Scroogled – Cory Doctorow

February 27, 2008

Original story: Scroogled, by Cory Doctorow
Adapted by: Sajbrfem
Changes: Pronouns and gender specific terms reversed, Main character names changed to gender neutral names, pronouns in initial quotes unchanged.
Story length: Aprox 4500 words.
License: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Scroogled

“Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.” –Cardinal Richelieu

“We don’t know enough about you.” –Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Alex landed at San Francisco International Airport at 8 p.m., but by the time she’d made it to the front of the customs line, it was after midnight. She’d emerged from first class, brown as a nut, unshaven, and loose-limbed after a month on the beach in Cabo (scuba diving three days a week, seducing French college boys the rest of the time). When she’d left the city a month before, she’d been a stoop-shouldered, potbellied wreck. Now she was a bronze goddess, drawing admiring glances from the stews at the front of the cabin.

Four hours later in the customs line, she’d slid from goddess back to woman. Her slight buzz had worn off, sweat ran down the crack of her ass, and her shoulders and neck were so tense her upper back felt like a tennis racket. The batteries on her iPod had long since died, leaving her with nothing to do except eavesdrop on the middle-age couple ahead of her.

“The marvels of modern technology,” said the man, shrugging at a nearby sign: Immigration–Powered by Google.

“I thought that didn’t start until next month?” The woman was alternately wearing and holding a large sombrero.

The U.S. government had spent $15 billion and hadn’t caught a single terrorist. Clearly, the public sector was not equipped to Do Search Right.

Googling at the border. Christ. Alex had vested out of Google six months before, cashing in her options and “taking some me time”–which turned out to be less rewarding than she’d expected. What she mostly did over the five months that followed was fix her friends’ PCs, watch daytime TV, and gain 10 pounds, which she blamed on being at home instead of in the Googleplex, with its well-appointed 24-hour gym.

She should have seen it coming, of course. The U.S. government had lavished $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 officer had bags under her eyes and squinted at her screen, prodding at her keyboard with sausage fingers. No wonder it was taking four hours to get out of the god damned airport.

“Evening,” Alex said, handing the woman her sweaty passport. The officer grunted and swiped it, then stared at her screen, tapping. A lot. She had a little bit of dried food at the corner of her mouth and her tongue crept out and licked at it.

“Want to tell me about June 1998?”

Alex looked up from her Departures. “I’m sorry?”

“You posted a message to alt.burningwoman on June 17, 1998, about your plan to attend a festival. You asked, ’Are shrooms really such a bad idea?’”

The interrogator in the secondary screening room was an older woman, so skinny she looked like she’d been carved out of wood. Her questions went a lot deeper than shrooms.

“Tell me about your hobbies. Are you into model rocketry?”

“What?”

“Model rocketry.”

“No,” Alex said, “No, I’m not.” she sensed where this was going.

The woman made a note, did some clicking. “You see, I ask because I see a heavy spike in ads for rocketry supplies showing up alongside your search results and Google mail.”

Alex felt a spasm in her guts. “You’re looking at my searches and e-mail?” she hadn’t touched a keyboard in a month, but she knew what she put into that search bar was likely more revealing than what she told her shrink.

“Madam, calm down, please. No, I’m not looking at your searches,” the woman said in a mocking whine. “That would be unconstitutional. We see only 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,” Alex sputtered. “I get ads for Ann Coulter ring tones whenever I get e-mail from my friend in Coulter, Iowa!”

The woman nodded. “I understand, madam. And that’s just why I’m here talking to you. Why do you suppose model rocket ads show up so frequently?”

Alex racked her brain. “Okay, just do this. Search for ’coffee fanatics.’” She’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 would probably make Google barf up some model rocket ads.

They were in the home stretch when the carved woman found the Halloween photos. They were buried three screens deep in the search results for “Alex Lupinski.”

“It was a Gulf War–themed party,” she said. “In the Castro.”

“And you’re dressed as…?”

“A suicide bomber,” she replied sheepishly. Just saying the words made her wince.

“Come with me, Ms. Lupinski,” the woman said.

By the time she was released, it was past 3 a.m. Her suitcases stood forlornly by the baggage carousel. She picked them up and saw they had been opened and carelessly closed. Clothes stuck out from around the edges.

