I’ve got a mother that wants to get in on a long-term financing agreement to change her son’s race for a trial, Ecstasy pings you. His court date is coming up; the hearing for the random race generator is next Thursday.
Thursday. That doesn’t leave a lot of time. But, then, that’s why E is pinging you.
They’re paying in cryptocurrency, Ecstasy says. My commission is the usual 10 percent. They’ve already set up the chain; you just need to agree to be on the other side.
Local judicial computer systems have shit security. It’s always been the case. The nature of trials and the mysterious workings of the law aren’t usually of strong interest to a hacker (though you think of yourself more like a fiddler and digital spelunker than hacker) other than in a more abstract, philosophical sense. In the past, someone like you would pay enough attention to judicial security so that you could delete yourself from a jury-duty pool, but you never spent a lot of time worrying about the actual sausage-making until scooped up by police for doing something illegal.
But that has changed lately with the equal-representation laws.
Math, statistics, and algorithms for fairness became important after the turn of the century. Before then, those things just reported the inherent unfairnesses. Run an analysis of the number of cases where similar crimes happened. Sort them by race. Compare the results.
What do you get?
Judges give different sentences. The data is there. Undeniable.
But the more important question became not whether human beings were flawed but what could we do about it?
Consider this: Analyzing the prison sentences judges handed down based on how long it had been since they had something to eat shows a pattern of longer sentences given the longer it has been since they ate.
Is it fair for one person who smoked some weed to get one sentence in the morning just after breakfast and for someone close to lunch to get a longer sentence just because Judge So-and-So’s blood sugar is dropping?
People started jockeying for times, suing about being given pre-lunch hearings, and then finally someone passed a law requiring judges to use one of those diabetic pill monitors you swallowed to test blood sugar and beam the results out to a phone. Later, judges were mandated to have IV drips when on the bench in order to keep blood-sugar levels even.
There. Everyone has an equal chance at sentencing.
Well, sort of. There are still the differing race results. You can’t IV-drip your way around structural and implicit racism.
Then came the smartphone filters. Phones getting so good they could put face paint on live video of your digital face. It had once taken movie studios big money to create that effect.
So some lawyer had the bright idea of mandating that a client of his be tried as a white man because the jury had been selected of only white people. Not really a “group of his peers.” If the jury, who had not seen any details of the defendant ahead of time, wore tamper-proof helmets running software repainting their client’s skin tone, then this could be a fair trial.
Again, lawyers clamored that everyone be tried as a white male.
Instead, after a lot of legal wrangling, jurors had to wear the helmets and the sex and race of the defendant was randomized.
There were a lot of other details hammered out about what lawyers and prosecutors could and couldn’t say about the physical details of the defendants. There was a lot of fighting about whether the filter could be applied.
But, in this case, it had been. And Mom wanted to make sure her son was going to be perceived as white.
Your services wouldn’t be cheap. She’d be paying that loan for ten years. But you would make sure the randomized software wasn’t so random.
You order pizza and set in for a few long days of poking at the state-level security systems.
In movies, the edgy cool music starts up now. The clock on the wall starts spinning hands to show time flying by. You tap at the keyboard and lines of code stream across any of your three screens. There are usually cables running fat with wire draped across the background.
You’re a minimalist, don’t like cables, and work off a fifteen-inch laptop on your couch. Most of your software uses graphic interfaces, though you’re happy to dip into the command line when needed.
A lot of what you’re doing is watching programs crunch away, trying to log in randomly to weak spots while you binge-watch a new season on the TV.
That is, until alerts start popping up all over your screen.
Someone is tracing you right back to your location.
And they’ve shut down all the security weaknesses you’ve found.
For a moment you just stare as it gets worse. These people are burrowing back down into your shit. Deep. Like, find-your-real-name deep.
• • • •
You’ve planned for this. Someone doing the things you do has to have a plan for what happens when the tables get turned. You shut the laptop down and place it on top of a large electromagnet plugged in next to your coffeemaker.
The lights dim as it kicks on.
Hard drive toast—the only gadget you keep in the apartment—you wrap the laptop in a plastic bag and walk out to the porch while wearing a ski mask. Lake Erie glitters with Cleveland lakefront lights as you inflate the helium weather balloon and let it go, laptop dangling underneath.
