Saturday, August 13, 2022

Short Story : The Roomba

 “Will he be here today?”

“Yes, he is arriving by the afternoon flight. Be ready.”

Inspector Sharma blew on his cigarette, then let out a deep sigh and a ring of smoke. ‘Smoking is so uncool and unhealthy’, he thought, then took another puff, ‘But it’s the best at-work de-stressor.’

Sharma was the king of Saam-Daam-Dand-Bhed – any means to get one’s work done. He also specialized in bringing big criminals down. He was summoned by the CBI whenever they needed help.

In his home jurisdiction, of course, the criminals had a brahmastra (superpower) that he could not counter – money and its power over his superiors. Therefore, out of respect to the Hindi proverb – in a flowing river, all must wash their hands, he used to help himself to his fair share of the proceeds. Even though it was his hard work that gave his superiors the power to command a higher price from their asamis (parties), he would get only the fair share according to his rank. And, to ensure that he does not step on their toes, he was also rewarded with an oral warning from time to time.

But in the CBI office, he was a completely different man. Agile, alert, and observant, he paid attention to every piece of paper, every photograph, every text message. Like a hawk, he watched the suspects and the surveillance videos. He read the autopsy reports like a vulture – getting every ounce of detection that he could out of it. Here, if anywhere, was his genius put to any good use.

But today, even in the CBI office, he was stressed. Amit was due to arrive by the afternoon flight.

*****************

The story started two weeks ago. Inspector Sudhakar Sharma was travelling his regular route – Delhi to Bareilly. The passenger in the next seat was an interesting man. Sharma had an instinct about these things. He started a conversation and found soon enough that as usual, he had been right. The man on his left was a cyber sleuth – someone who uses internet technology to catch thieves and other general range criminals. He worked with private corporate clients and occasionally with the cyber police.

Sometime during the short flight, Sharma said, “I am sure you can catch your cyber criminals using technology and hacking easily. But in my field, it is different. We have to use on ground methods to nab our on-ground criminals. These guys kill for money, they do drugs business, hawala, arrange high end bribes and kidnappings.. it’s a messy, bloody business.”

Amit, the cyber sleuth, was silent for a bit. “What if we place a bet? My techniques do not just help with cybercrime. They can help you nab your criminals too.”

“But Amit sahab, we know our criminals. We send our juniors to be deployed as security guards in their palatial houses. We just don’t know the details of their work.”

Amit was silent for a while.

“I have a plan. I have been playing with it for a while. Maybe it is time for us to work together.”

“How so?”

“I think technology can be used to do old fashioned sleuthing.”

“Oh God, Amit ji, you think we have not tried to put mics and cameras in their houses? Of course we have! It doesn’t work! They get to see the camera and the mic. So much we have been beaten over that method that we don’t even want to try it anymore.”

“But you see, sir, that is the difference. This time, they will be the ones putting the cameras and the microphones. They will make the cameras and the microphones follow them everywhere. We just have to be present at the collection point.”

Amit had Sharma’s attention.

*********************

A plan was hatched and Sharma spoke to his seniors at CBI. They could not believe what they were hearing. “This is not possible.”

“I think it’s worth a shot, sir. At least one city. But no local police involvement. If we can help even one innocent victim, it will be worth it.”

The matter had reached the CBI Director, no less. He sat on the proposal for two days. Then, he called Sharma and his CBI sponsor, Nandu, directly.

“Nandu, tell everyone that the proposal has been rejected. After that, I never want to hear it mentioned. I am making a special team of exactly three people – you, Sharma, and this guy Amit. You will work out of Amit’s office. No government building.

Your on-ground action force will be a 15-member special commando team. They will work in civvies. We are not an action team. We are an investigative agency. I am taking the funds out of my discretionary account. We won’t pay Amit anything and you, Sharma, will be on deputation without deputation fee. Is that ok for you? You will survive on your base salary only. Nandu, you will have to multitask AND hide the existence of this task force from your colleagues, team members, and family.