When she returned home, she discovered that all of her fake pre-Columbian statues had been broken, and her brand-new white cotton Mexican shirt had an ominous boot print in the middle of it. Her clothes no longer smelled of Mexico. They smelled like airport.

She wasn’t going to sleep. No way. She needed to talk about this. There was only one person who would get it. Luckily, he was usually awake around this hour.

Sam had started working at Google two years after Alex had. It was he who’d convinced her to go to Mexico after she cashed out: Anywhere, he’d said, that she could reboot her existence.

Sam had two giant chocolate labs and a very, very patient boyfriend named Laurie who’d put up with anything except being dragged around Dolores Park at 6 a.m. by 350 pounds of drooling canine.

Sam reached for his Mace as Alex jogged toward him, then did a double take and threw his arms open, dropping the leashes and trapping them under his sneaker. “Where’s the rest of you? Dude, you look hot!”

She hugged him back, suddenly conscious of the way she smelled after a night of invasive Googling. “Sam,” she said, “what do you know about Google and the DHS?”

He stiffened as soon as she asked the question. One of the dogs began to whine. He looked around, then nodded up at the tennis courts. “Top of the light pole there; don’t look,” he said. “That’s one of our muni WiFi access points. Wide-angle webcam. Face away from it when you talk.”

In the grand scheme of things, it hadn’t cost Google much to wire the city with webcams. Especially when measured against the ability to serve ads to people based on where they were sitting. Alex hadn’t paid much attention when the cameras on all those access points went public–there’d been a day’s worth of blogstorm while people played with the new all-seeing toy, zooming in on various prostitute cruising areas, but after a while the excitement blew over.

Feeling silly, Alex mumbled, “You’re joking.”

“Come with me,” he said, turning away from the pole.

The dogs weren’t happy about cutting their walk short, and expressed their displeasure in the kitchen as Sam made coffee.

“We brokered a compromise with the DHS,” he said, reaching for the milk. “They agreed to stop fishing through our search records, and we agreed to let them see what ads got displayed for users.”

Alex felt sick. “Why? Don’t tell me Yahoo was doing it already…”

“No, no. Well, yes. Sure. Yahoo was doing it. But that wasn’t the reason Google went along. You know, Republicans hate Google. We’re overwhelmingly registered Democratic, so we’re doing what we can to make peace with them before they clobber us. This isn’t P.I.I.”–Personally Identifying Information, the toxic smog of the information age–”It’s just metadata. So it’s only slightly evil.”

“Why all the intrigue, then?”

Sam sighed and hugged the lab that was butting his knee with its huge head. “The spooks are like lice. They get everywhere. They show up at our meetings. It’s like being in some Soviet ministry. And the security clearance–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 for me, being gay no longer disqualifies you. No cleared person would deign to eat lunch with an unclearable.”

Alex felt very tired. “So I guess I’m lucky I got out of the airport alive. I might have ended up ’disappeared’ if it had gone badly, huh?”

Sam stared at her intently. She waited for an answer.

“What?”

“I’m about to tell you something, but you can’t ever repeat it, okay?”

“Um…you’re not in a terrorist cell, are you?

“Nothing so simple. Here’s the deal: 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 scan webcams for your face and gait. Read your mail. Monitor your searches.”

“I thought you said the courts wouldn’t let them…”

“The courts won’t let them indiscriminately Google you. But after you’re in the system, it becomes a selective search. All legal. And once they start Googling you, they always find something. All your data is fed into a big hopper that checks for ’suspicious patterns,’ using deviation from statistical norms to nail you.”

Alex felt like she was going to throw up. “How the hell did this happen? Google was a good place. ’Don’t be evil,’ right?” That was the corporate motto, and for Alex, it had been a huge part of why she’d taken her computer science Ph.D. from Stanford directly to Mountain View.

Sam replied with a hard-edged laugh. “Don’t be evil? Come on, Alex. Our lobbying group is that same bunch of crypto-fascists that tried to Swift-Boat Kerry. We popped our evil cherry a long time ago.”

They were quiet for a minute.

“It started in China,” he went on, finally. “Once we moved our servers onto the mainland, they went under Chinese jurisdiction.”