Within a minute it’s a bright speck heading up into the clouds.
You’ve always followed protocol going in and out of the apartment, zipping up a dinosaur-face hoodie. You pull that old friend back on and get out.
Ditch the hoodie a few blocks away and then you are zigzagging through the streets, running it all through your mind. The reverse attack on your device had been fast, as if backed by some heavy machinery.
That wasn’t state. Federal counter-intrusion?
It had the speed and power of high-level government or military programming.
Taking on this job has put you in some sort of bull’s-eye, and you’ve lost the nicest apartment you’ve ever paid cash for. It’s burned; you can’t go back.
You can hoof it down to a nice bar in Shaker Heights. Maybe go find a book to read somewhere while you quiet your racing mind. Don’t make hasty decisions. Be calm and deliberative.
There’s a retirement fund in cryptocurrency tied to a string that you spent four months memorizing before you destroyed the only printout of it when you converted your savings over. Is it time?
But . . . you keep thinking about what you saw happen on the laptop’s screen. How aggressive it was.
It’s like scratching an itch. You can’t help yourself. You have pride. And you’re pissed about losing the apartment.
After some asking around, you find a public library. An hour later you’re in a virtual window to some heavy shared computing in a blockchain farm in Ghana. You’re using the equivalent of a city block’s worth of computing power, paying out the ass per second, to brute-force a look-see at the defenses around Cleveland’s municipal servers.
This time you’re using a virtualized supercomputer, something with neural-net learning, to hide the location of your attack.
It ain’t the city of Cleveland putting up a virtual Hadrian’s Wall around its systems. It’s a moat that’s getting triggered by anyone sniffing around this particular case.
“Russians,” you grumble, tracing back a few calls.
• • • •
“Hey, E,” you say over the cheap prepaid cellphone you picked up from one of your bank boxes later in the afternoon. “Why did I just get burned by Russians?”
“Burned? How bad?”
“I lost my apartment.”
“You launched from within—”
“Don’t lecture me. I thought this was a municipal job,” you snap. “Why is military-grade counter-intrusion software made by Russians protecting Cleveland municipal servers?”
You could have spent time figuring this out at the public library, but after time spent dueling Russian cryptography, you figure less time logged in is best. Easier to ask the person who had a good view of the situation.
Ecstasy sighs. “This is bad.”
“You think? Why is this happening?”
“I think we just stepped into the middle of an info-sec war,” Ecstasy says. “You know, way back in the original Cold War, the old USSR used to recruit black intellectuals by pointing out how horrific capitalism had been. Enslavement. Jim Crow. Segregation. Major inequality between races all the way. And the best propaganda is that which lands closest to the truth. Muddies everything up. I think our case lands in the middle of that.”
“Mrs. Mandi wants us to change her son’s race to help his chances of not getting indicted. The jury is all white. She knows that, even today, it’s an uphill battle in a Midwest state.”
“What did the son do?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yeah,” I say, surprised. Ecstasy has never really been any kind of social activist, so the question catches me off guard. “I want to make sure I’m fighting on the right side, you know?”
“Well, in that case, are you with the Russians who want to destabilize us or against that?”
“Against.” You say that quickly and firmly. “But I don’t want to help a murderer or something.”
“You weren’t worrying about that when you took the job just for money,” Ecstasy pointed out.
“No,” you protest. “Leveling the field so that, no matter what he did, like any other person, he got the same consideration. That’s all.”
“Fair enough. What you want to be fighting for is the integrity of the system, right? Making our kid white in the eyes of the jurors only means we’re leveling the field, I agree. Even if Russians are meddling, whether with elections or not, making sure systems stay in place means civilization continues.”
“But they’re meddling for a reason.”
Ecstasy sighs again. “It’s another moment of very public injustice in Cleveland, when an all-white jury convicts a black kid. The Russians are already creating Facebook protest groups on both sides of the issue. They’re telling people to show up outside the courthouse to protest, and then they’re calling for armed Midwesterners to counter-protest them. They’re hoping that if they throw enough gasoline on the small fires, a big fire will break out. Then they rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. If we dig deep enough, we may even find out they stacked the jury pool white.”