I am giving you six months. Prevent two financial frauds, save six lives, or get evidence for 2-3 things which the CBI is not able to otherwise prosecute. Do anything. I don’t care. Get me results.

And then, we will see.”

Never had two men walked out of the CBI Director’s office with grins wider than these two men that day.

Amit was called. He was equally thrilled.

The team moved quickly. The on-ground force was trained at a private location, donated generously by one of Amit’s corporate clients who owed Amit some hefty consulting fee and was happy to get away with the use of the facility instead.

The equipment was procured. The plan was set in motion.

Four months later, the CBI Director went for an evening walk and strolled into Amit’s office.

*******************

 

A week later, the CBI interrogation room:

A bewildered man sat in a chair in a room that had three cushioned chairs, one table, an earthen pot full of drinking water, a steel tumbler, and nothing else.

 

The room had a window that looked out into the garden.

Nandu played the audio recording from his phone. The CBI Director was in the adjoining room, watching and listening through the monitor.

The other man heard, incredulous. His eyes growing wider with each word.

“You cannot use that in court.”

“There won’t be a court because there won’t be a kidnapping, my dear sir. If you think we will know this and let you get away with it, you are sadly mistaken. We know we cannot prosecute, but we can prevent. We are convincing you to do that. You could, of course, decline. But, the child is already in a safe location. You, on the other hand, will have to suffer unnecessary loss if you even try.”

“But… how did you get this recording? It is illegal. If I find one illegal mic embedded in my house, you will have hell to pay.”

“Be our guest.”

**************

And that, was the first of about 10 meetings that Nandu had in the next 3 months. 

At the end of the 7th month, the CBI Director, Amit, Nandu, and Sharma were in Amit’s office. Ostensibly, this was a performance review. But everyone knew the secret program had passed with flying colours.

“Amit, Sharma, Nandu – in the last 3 months, you guys have saved 15 businessmen and children from being kidnapped. You have averted 2 bomb blasts and saved 20 potential murder victims. I am astounded.

You have to tell me how this works.”

Amit spoke.

“Sir, first, let me tell you that I am very grateful to you for giving us this chance. Using technology to prevent crime rather than detect it, has been on my mind for a long time. You, Sharma ji, Nandu ji, you trusted my idea and gave a chance. So, Thank you.

Secondly, this program, successful as it has been, possibly cannot be replicated nationwide or even put into an institution. But I think it can be used in a limited way under exceptional circumstances.

I will now tell you what we have done. Let’s start from there. I don’t know the legal process, Nandu and Sharma are the experts on that. I only know how to use tech to pre-empt crime. I had been working on that theory for almost a year when Inspector Sharma and I met on that flight.

There is one company that readily enters your house, knows what you watch on TV, what you buy, where you live, what your house looks like, and everything that you say. All of this information rests with one company. Fortunately for us, that one company also has one of the world’s largest cloud storage solutions, where this data is stored, and the security of that cloud storage solution is weak enough for many of its clients to lose their data stored on its servers.

This company also employs humans to listen in to conversations that its clients have in their homes. Presumably, the objective is to understand whether its home assistant is saying anything offensive, and to improve the response of the AI led home assistant. All you need to do, is to create a backdoor entry so that the audio recordings of this device ID reach you. Then, we change the device settings to record all audio in the ambient conditions. Most people will put this AI home manager in all their rooms. So, it doesn’t matter where they are discussing the plan or even if they walk while discussing the plan. The audio recording device is everywhere.

The same company also owns the company that makes connected AI robotic vacuum cleaners. This was the best part of our strategy, to get visuals by hacking the connection of the robotic vacuum cleaners to the servers of the company. The customer gives consent to the company to store information about their house on their servers so that their robotic vacuum cleaner can learn from this data and clean the house more efficiently. The device can be controlled through an app. Now, the app can be on any device, including ours. So, we use that.