Alex sighed. She knew Google’s reach all too well: Every time you visited a page with Google ads on it, or used Google maps or Google mail–even if you sent mail to a Gmail account–the company diligently collected your info. Recently, the site’s search-optimization software had begun using the data to tailor Web searches to individual users. It proved to be a revolutionary tool for advertisers. An authoritarian government would have other purposes in mind.

“They were using us to build profiles of people,” he went on. “When they had someone they wanted to arrest, they’d come to us and find a reason to bust them. There’s hardly anything you can do on the Net that isn’t illegal in China.”

Alex shook her head. “Why did they have to put the servers in China?”

“The government said they’d block us otherwise. And Yahoo was there.” They both made faces. Somewhere along the way, employees at Google had become obsessed with Yahoo, more concerned with what the competition was doing than how their own company was performing. “So we did it. But a lot of us didn’t like the idea.”

Sam sipped his coffee and lowered his voice. One of his dogs sniffed insistently under Alex’s chair.

“Almost immediately, the Chinese asked us to start censoring search results,” Sam said. “Google agreed. The company line was hilarious: ’We’re not doing evil–we’re giving consumers 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.’”

“Now what?” Alex pushed a dog away from her. Sam looked hurt.

Every time you visited a page with Google ads, or used Google maps, or Google mail–even if you sent mail to a Gmail account–they collected your info.

“Now you’re a person of interest, Alex. You’re Googlestalked. Now you live your life with someone constantly looking over your shoulder. You know the mission statement, right? ’Organize the World’s Information.’ 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–”

“Scroogled.”

“Totally.” He nodded.

Sam took both labs down the hall to the bedroom. She heard a muffled argument with his boyfriend, and he came back alone.

“I can fix this,” he said in an urgent whisper. “After the Chinese started rounding up people, my podmates and I made it our 20 percent project to fuck with them.” (Among Google’s business innovations was a rule that required every employee to devote 20 percent of her or his time to high-minded pet projects.) “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. Alex, I can Googleclean you. It’s the only way.”

“I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

He shook his head. “I’m already doomed. Every day since I built the damn thing 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.”

Alex remembered the airport. The search. Her shirt, the boot print in the middle of it.

“Do it,” she said.

The Googlecleaner worked wonders. Alex could tell by the ads that popped up alongside her searches, ads clearly meant for someone else: Intelligent Design Facts, Online Seminary Degree, Terror Free Tomorrow, Porn Blocker Software, the Homosexual Agenda, Cheap Toby Keith Tickets. This was Sam’s program at work. Clearly Google’s new personalized search had her pegged as someone else entirely, a God-fearing right winger with a thing for hat acts.

Which was fine by her.

Then she clicked on her address book, and found that half of her contacts were missing. Her Gmail in-box was hollowed out like a termite-ridden stump. Her Orkut profile, normalized. Her calendar, family photos, bookmarks: all empty. She hadn’t quite realized before how much of her had migrated onto the Web and worked its way into Google’s server farms–her entire online identity. Sam had scrubbed her to a high gloss; she’d become the invisible woman.

Alex sleepily mashed the keys on the laptop next to her bed, bringing the screen to life. She squinted at the flashing toolbar clock: 4:13 a.m.! Christ, who was pounding on her door at this hour?

She shouted, “Coming!” in a muzzy voice and pulled on a robe and slippers. She shuffled down the hallway, turning on lights as she went. At the door, she squinted through the peephole to find Sam staring glumly back at her.

She undid the chains and dead bolt and yanked the door open. Sam rushed in past her, followed by the dogs and his boyfriend.

He was sheened in sweat, his usually combed hair clinging in clumps to his forehead. He rubbed at his eyes, which were red and lined.

“Pack a bag,” he croaked hoarsely.

“What?”

He took her by the shoulders. “Do it,” he said.

“Where do you want to…?”

“Mexico, probably. Don’t know yet. Pack, dammit.” He pushed past her into her bedroom and started yanking open drawers.

“Sam,” she said sharply, “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”

He glared at her and pushed his hair away from his face. “The Googlecleaner lives. After I cleaned you, I shut it down and walked away. It was too dangerous to use anymore. But it’s still set to send me e-mail confirmations whenever it runs. Someone’s used it six times to scrub three very specific accounts–all of which happen to belong to members of the Senate Commerce Committee up for reelection.”

