Lights, Camera… Cut!!
The curiosity, the cat and the killer! (Ep 4)
An evil super-engineer, an inspired hack, and a bit of fortune had unraveled trails of malfeasance left by the most powerful covert group of professionals in China. How would things unravel when they fend off with each other? Does Jia bear the brunt of this? Is the secret of Pope, its objectives and clients (government) revealed, or the Pope turns it on WeChat and public shame them for incognito snooping? Does Yu survive this wrath? The final episode of “The curiosity, the cat and the killer” unfolds.
“What do you guys have to hide?”, mumbled Ying Yu as he picked up Zhipu’s detergent packet at his house. He had not been able to find anything concrete to prove or disprove his hypothesis about Zhipu other than an excerpt of the browsing history of an employee. On the coming Monday, the team convened again with the VP of the organization. Impressed by Ying Yu’s efforts on being able to snoop beyond the walls of incognito, the VP wanted him to productionize his algorithm. He made Ying Yu realize the latent potential it holds to manipulate people, and the magnitude of money it could garner. It was a secret gateway which could lay seeds to break the only remaining wall of privacy between humans and their interaction with the internet in China. He quickly got Ying Yu in touch with the Director of Research in the organization and they put together a team of researchers to brainstorm more, fill loop-holes in the algorithm and make it pluggable as a service to use. He also enlisted the clients who could subscribe to it, GFW being the biggest of them. Ying Yu was super thrilled when he could see a massive leap of growth impending in his career ahead. He started working on the new project along with a few decorated scientists at WeChat. After a sprint’s time, they were hit by a rather serious obstacle. The credibility of their dataset was voided when a major bug was declared in the IP masking protocols of some of the VPN companies. They were publicly scorned. Even though WeChat’s algorithm was still valid and could fairly map incognito traffic, a lot of the data they had captured was debunked. The team had to invest an additional month in sniffing the network again to gather fresher data and adjust phases of the algorithm to recuperate from the setback. Ying Yu still saw this in a positive light and continued working diligently. His curiosity about Li’s browsing history had long taken a back seat and eventually disappeared for two reasons — the data had gotten invalidated anyway and the newfound project had become his new obsession.
In a parallel universe, just before Ying Yu had taken down the display of keywords from incognito mode, Jia, the mystery book writer, had looked at the website and the keywords. Her matching score with Li was very high, which had gotten her very curious. When she saw the keywords connecting both of them were related to what she writes about, she was overjoyed. Li had not seen these keywords since they were taken down by then. Nevertheless, “A girl swiping you right, when does that happen”, he thought and they had started chatting online. After a few minutes, “So I saw that you are also interested in thrillers, mysteries, and crime scenes, how does a salesperson develop a penchant for these, an ardent reader or some avocation by the side?” asked a curious Jia. “I am sorry, where did you see these as the connecting factors, I can only see the fact that we both like cute-panda-videos a lot from the keywords?”, implored an agitated Li. When Jia told Li about the keywords she could see earlier (before they were taken down), Li freaked out more. He had made sure none of his work-related searches were done outside of incognito mode or without a VPN, and he was now sure that the dating website had somehow breached this privacy. Wily Li was quick to infer that the website would have information to prove that a person named Li working at Zhipu has been searching for criminal records extensively and this frenzied him further because it not only put his life at stake but also the Pope and the government. For the moment he decided to play it cool and buy time for more context — “Interesting, I do enjoy reading thrillers, it is surprising it does not show up in the keywords now. I am a fan of soft suspense, what kind of keywords did you see?”, he continued the conversation to get more information. Li used his sources to find out the team which built the website and the developers in it. The influential Li got to know about Ying Yu and his team, their hackathon success and the inspired project. When he learned that Yu had been moved to a different team and the dating website project had washed off in the light of the VPN bug, he felt relieved and out of trouble.
Jia was having trouble finding people who appreciated writing as an art, thus she was very keen on meeting Li. Li did not want to leave any trace of information source leading to him and wanted to be sure that Jia would not end up being a threat in the future. He spied on her for days while he continued chatting online in parallel. For Li, Jia came across to be a very interesting person, because when they discussed some of her work, he figured that Jia had thought about copious creative ways of plotting crime scenes for her books. When he read some of her in-progress work and drafts, he was intrigued by the attention to detail she went into while writing. Not just the content, her process of drawing a plot appealed so much to Li, that he started seeing Jia as a source to learn skills he could employ in his job. For their first date, since both of them had vested interest in Jia’s work, instead of a cafe, they decided to meet at Jia’s workstation. A small work desk, a bean bag, a few boxes of papers and scripts, two giant whiteboards and vivid stationery everywhere, Li already started getting a crush on her by the vibe of that dim-lit room Jia had rented. For three hours and a few minutes, the two exchanged ideas they had about criminal plots and adding twists to them. Li kept noticing the details in Jia’s execution of her work, from simple things like how she annotates notes in the form of a graph of stickies to something more detailed like adding life into a character to be able to think like them. His jaw kept dropping. Two weeks later the two workaholics met again at the same place. The zero distraction, productive date and no needless interfacing with people was something they mutually enjoyed. The atmosphere made them feel a connection unhindered, unscathed and full of energy. On this occasion, Li went more prepared and gave Jia a lot of factual information about laws, policies and political paradigms of communism which she could use to strengthen her plots or use to come up with newer ones. She was charmed.