“E, I think they might have my true name.”
She’s quiet for a while. “Shit.”
“I can’t help that mother. But if it’s fire they want, I can burn them right back.”
“Be careful. And I should tell you never to call me again, but . . .”
You’ve been working together two years now.
“I’ll let you know how it turns out,” you say. “Are you okay? I think I hear sniffling.”
“The damn flu,” Ecstasy says. “It’s going around.”
Hmmm, you think. It is going around.
• • • •
In the old days you blew the lid off a secret by sending the documents to a reporter. They check sources, do some footwork, then publish the shocking story. Everyone reads it, the information is out. Public opinion turns nasty.
It’s not like that anymore, though, is it?
You do a full document dump on a third-party leaks site, brushing over your tracks on the way out.
A few nibbles come to an encrypted temporary email address.
An old-school media group runs the story. RUSSIAN INFLUENCE ON LOCAL TRIAL. They explain that both protestors and counter-protestors are being recruited by Russian groups.
Then the shit hits the fan.
Within a few hours of the story going out, the bots all ramp up. That document dump was from a hacker trying to throw the case to free the kid, the bots say. Your actual, real name is suddenly floating out there. But they don’t have pictures yet. Your paranoid years scrubbing that from the world is helping you out.
But a lot of strangers on the internet are calling for your death. Some of them are really good at it, and you get found.
They try to kill you.
• • • •
The way the assassination attempt goes down is like this: Someone on the other side of the world who tracked where your replacement laptop was called the local police and said you were standing in the park (you were; you had hopped onto the public Wi-Fi). They said you had a gun and described you as black . . . ish. Because although there are no pictures of you out there, your census form notes that Daddy has a fro and Mommy was a white woman.
Now, the town is south of Cleveland. Ohio is the Midwest, where folk have been Southern-aspirational for a while now. Ohio may have been on the Northern side of the Civil War and supplied an above-average number of troops. Ohio may even have a number of small towns with plaques that mark them as stops in the Underground Railroad. But these days Confederate flags have proliferated on more and more trucks and started appearing in more and more houses, even though Ohio’s proud history is that it helped put that insurrection down.
That’s strike one of three.
Strike two is that the park you’re in is near a school, so won’t someone think of the children? Never mind that Bubbas wander out onto Main Streets like this with combat rifles more heavily accessorized than a ten-year-old’s full Barbie accessory kit. You and I both know that the second amendment is only respected if you’re a certain shade. You’ll never see the fucking NRA defend a black person for carrying a gun. Hell, they helped draft gun-control legislation back when the Black Panthers were pulling the original open-carry stunt with machine guns. That freaked white people out enough to change gun laws.
You have an antidote to the first two strikes, however. When the Barney Fifes roll up into the park, one of them jumping from a moving car with their gun out, looking for the dark-skinned person with a gun, there’s just you sitting on a bench with a laptop.
And you, as far as anyone here can tell, look white as all fuck.
All that time inside hacking away on computers means you don’t even have a tan.
Anyone who ran into your dad on a street in this town would most definitely tag that man as a brother. Mom was the pale one. Gave you all those white skin genes. From Dad you got the face, the height, and some of the curliness in your hair. But you keep that shaved short, so the uniforms that surround you don’t have any reason to doubt their eyes.
The assassin doesn’t know that. The assassin lives on the other side of the world and only sees that you are “biracial.”
So you get to live.
Oh, strike three. That’s really delicate. There’s a video of you doing something really horrible to an underage girl. Now, the video was made using rendering software by the same people who hired the assassin, so they got details wrong. It’s weaponized disinformation.
Still, they hacked the system to put out a warrant with the video attached, hoping that a video of a brown man touching an underage white girl will further get you shot.
But you’ve spent three days studying county records to make sure you’re temporarily safe from this sort of vector of attack.
This place has dismissed, buried, and delayed more women’s statements about sexual violence than anywhere else in the state. The local high school football team all but got a high-five for some rapey shit that went down a few years ago. This place wants to be the next Steubenville.
Because of all that, you know that this is the safest place to get arrested while that fake video is out attached to a fake warrant for your arrest. Once they see that you look white and male, they’ll chill the fuck out while you wait for reinforcements to arrive.