“Googlers are blackwashing senators?”

“Not Googlers. This is coming from off-site. The IP block is registered in D.C. And the IPs are all used by Gmail users. Guess who the accounts belong to?”

“You spied on Gmail accounts?”

“Okay. Yes. I did look through their e-mail. Everyone does it, now and again, and for a lot worse reasons than I did. But check it out–turns out all this activity is being directed by our lobbying firm. Just doing their job, defending the company’s interests.”

Alex felt her pulse beating in her temples. “We should tell someone.”

“It won’t do any good. They know everything about us. They can see every search. Every e-mail. Every time we’ve been caught on the webcams. Who is in our social network…did you know if you have 15 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? You’ll be in for a lot more of that.”

“Sam,” Alex said, getting her bearings. “Isn’t heading to Mexico overreacting? Just quit. We can do a start-up or something. This is crazy.”

“They came to see me today,” he said. “Two of the political officers from DHS. They didn’t leave for hours. And they asked me a lot of very heavy questions.”

“About the Googlecleaner?”

“About my friends and family. My search history. My personal history.”

“Jesus.”

“They were sending a message to 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.”

“We’ve got to go,” he said, firmly.

“Laurie, what do you think of this?” Alex asked.

Laurie thumped the dogs between the shoulders. “My parents left East Germany in ’65. They used to tell me about the Stasi. The secret police would put everything about you in your file, if you told an unpatriotic joke, whatever. Whether they meant it or not, what Google has created is no different.”

“Alex, are you coming?”

She looked at the dogs and shook her head. “I’ve got some pesos left over,” she said. “You take them. Be careful, okay?”

Sam looked like he was going to slug her. Softening, he gave her a ferocious hug.

“Be careful, yourself,” he whispered in her ear.

They came for her a week later. At home, in the middle of the night, just as she’d imagined they would.

Two women arrived on her doorstep shortly after 2 a.m. One stood silently by the door. The other was a smiler, short and rumpled, in a sport coat with a stain on one lapel and an American flag on the other. “Alex Lupinski, we have reason to believe you’re in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,” she said, by way of introduction. “Specifically, exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct having obtained information. Ten years for a first offense. Turns out that what you and your friend did to your Google records qualifies as a felony. And oh, what will come out in the trial…all the stuff you whitewashed out of your profile, for starters.”

Alex had played this scene in her head for a week. She’d planned all kinds of brave things to say. It had given her something to do while she waited to hear from Sam. He never called.

“I’d like to get in touch with a lawyer,” is all she mustered.

“You can do that,” the small woman said. “But maybe we can come to a better arrangement.”

Alex found her voice. “I’d like to see your badge,” she stammered.

The woman’s basset-hound face lit up as she let out a bemused chuckle. “Buddy, I’m not a cop,” she replied. “I’m a consultant. Google hired me–my firm represents their interests in Washington–to build relationships. Of course, we wouldn’t get the police involved without talking to you first. You’re part of the family. Actually, there’s an offer I’d like to make.”

Alex turned to the coffeemaker, dumped the old filter.

“I’ll go to the press,” she said.

The woman nodded as if thinking it over. “Well, sure. You could walk into the Chronicle’s office in the morning and spill everything. They’d look for a confirming source. They won’t find one. And when they try searching for it, we’ll find them. So, buddy, why don’t you hear me out, okay? I’m in the win-win business. I’m very good at it.” she paused. “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?”

Alex watched as the woman silently took off her jacket and hung it over a kitchen chair, then undid her cuffs and carefully rolled them up, slipping a cheap digital watch into her pocket. She poured the beans out of the grinder and into Alex’s colander, and rinsed them in the sink.

She was a little pudgy and very pale, with the social grace of an electrical engineer. She seemed like a real Googler, actually, obsessed with the minutiae. She knew her way around a coffee grinder, too.

“We’re drafting a team for Building 49…”

“There is no Building 49,” Alex said automatically.

“Of course,” the chick said, flashing a tight smile. “There’s no Building 49. But we’re putting together a team to revamp the Googlecleaner. Sam’s code wasn’t very efficient, you know. It’s full of bugs. We need an upgrade. You’d be the right person, and it wouldn’t matter what you knew if you were back inside.”