A few evenings later, Li was couching on his lavish massage chair savoring the opulence at his place when the doorbell rang. A 6 ft 2 inches tall brawny officer with pretentious eye-wear, well-groomed facial hair, in a grand suite, stood before him on his ornate shoes, accompanied by three armed bodyguards. By the looks of it, Li could tell the person was in disguise. “The government wants to talk to you sir”, they forced themselves in. “It was found that you have violated the resource access policy to surf critical information on a compromised VPN which had even lead WeChat to get hints about our operations at Zhipu, a risk which could have put the whole system in jeopardy”, vindicated the officer. “It was during a mission in the Henan village and I had no other option to get access during that time”, Li tried to justify his actions, although he knew it was too late. “Stealth is the prime culture and only credo in The Paws of Prejudice, and an act like this cannot go unaddressed. As of tomorrow, you would be relocated to serve a term as the Supervisor of Janitorial services in the Guangyan prison at Lizhou, Sichuan for the next three years”, announced the officer. “But, this is so …., can I make a phone call”, Li stuttered and tried to grab his phone from the table. The officer just smiled at his bodyguard and Li understood there was no point trying. “I hope you understand that if it weren’t for those stellar contributions you have made historically, we would not be having this conversation”, the officer threatened. Within the next few hours, they made Li pack some of his essential belongings, stuffed him in a van and drove him away. The next morning Li woke up in the government quarters of Guangyan. An old room with just enough room for one person to barely walk. From a luxurious bedroom to a dingy chamber, from a massage powered recliner to a cushion-less wooden chair, from a backyard with a heated pool to a windowless chamber, Li’s life flipped overnight. Employees in The Paws of Prejudice although got the best perks and a lucrative lifestyle, they came at high stakes. Committing a blunder welcomed equally consequential retribution. From a decorated lifestyle to a janitor in criminal jail, serving as an informer for the Pope! Li had a lesson to be learned. Establishing network within jails, inspiring potential new hires for Pope would become Li’s new job description. Either he could stay at the jail, rot and do the above work, or be a wise-ass and sear his way out using his wit, in which case the Pope would rehire him into a white-collar role. Due to this model, rotating jobs, transfers, team changes were trivial and commonplace for people in Pope. The government (and Pope) kept a close watch on Jia for the next few months. She only had Li’s phone number which was obviously not reachable now. “There is no person called Li Xiao on our payroll”, clarified the help desk at Zhipu to Jia who was still in disbelief and denial. The dating website and hence its chat history were also taken down by then. She presumed that the guy had ghosted her with a false identity. Disbelief turned into grief when denial became acceptance, but she tried to console herself since it was only two dates, even though the connection they felt was out of the world. A few weeks later she forgot about the whole episode.
The tentacles of the Chinese government were far more widespread than anyone could ever imagine. They did not want any single entity to have too much information and believed that such openness can unearth many secrets, making them vulnerable and more importantly dilute power. Whatever happened, there were always people/technology watching it astutely. It was like a screenplay, everyone playing some role and the government was both the director and the constant-popcorn-hogging-audience. From the beginning, the Chinese government was very much aware of WeChat’s dating project, the incognito fiasco, and that Ying Yu had almost got his hands on Zhipu via Li. First, they staged a ruse bug by the VPN companies to invalidate and erase any traceable information connecting Li, Jia, and Zhipu. The government blinded Yu with the glitter and glamor of working on a research project with elite scientists, a pay-raise and made him voluntarily chose to not work on the dating project, which they soon deprecated. Finally when the government saw Jia and Li connecting, they “changed” the person that is Li overnight. Yu got what he deserved for his excellence and for anti-parallel reasons Li ended up in jail. Zhipu was still safe and so was Pope. Nevertheless, Yu, Li, and Jia were now marked critical in the government’s watchlist for eternity.
When the stage (lights and camera) was set for an action-packed real-life climactic thriller between an expert data engineer, a corporate criminal, and an aspiring writer, the director (government) yelled “cut” instead.
I would like to specially thank my dear friend Sophie for some key insights and pressing incidents which transpire in the mainland. They were indeed inspirational to write the above piece. Also kudos to my roommate Tee, for planting the seeds of hackathon in my mind.