A lot of white people claim they don’t “see” race. They claim they wear a blindfold when it comes to the subject, even though statistics show that just isn’t the case. You’ve been around as a white-looking dude long enough to know that your very existence puts lie to the claim.
Once you’re booked, safe, and your lawyer appears on your phone to teleconference in on the statement, you explain all of the above to the younger cop videoing you.
Only you leave out all the reasoning above. No reason to antagonize the local PD by calling them Steubenville Lite™ or Confederacy Aspirational, even if you would have been shot by now if several strands of your DNA had decided to split just a bit differently.
And even these county folk here know about SWAT-ing. It’s usually some basement dweller pissed off at someone online calling in a fake high-tension 911 call. They’ll say something like, So-and-so is inside their apartment at address such-and-such and they have a nine-year-old girl hostage with a gun to her head. They’re hoping the police response fucks up the person they’re angry at.
What’s newer is it being weaponized by foreign agents, as in your case.
“So why does someone on the other side of the world want to try and kill you by police?” the officer asks.
You take a deep breath before giving the next part of your statement. Because now comes the part where you’re going to have to admit your white-collar crimes.
The future is getting a little murky.
But there is nowhere to go but through. Your lawyer, Doug, with the gleaming perfect smile and five-thousand-dollar suit, has a great deal lined up for you with the state department for all this information.
Time to squeal.
You pick up the candy bar that they’ve given you for a snack. Packed with peanuts. Some protein. A little boost in the blood sugar.
You explain how you hacked into the Cleveland municipal systems to give a kid on trial a fair shot.
“See,” you tell the small-town police officer as you put down the candy-bar wrapper. “At this point I’m fighting a full-on state-sponsored political info-sec war, and I’m just one person. I’m losing because I started out thinking of this as a person-to-person fight I had to win.”
As this entire story comes out, the officer listens calmly, carefully making notes as we go along.
“So, by morning, talk shows are getting call-ins. People are calling for my arrest, people are defending me and saying we should hack for social justice, some good debates about the nature of juror selection are happening, and other people are debating whether I’m a Russian agent.”
You sip some coffee gratefully.
“And that’s when the video comes out,” he says.
“Yeah, and did you see it?” you ask him. “It should be attached to my arrest warrant.”
You plop your arm down on the table. Pale white against industrial fake brown wood. “See, when they made that video, they didn’t have pictures of me yet. They do have my official description. That I’m mixed race, have shaved-close brown hair, green eyes, and that I weigh one-eighty. But see the mistake they made?”
The officer nods. You take a moment to note his name tag. Reynolds. He’s gotten you food, been chill. Doesn’t seem like a dick. He’s been handling the statement’s revelations with aplomb. “You’re white. The man in that video, he was light brown. Didn’t show his face well, so we could assume it was anyone that matched the size.”
“Right. I’m light, not white,” you say. Officer Reynolds frowns. “My father was black, my mother white.”
“But . . .”
“Sometimes we come out like this. Sometimes we pass. It used to scare people in the old days; that’s why they had the one-drop rule. Didn’t want folks like me mixing in. Undercover brothers.”
“No shit.” Reynolds is taken by the idea and is grinning.
Okay, maybe Barney Fife is more chill than you gave him credit for.
• • • •
You’d been eating a burger and fries in a dive bar when the video came on over the news with your name attached and your face apparently obscured by the shadows. The Russians had gone nuclear against you by making a video like that.
If sentiment had been against you before, it got lit the fuck on fire after that.
What to do?
What you did was, using some cryptocurrency stashed under another set of authorization keys far from your usual online haunts, you grab a cab. You sit in the backseat and let the car drive you around the city aimlessly, staring at the empty wheel turning this way and that in front of you.
You give Ecstasy your latest prepaid phone’s number and she calls. “I just saw.”
“It’s bad. I’m on the move.”
“Why do I feel like this is East Germany during the Cold War and I’m running away from spies in the shadows?”
“You should retire. Go somewhere nice and sunny before they find your face,” Ecstasy says. “That’s what I’m doing.”
You look out the window. Cleveland’s small, compact downtown slides past. The Health Line is crowded with med students getting out late. You stare at them for a moment, letting your brain free-associate.
