Presumed guilty – a story of intrusive surveillance

Flash fiction

‘She’s a journalist, that makes her guilty,’ the intelligence officer declared. ‘Just get me the evidence for intrusive surveillance and we’ll find all her dirty secrets.’ The intelligence officer’s face was hazed by the Covid-19 Perspex visor, and her voice was muffled by the surgical face mask. With her white trouser suit and gloves covering every part of her body, she looked like she was heading into a biological war zone, not an office.

Jai nodded obediently but he could not see the priority. The officer’s behaviour had become erratic since the Covid-19 panic. Her focus and behaviour had fluctuated in the same way as the political leaders of their small country. Jai was ambitious for a new post away from her, but he’d only get it if she wrote good things about him. So if she had said all journalists were mad he would not dare argue.

‘I want a draft on my desk by lunchtime,’ she said and turned away. Jai listened to the flap of her feet on the ceramic tiles of the echoing office block. He wondered whether she really wanted a printed copy. It was as retro as the view of Government House she had from her office window.

He took the file labelled Magenta Cow. The computer-generated codename for the female subject was absurd. Even more absurd was the suggestion that the woman was a cyber criminal intent on taking down the electricity grid of a city. It felt wrong to request an intrusive surveillance order when the surveillance teams and researchers had been decimated by Covid-19 quarantining.

From what Jai could see, Magenta Cow was a freelance journalist who specialised in open-source intelligence – OSINT. Her last project had been to expose a library of medical records that were open for anyone to see if they had known where to look. But she’d been careful to keep within the privacy laws, and she’d warned the health authority before publishing her piece.

Magenta Cow did not even have the computer experience to launch an attack. Her skills were on persuading people to part with information they should have kept secret.

Jai drafted his report, added it to the digital safe and emailed the link to the intelligence officer. He headed for his locker where he kept the box of food his wife had saved from last night’s dinner. The intelligence officer passed. She was carrying a spare pair of gloves. Since Covid-19 she had taken to changing her gloves after every visit to the toilet.

Magenta Cow’s computer skills puzzled Jai. She could not have done all this by herself, so she had to have help. There were a set of research reports about Magenta Cow’s contacts. The intelligence researcher had looked at social media records, employments, clubs, and a collection of phone calls and emails. The communications appeared to have been collected when the citizen was abroad.

Magenta Cow knew two professional hackers. The hackers were on wolf lists, but neither were subject to intrusive surveillance.

Hacker One treated breaking into computers as a sport, to boast of how much he could achieve. But Hacker Two had links to a crime cartel, his travel arrangements were ‘anomalous’ and his expenditure was noticeably higher than his income.

Jai focussed on Hacker Two. There was a limit to what he could analyse before getting home to his family. In theory he could have stayed late, but the entire thing was depressing him. He wanted to be home. So he sent a draft.

The masked intelligence officer came to his desk while he was packing up. ‘I’m not an idiot, I know what you’re doing.’ She waved her entire laptop at Jai as if he been inside her computer. ‘You’re trying to protect a journalist by giving me a bigger target. You figure that with the cuts in surveillance I’ll only get authority for one intrusive surveillance.’

‘Oh, no,’ Jai said. ‘You need surveillance on both of them. She’s too close to Hacker Two. First she uses soft skill to find poorly kept secrets, then he does the cyber work and he hands her the results. But he keeps what he finds and sells it on. Our journalist is knowingly aiding a criminal. That’s against the law.’

Jai waited for the intelligence officer’s next erratic statement.