Alex and his partner, Shannon, sat patiently in their unmarked car, waiting for their mark to come out of the small, nondescript shop across the street. To the casual observer, this seemed to be nothing more interesting than an Internet cafe, something that had existed in varying numbers since the very early days of mass usage of the net. However, the two NYPD officers were well aware that it served a far more specialized market.

Twenty years ago, an NSA IT worker named Edward Snowden had exposed the vast surveillance infrastructure that his employer had built up to gather information on basically anyone who uses the Internet. Political attempts to roll back this expansion of executive power had largely failed, especially when the NSA had opened its databases to local law enforcement who had then demonstrated its practical value in tracking down violent criminals.

Even the most tech-unsavvy slowly came to terms with the reality that privacy in the world of bits was extremely fragile. Over time, people adjusted. For the most part, they adjusted by simply coping with the fact that what they did online could be observed at any time by people they had not given permission to do so. In short, what changed was their expectations, not their behavior. But a few people who were either more paranoid than average, or more embarrassed by their online behavior than average, began to take extraordinary measures to preserve their privacy. For some, this meant choosing privacy over convenience—they only interacted with people in person or through non-digital means such as physical letters.

For others, there were Safe Houses. These were cyber cafes that specialized in helping people maintain a certain discretion in their online habits. Alex had been in several Safe Houses over the years since they had begun to pop up; part of his training had been to make use of some of the known ones so he could get a good idea of how the whole thing worked, what sorts of tactics they used.

In the first place, no business ever advertised that they were a Safe House. You had to find that out by word of mouth. This didn’t offer much security—word of mouth travels far and fast on the net—but it didn’t hurt, and it signaled a willingness to place discretion ahead of recruiting new customers. Second, each Safe House generally had a normal looking cyber cafe on the first floor, that worked just like any other. But they had a much larger basement packed with individual booths closed off for privacy so you could look at your porn—or whatever it was—without being embarrassed about it.

Just providing people a place to do this kind of thing complicated the NSA’s ability to pinpoint the activities of a specific person; much of such identification relied on matching the IP address from which certain sites were accessed to a known person’s home or work. But Safe Houses went well beyond that. The computers in their booths did not offer web browsers at all. Instead, they used special browsers that were integrated into the BitContent. BitContent was a fork of BitCoin that had been developed years earlier to utilize the blockchain for disseminating content in a distributed, pseudonymous manner along with payment mechanisms for that content. It replaced services like Wikileaks as the primary mechanism for whistleblowers, as well as serving less…noble ends.

Though it was rare that their customers had not already heard of BitContent, Safe Houses generally offered to help the uninitiated get set up. They also provided a set of best practices for building up BC’s without making it obvious, and minimizing any clues as to where they were being spent should their pseudonyms be discovered at some point. Like the best security practices, they were designed under the assumption that they would be discovered by the people trying to find their weaknesses. The fact that Alex knew that most Safe House customers built up their BC’s slowly, in small, varying amounts each week rather than large single purchases directly prior to coming to a Safe House did not do much to help him suss out this spending pattern from any other normal one.

Moreover, BitContent was a highly popular platform used for many perfectly legitimate and entirely non-illicit ends. Bundling the content with the payment mechanism, and removing any third parties who would want a cut of the proceeds, had made it the default home for any aspiring creator, and toppled the once-towering giants like YouTube, iTunes, Netflix, or deviantART. So even though the NSA was pretty good at figuring out when people were purchasing BC’s from one of the many exchanges that existed, this did not really draw any suspicion in and of itself. If Safe House users’ purchasing behavior was close enough to the average BitContent users’, it could be quite hard to find them out.

However, no security system was perfect. Even though BitContent—and parent system BitCoin—had come a long way in terms of keeping users’ pseudonyms hidden, there were still plenty of strategies available to people like Alex and his partner who wanted to uncover them.

They were part of NYPD’s Digital Crimes Division, colloquially known as the cryptocops. Much as he hated the label, which always took on the tone of an insult, it was a more accurate description of the reality of his work than “DCD officer”. Since your generic digital info was already gathered by the NSA and offered to local enforcement through a set of APIs, nearly all of the legwork he and his partner had to do involved getting around various encryption strategies that the NSA either couldn’t or hadn’t bothered to work around.