“I don’t like the idea of getting beat like this in my own country,” you say.
“They smacked you down pretty hard.”
“I’m burned, but I looked up the kid. Kwame. He’s being tried as an adult.”
“It’s a sad situation.”
“Forget Russia, forget the fact I’m burned,” you say. “I’m just thinking about being fifteen and holding a phone up to record my bestie getting shot. I would have struggled against anyone when they came for it like that.”
Was it a better step forward to force jurors to wear helmets that, if the random skin-tone choice came up white, made Kwame look less intimidating? You aren’t sure. But . . . you remember all those cops who keep describing young black kids as monsters or in the same way one described large older men: Hulking. Brutish.
The only thing that separated you from being a hulk, a brutish thug, a scary thing, was a couple small expressions in your spirals of DNA that switched a sliver in another direction.
And all the other stuff swirling around, you set that aside.
“I think I can still help the kid,” you tell Ecstasy. “But I’ll need you to find me a good lawyer. I don’t have a lot of time to do that and get what I need ready. I’m not rolling over.”
And that’s when you start looking for a rural town to go hide in, because you know it’s only a matter of time before the enemy uses even more-dangerous tools against you.
• • • •
You don’t explain all of that to Officer Reynolds. You admit to trying to hack the municipal servers. You’ve shown up and used your identity to prove that you aren’t that person in the video. You’ve admitted to trying to expose the Russians.
Doug the lawyer with the magic teeth has set up a deal while you’re confessing mostly everything. You’re only talking because he ordered you to come in and spin the whole tale. The feds want your testimony and insight.
You’re so happy to give it. But you know not much will happen on that front, as so many of the senators, poisoned by that one election, are still unwilling to admit Russian interference is even a thing.
• • • •
Ecstasy cashes out some cryptocurrency for you and, even though it will take months or longer for your legal situation to sort itself out, you’re pretty much free to go, as long as you don’t leave Ohio.
That’s fine; you already have a place scoped out to hide low and start a semi-retirement. It’s off the grid, solar powered (though what isn’t these days?), and sits on a nice well so you don’t have to worry about water shortages.
Reynolds uncuffs you, you sign all the necessary documents, and a car drives itself up to the front to pick you up.
You slide in. The woman on the front passenger side has slightly graying hair pulled back in a tight bun.
“Hey,” she says.
She’s wearing a plastic Halloween mask, so you can’t see her face. You know you’ll never find out her name. But she nods and turns her head to look back at you. “Since you’re burned and out, I figured I could come see you. You were my number-one client. You made us rich.”
“Now it’s over.”
She hands over a basket. It’s wrapped with plastic, but you can see unbelievably expensive chocolates and scotches under the gleaming transparence. “I thought it was the least I could do.”
You take her hand and squeeze it. “Thank you.”
“So,” she says. “How did you do it?”
“The jury’s hung; it was a mistrial. It doesn’t look like the state will retry.”
“Well, for one, by law,” you say, spinning the empty candy-bar wrapper around your fingers. “The judge has to be plugged into a drip to make sure their blood sugar is solid. I hacked the vending machines in the courthouse. Their cameras now have a facial-recognition scanner that recognizes the judge and makes the machine beep and drop a candy bar whenever he’s near.”
Ecstasy laughs from behind the mask. “No way.”
“Yeah. The Russians likely are messing with his sugar. Wanted to make sure the judge was in good shape.”
“But the jurors, they’re still all white,” she says.
It took you a long while to find what you were looking for. But not as long as you feared. The year you were born, a majority of Americans thought having mixed-race babies was wrong. Somehow immoral. Gallup did a poll.
Now the number that truly, deeply believes that is barely double digits. There shouldn’t be any, but progress is progress. And because of that, you’re not as alone as you used to be.
In the end, you realized you didn’t need to go up against the Russians in code.
You hired people sick with the flu to walk up and down the sidewalk anywhere between the courthouse and the jurors’ homes and sneeze at them.
Sometimes that’s all justice leans on: one person and a candy bar.
Or a sneeze.
You just needed to find out how many jurors it would take to fade away sick before someone like you could show up. Someone who was light, but not white.
Spread the word!