The third element is to understand the daily routine of the family members we are interested in. We then had to set our activities to do targeted listening. As a resource crunched team, we trained our program to listen in and tell us the highest volume time of day. We even trained it to listen for some key words that are related to the trade. At that time, we acted as the human listeners and also programmed the vacuum cleaner to be present in the room. The vacuum cleaner is so silent you wont even notice it. But it can get us visuals of who all was in the room. It has a fantastic HD camera and sensor to help it clean better. It avoids obstacles and uses the roof for its orientation.

We did not do any snooping. Nor did we install any snooping devices or mics in the houses. That is why they could not find anything. We just added one more collection pipe for the data already being collected.

With this, the special team trained by Sharma sir and Nandu sir was able to take pre-emptive action to take these citizens to safety before the event could take place. In some cases, we were also able to install a decoy and catch the field workers while they were attempting the murder. But those are small fry field workers. The biggest satisfaction is that we were able to prevent crime, and the gangsters have no idea how.”

“How did you put the devices in their houses? Was it spray and pray?”

“Yes sir, in part, and in part, surgical strike. We specifically targeted the young users of these families and then used the network effect as their social circle installed the devices one by one. That is why the first four months were so slow. We got about 70% conversion, which was brilliant. We would have been lucky with 50-55%.”

“But we cannot institutionalize it, can we? It’s a privacy nightmare.” The CBI Director intoned.

“Yes sir. Unfortunately, when you try to use this information to prevent crime, it’s a privacy nightmare. Our citizens will willingly give their data to a large company, but if we even create a conduit to get a part of that data for an automated crime prevention program, with less human listeners than the private company, they will not allow it.

Further, if we, as private citizens can do it, criminals can also do it to do the exact opposite thing. Imagine having this information about a victim you want to kidnap or kill.” Amit resigned.

“But, sir, there must be SOMETHING we can do with this brilliant process! We can infiltrate the entire crime network using the infrastructure put in place by a global company!” Sharma interjected.

The CBI Director was quiet for a very long time. Finally, he spoke, “No, we cannot do it. The privacy angle is a valid concern.

Sharma, Amit, I understand your anguish at having something so brilliant but not being able to use it. But remember, our people are people first. We cannot take their privacy away in the name of protection. That is what a police state does. We are not a police state.

Amit, I am also mindful of the other thing you said – if we, as private citizens could do this so easily, the criminals will be two steps ahead of us. We must take steps to ensure that our state secret data does not travel through the same conduit. That is the second important takeaway for me. Not just what we can do to others, but also what criminals can do to us.  

We can keep the team in place. You three will remain in touch. We will have to disband the commandoes. But when the air in a particular city gets warm, I will call upon you guys to help us prevent mass human incidents. I know your incubation time is 4 months. Try and see if you can shorten it. I am approving one more pilot. This is the name of the city. Give me two months of incubation.”

Then, he stepped out. At the door, he turned and said, “Congratulations, guys! There are people out there who owe their lives to you today. And they will never know it. Amit, proud of you! Sharma, Thank you! Nandu, well done!”

With that, the CBI director went home.

**************

Next week, there was a meeting in the Home Ministry.

At 5 pm, the Home Ministry released a directive for all ministers, members of parliament, judiciary, Central Government employees, personnel and key vendors of the Indian Armed Forces, paramilitary forces, and all personnel and ranks.

The Directive forbade the use of the connected AI devices in the homes and offices of the personnel. Violation at home was to be punished with internal disciplinary action and violation in office was to be punished with strict criminal charges:

Everyone was flabbergasted.

News channels scrambled to get “experts” to talk on the Draconian measures being put in place by the fascist government. Anyone who was anyone was on a TV channel, talking about personal rights in the house and how the government will no longer be an employer for choice, as it already is not. Reservations in govt jobs were brought up, bureaucracy was cursed, ministers were cursed. The technophobia of the cowherd politicians received special attention too. “What about employee privacy?” was the overarching theme of the TV debates.

 

The morning papers screamed: “Technophobic Government bans modern technology”

 

In his house, Amit smiled gently, folded the paper, and gently placed his coffee cup on the tray.

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