardware is the wave of the future, analysts predict.


Silicon Valley


An estimated 11 million people in the U.S. have medical implants. Clinicians predict that in the near future, many could be placed under round-the-clock surveillance via internal monitoring devices and Star Trek­like medical scanners.


Data Collection

Cookies are information packets dropped onto your computer's hard drive when you visit a Web site. They record consumer preferences and other information, including a list of the pages you have viewed. On a return visit, the site will read its own cookie and personalize its presentation for you. But cookies also can be read by other corporations and hackers, who could use the information in ways you won't like. More audacious than cookie snatchers are Internet service providers including GeoCities who have been accused of selling lists of their own users' private data without permission.  


Faster, Microchip, Kill, Kill

In 1971, Intel engineers squeezed 2,300 transistors onto a silicon wafer and changed the course of history. Microprocessor power is measured in millions of instructions per second (MIPS). An old 386 PC was capable of five MIPS. Today's desktops can handle 300 MIPS. Intel predicts that in 15 years a single microprocessing chip will handle 100,000 MIPS, or 100 billion instructions per second. The fastest computer in the world, the Intel TFLOPS Supercomputer in Albuquerque, uses 9,200 Pentium chips. See community-based computing sidebar [No. 14] for remedy to PC-inferiority complex.


Glitch in the Machine

Microsoft Word 98 and other MS Office documents have a nasty habit of picking up bits of erased information from your hard drive. Computer users have reported finding everything from personal e-mail to confidential patient information embedded in their Office files. Not a big problem, until you realize how many of these files circulate. Imagine sending your boss a letter attachment via e-mail with a list of porn URLs you weren't supposed to be visiting dangling off the end. Other programs with the same problem are Quark Xpress and Pagemaker.


Broadcast Internet

Broad-band airwave technologies like XSspeed are on the market today as an alternative to cable/phone-line Internet access. XSspeed sets up a microwave dish at your home to receive transmissions from your Internet gateway. The access is faster than most modems but not nearly as fast as a T1 or cable-modem connection -- which is funny, because it's more expensive.


Is That You Behind Those Digital Pseudonyms?

Multiple aliases are the crux of Zero-Knowledge System's Freedom, a service for making anonymous connection to the Internet. ZKS uses public-key encryption (two pairs of codes, one for the sender and one for the receiver) to scramble all your Internet packets. The service also encrypts the connection between your aliases and your identity, which in theory prevents even ZKS from knowing who you are.


Encryption Keepers

The FBI and National Security Agency are like nosy mothers (with guns). Their idea of a perfect world is one in which they hold the key to all encrypted information, the Escrowed Encryption Standard (EES) -- remember the clipper chip, a device that would have digitally scrambled telephone conversations, while allowing police agencies to eavesdrop? The chip was dropped in the mid-'90s after a huge public outcry. Privacy advocates have also fought EES, but it hasn't stopped the Feds from coming up with new ways to get what they want. Remember, when encryption is outlawed, only outlaws will have encryption.

13 Let's Get Small

Microtechnology recasts existing devices in extreme miniature. Nanotechnology is similar, only smaller: Starting with molecular building blocks, simple machines are created at a microscopic level. Size isn't everything, particularly in wartime. Picture a self-replicating swarm of bee-size microbots descending upon a military installation to destroy and disarm, or a mechanical "fly on the wall" trying to steal secrets. The U.S. government has imagined all of this and more. At the fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, one paper went so far as to outline 21st-century scenarios for full-scale microwar.

14 Community-Based Computing

Distributed computing is the floating-point version of "many hands make light work." A recent and popular example of distributed computing is SETI at Home, created by folks at Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. You, along with thousands of others connected to SETI via the Internet, can lend your PC downtime to collectively crunch huge volumes of data in the hope that your otherwise unglamorous box might be the one that finds ET.


Digital Watermarks

Watermarks are digital patterns hidden in the "noise" of sound, image or video files. A good watermark is invisible and inaudible, but stays with a file even after it's been altered or duplicated. The marks are designed to protect against piracy, a worthy goal but one that benefits mainly the big guys, because most of the little ones, struggling for recognition, want their work copied and distributed. (See next sidebar.)

16 Creepy Crawlers

Recent desktop-publishing applications including Photoshop feature a demo version of Digimarc's watermark plug-in. Without warning, you will see "detect watermark" in your progress bar when you import images. While Photoshop doesn't do anything when a watermark is detected, the cool -- or frightening -- aspect of Digimarc's program is its companion subscription service, MarcSpider. MarcSpider combs the public Web for Digimarc-embedded images. When it finds one, it will enter the pertinent information (the address where it was found, author, date, etc. . . .) into a database open to MarcSpider subscribers. Whether you feel flattered or litigious when you find your work on someone else's site is up to you.  

17 Hacker Justice

(In)famous hacker Kevin Mitnick sat in prison for more than four years without a trial before pleading guilty to seven counts of wire and computer fraud in March. Last Monday, he was finally sentenced to an additional 46 months in prison. With good behavior, he may be out in 2000. Harsh, unless you're from China: At the end of last year, a pair of Chinese hackers electronically withdrew $30,000 from the Zhenjiang Industrial and Commercial Bank. They were caught, tried and sentenced to death -- good behavior not a factor. And finally, what happened to the U.S. Navy when it attempted to hack into the U.K.'s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (possibly in search of Russian dolphin reports)? You guessed it . . . nothing.

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