They monitored Safe House customers as part of their regular duties, but the top brass was pushing for an arrest that month. There had been a series of high profile murders that year, and all signs pointed to a single serial killer. NYPD had tried to keep this from getting out, but their secrets were just as fragile as anyone else’s. Even though they kept all their records on paper, the cheapest mobiles on the market had cameras good enough to capture the documents in what in Alex’s childhood would have been considered scanner quality.

Case details were exchanged on an in-person, out loud basis as much as possible, but this approach had natural limits. You couldn’t have coroners and forensic scientists relying on their fallible human memory; their findings would never hold up in court if that were the case. Moreover, the more a case relied on inter-precinct cooperation, the more the face to face approach just became unfeasible. To say nothing of when cases became an interdepartmental matter or federal authorities got involved.

Of course, the bigger the case became in terms of media coverage, the bigger the incentives for a leak became. Organizations like Nick Denton’s Gawker Media empire paid top dollar for data dumps that could lead to a big scoop, with the corresponding big bump in pageviews. So the information on the killer had all ended up leaking, and now the Mayor and Chief of Police were breathing down the DCD’s neck for an arrest.

Alex and Shannon had been working on the case prior to the leak, but they had had to move a little faster than they were comfortable with lately. For months they had been seeding the BitContent network with the sort of pornography that they were pretty sure the murderer would be into, based on his MO. He stalked women of a certain specific physical profile, got to know their routines, and eventually broke into their homes when he knew they would be alone, and strangled them.

The content they seeded, therefore, was standard snuff—or staged snuff—fare; usually ending in murder. Alex always felt a little creeped out employing that kind of video as a tool, but it wasn’t as though they were producing the pieces. The NSA database contained a virtual universe of the stuff from the pre-Snowden era, and a comparable amount from the last twenty years as well. New stuff could easily be obtained through the BitContent network; after all, on the network, no one knew you were a cop.

The object of the seeding was to get at the BitContent pseudonyms of the people who would access the videos. In theory, this wasn’t supposed to be possible—pseudonyms of people paying for content, or accessing free content, were not supposed to be made available to sellers. In practice, there were a lot of methods for getting at a fraction of those pseudonyms, depending on how careful the users were. Their success rate for nabbing the pseudonyms of the users that accessed their content had hovered around 30 percent for years.

The security practices of the guy they were waiting for fell comfortably into that 30 percent. He made the crucial mistake of using the same pseudonym he paid for Safe House purchases with to also make purchases of physical things that were shipped to his home. In spite of the fact that the companies were partly operating on the BitContent network, they were major publicly-traded entities to which the NSA had secured backdoors ages ago.

So despite the fact that he ditched his pseudonyms and created new ones after only a week of use, they were all fruit from the same insecure, poisoned tree. They had his number.

Once they had him, they began the slow work of gathering incriminating information on him. They had seeded content that included metadata explaining that it was part of an ongoing installment; IE there would be new videos from the creator each week. Once they confirmed that he was following the series, they methodically put in videos that were closer and closer to the killer’s MO each week. In order to make the evidence as damning as possible, they included descriptions which spelled out the content of the video explicitly, so that it would be clear to a judge and jury that the user had known just what sort of video they were choosing to patronize.

Today’s was a video they had found that almost perfectly fit the killer’s MO; a snuff piece they had found in the NSA’s database that involved stalking and strangling with minimal sexual elements. They had received confirmation that the suspect had accessed the video about an hour ago. Now, they were simply waiting for him to come out so that they could take him into the station.

When they confronted him, he looked surprised at first, but then resigned to it. It was something Alex had seen numerous times during the many arrests he had made outside of Safe Houses. Even when the suspect turned out to be completely innocent, they often seemed to think that the arrest had been inevitable, often even that they deserved it. Disgust over their own habits seemed to loom large in their minds.

Alex often wondered why they didn’t just stop. The payoff just seemed so miniscule; they weren’t even having actual sex. Often they weren’t even using networked sex props, as those were notoriously insecure. Was the pleasure of getting off to fucked up videos really worth the blow it apparently took on their sense of self-worth? Were they just that good at compartmentalizing the rest of the time?

They weren’t able to produce any physical evidence against the suspect, but the DA decided that they had enough to formally arrest him for the time being. After they took him away, Alex asked his partner if it bothered her that they were arresting him, and airing his private affairs publicly, when they had so little to go on.

“The guy gets off to videos of people beating the shit out of women, which he can’t know for sure are all staged,” Shannon replied, “I hope he’s the one because I want the killings to stop. But I don’t really give a shit about screwing up the life of someone like him.”

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.