O.K. by Christopher Black

Partly inspired by the MKW event Modern Confidential: Digital Privacy Today, this story takes our current situations and technologies, abstracting them just a little bit to explore the interactions between technology, data, privacy and users/us.

K. observed at a discreet distance as Max, her target, passed through the station barrier. The screen flashed green as Max’s device exchanged permissions with the station system. The green was intense, garish – this station’s late-twenty-first-century décor had not yet been refurbished.

Max boarded the Loop and sat opposite a mother and two school-aged children. K. listened in as the Loop carriage announced its departure and ETA, tailored to each passenger. The auditory vibrations of Max’s seat made their way through to the bones by his inner ear, letting him know his departure from 2.3.3 SYDN_NORTHERN-BEACHES_SOUTH was delayed by approximately eight seconds, not enough to affect arrival at 1.0.1 MELB_CENTRE_NORTH.

K. could not access the systems of the mother and children, but heard the younger child excitedly repeating the Loop’s message – it seemed their trip to Perth would be delayed, they would miss that morning’s first class at school. Not K.’s concern, and anyway, she didn’t have the permissions – her client had engaged her to tail Max, probing for weaknesses, or ‘inefficiencies’ as K.’s profession called them, in his routine and behaviours. K.’s terms of employment granted permissions for various methods, but the operational scope was limited to Max. K. made a note as Max selected music for his commute [a=beethoven_t=symphony07-movement02]. Strings and woodwinds swelled.

Thirteen minutes later, Max disembarked at 1.0.1 MELB and K. noted the station barrier recording his exit. Although not necessary to her operation she sent the travel logs [d=2.3.3_d-t=08.30.08_a=1.0.1_a-t=08.43.01] to a friend at TransPo – the terms her client had established gave her permission to use this kind of information (classed under the Public Space Behaviours and Movements Act) for extraneous purposes and her friend at TransPo was developing a little money spinner on the side, linking commuter arrival times to purchase of food and beverages.

Sure enough, like every day K. had been tailing Max, he turned left out of the barrier and passed three coffee pods until he reached his ‘usual’. His usual was still staffed by a person – a throwback to the archaic notion of a beverage’s excellence being defined by the smallest average error of the person making it; as well as the more subjective element of p2p interaction. K. pulled up old logs, getting ready to send a time-updated duplicate [drink=flatwhite_size=2_milk=1_add=xylitol*qant=2] to her mate at TransPo.

Distracted, K. had missed Max’s hesitation – he was thrown by the presence of a new person working the pod. K. replayed what she had missed: Max’s brainwaves fluctuated in a pattern of change, before resolving as he decided to get his coffee anyway. K. noted an elevation in Max’s pulse and unexpected pupil dilation. The new coffee pod employee was an attractive young woman, K. anticipated attraction as the cause of Max’s behaviour, soon confirmed as he smiled broadly and clumsily worked a joke into his coffee order. Max and the young woman chatted, introducing a two-and-a-half-minute variation into his standard station–work transit time. K. sent Max’s time-stamped order off to TransPo and made a note to ask her client if she should investigate this new development further. The pod employee was just Max’s type based on K.’s thorough cataloguing of his online dating preferences – attempts at ongoing interaction seemed likely.

Max stood at his work terminal. He rarely sits – twisting and turning, constantly in motion as he manipulates visualisations and display layers. His job as a city planner was surprisingly interesting to watch, throwing himself into movements almost like a dance, K. might have thought – but subjective aesthetic judgments were not part of her assignment. So she didn’t think them. She logged actual work time and efficiency measures, as well as the quality of Max’s work. His written reports left much to be desired, K. logged his keystrokes. If she was ever able to confront Max, the very least she could do would be to recommend a grammar course. Naturally, his terminal converted his work to best-practice style, but employers keep track of these things, and some people are old-fashioned, like to do things for themselves. After the last few days, K. thinks Max is one of these people.

Max left for lunch [d=workspace2_d-t=12.56.09] and K. went along for the ride. Max walked down tree-lined Collins Street, taking his standard path to a Canadian-style ramen joint he patronised everyday. Approaching the intersection, an intracity Loop slowed imperceptibly as it communicated with Max via his device. Assured he did not intend to board, it continued. Max waited for Loops to pass and watched a gaggle of velos heading up the hill, the riders struggling a little with the incline. Max didn’t imagine veloriders would have struggled like that once upon a time, but then, they were mostly old folks now, maybe old enough to remember once upon a time.

Max’s device buzzed, interrupting his reverie, prompting him to cross. K. noted the traffic system logging Max and the other pedestrians. Max continued towards the ramen joint, then abruptly took a sharp turn down a laneway. K. considered this course of action, almost surprised – all residences and business in this sector were de-identified. Max walked a few blocks to a door, its display layer simulating peeling red paint and distressed wood. A neon sign reading JOE’S floated overhead, complete with a random-number-generated flicker. Max entered. K. followed, virtually on his footsteps.

Inside, Max went to the bar. K. couldn’t access the bartender’s side of the conversation in this de-identified establishment, but gathered from Max’s part that he had ordered a double whiskey. Max had to remove his device from his pocket and physically touch it against the bar’s screen. Not necessary technologically, but the archaic method had been appropriated as a protocol – the transaction went directly to Max’s bank. K. had to get permission to record it. She sent a request to her client, receiving biometric assent almost immediately. K. made a note [drink=whiskey_size=2] and added the nutritional and alcohol content to her medical file.

Max sat, looking at his drink. K. used the downtime to gather all accessible information on the bar. After ten minutes or so [t-elapsed=00.11.34] Max downed the whiskey, stood and walked to a door at the back of the room, no display layer turned on here. Max placed his jacket, watch and device on a bench. He went through the door, a violin-shaped bag slung over his shoulder. K. had never seen the bag’s contents, but had made some educated guesses. The bartender glanced towards the door, his eyes passed right over K. without noticing anything.

Without accompanying Max beyond the plain door, K.’s tabs on him were limited to vital statistics. His heart rate had elevated significantly. Apart from that all K. could see were broad demographics, [country=AUS_gender=3_age=>21] but K. obviously knew it was Max in there. It would be nigh on impossible for anyone else to work it out. Even working backwards from the de-identified Max to the people matching his profile and travel logs. In a city like this that meant up to twenty or thirty thousand. Then they would still have to issue a Disclosure Request to the bartender.

Max emerged forty minutes later [t-elapsed=00.42.09], freshly showered, his heart beating its way back to a normal resting rate.

Max passed through the station barrier and jumped onto an intracity Loop back to Manly – he hadn’t had to wait at all for his connection the last few days. Soon he was taking the stairs up to his twelfth-storey apartment, goaded by the memory of the old veloriders to forgo the elevator. His apartment door opened as he drew near, systems restarting and preparing the environment for habitual Thursday night use. K. watched as Max fell into his chair, waving away the day’s work that had materialised for review, but taking the proffered whiskey. Max looked at the now blank space in the air around him and spoke, ‘Oh Kaye, let’s run through my week – what can I improve on?’ The cadence of those first two syllables had been calibrated; K. acknowledged the prompt and began to relate Max’s week back to her client. ‘And remind me to call Frank tomorrow, about that velo course he goes to. I could barely keep up at squash today.’

 

We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. This response by Christopher Black explores the nature of privacy in the digital age.

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