“Unbelievable,” Alex said, laughing. “If you think I’m going to help you smear political candidates in exchange for favors, you’re crazier than I thought.”

“Alex,” the woman said, “we’re not smearing anyone. We’re just going to clean things up a bit. For some select people. You know what I mean? Everyone’s Google profile is a little scary under close inspection. Close inspection is the order of the day in politics. Standing for office is like a public colonoscopy.” she loaded the cafetière and depressed the plunger, her face screwed up in solemn concentration. Alex retrieved two coffee cups–Google mugs, of course–and passed them over.

“We’re going to do for our friends what Sam did for you. Just a little cleanup. All we want to do is preserve their privacy. That’s all.”

Alex sipped her coffee. “What happens to the candidates you don’t clean?”

The Stasi put everything about you in a file. Whether they meant to or not, what Google did is no different.

“Yeah,” the chick said, flashing Alex a weak grin. “Yeah, you’re right. It’ll be kind of tough for them.” she searched the inside pocket of her jacket and produced several folded sheets of paper. She smoothed out the pages and put them on the table. “Here’s one of the good guys who needs our help.” It was a printout of a search history belonging to a candidate whose campaign Alex had contributed to in the past three elections.

“Lass gets back to her hotel room after a brutal day of campaigning door to door, fires up her laptop, and types ’hot asses’ into her search bar. Big deal, right? The way we see it, for that to disqualify a good woman from continuing to serve her country is just un-American.”

Alex nodded slowly.

“So you’ll help the girl out?” the woman asked.

“Yes.”

“Good. There’s one more thing. We need you to help us find Sam. He didn’t understand our goals at all, and now he seems to have flown the coop. Once he hears us out, I have no doubt he’ll come around.”

She glanced at the candidate’s search history.

“I guess he might,” Alex replied.

The new Congress took 11 working days to pass the Securing and Enumerating America’s Communications and Hypertext Act, which authorized the DHS and NSA to outsource up to 80 percent of intelligence and analysis work to private contractors. Theoretically, the contracts were open to competitive bidding, but within the secure confines of Google’s Building 49, there was no question of who would win. If Google had spent $15 billion on a program to catch bad guys at the border, you can bet they would have caught them–governments just aren’t equipped to Do Search Right.

The next morning Alex scrutinized her self carefully as she shaved (the security minders didn’t like hacker stubble and weren’t shy about telling her so), realizing that today was her first day as a de facto intelligence agent for the U.S. government. How bad would it be? Wasn’t it better to have Google doing this stuff than some ham-fisted DHS desk jockey?

By the time she parked at the Googleplex, among the hybrid cars and bulging bike racks, she had convinced her self. She was mulling over which organic smoothie to order at the canteen when her key card failed to open the door to Building 49. The red LED flashed dumbly every time she swiped her card. 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. Suddenly she heard a voice at her side.

“Alex, can I see you, please?”

The rumpled woman put an arm around her shoulders, and Alex smelled her citrusy perfume. It smelled like what her divemaster in Baja had worn when they went out to the bars in the evening. Alex couldn’t remember her name. Juan Carlos? Juan Luis?

The woman’s arm around her shoulders was firm, steering her away from the door, out onto the immaculate lawn, past the herb garden outside the kitchen. “We’re giving you a couple of days off,” she said.

Alex felt a sudden stab of anxiety. “Why?” Had she done something wrong? Was she going to jail?

“It’s Sam.” The woman turned her around, met her eyes with her bottomless gaze. “He killed himself. In Guatemala. I’m sorry, Alex.”

Alex seemed to hurtle away, to a place miles above, a Google Earth view of the Googleplex, where she looked down on her self and the rumpled woman as a pair of dots, two pixels, tiny and insignificant. She willed her self to tear at her hair, to drop to her knees and weep.

From a long way away, she heard her self say, “I don’t need any time off. I’m okay.”

From a long way away, she heard the rumpled woman insist.

The argument persisted for a long time, and then the two pixels moved into Building 49, and the door swung shut behind them.

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One Response to “Scroogled – Cory Doctorow”


  1. […] first story is a gender reversal of “Scroogled”, by Cory Doctorow. It begins: Alex landed at San Francisco International Airport at 8 p.m., but by the time she’d […]

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