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The Year of Not Speaking

Armand Henry went his own way from the day he was born. If something was popular, he avoided it. If something was despised, he immersed himself in it. His childhood heroes were not athletes or rock musicians. Instead, he idolized Isaac Newton and Stan Lee and Linus Torvalds. He loved science and math, avoided sports and hung out with the other geeks and losers. The popular kids looked down on him and said he had ADD and Aspergers.

He didn't care what they thought. He lived in a world of his own, and his world was good.

Armand was an early adopter. When the Internet started to take off in the early 90s, he was already on line. He was communicating with others like himself, first on bulletin boards and in chat rooms, then in more sophisticated online communities and networks. He knew all the programming languages and loved to contribute to open source software.

He graduated high school two years early, went to an Ivy League university, and dropped out in second year. But that was OK. He had made a small fortune developing software for games and could pretty much do as he pleased.

He started getting alarmed sometime in the late 1990s as the world geared up for Y2K. He then saw things get much worse after 9/11. Something was going terribly wrong with the information revolution.

It was spiraling way out of control. His carefully constructed world was being invaded by video cameras and security cops; unknown parties collected information on him without his consent; he got emails and messages from people he'd never heard of. And there was no safe place: not government data bases, not banks or businesses, not even his own computer.

Plan A: Hacktivism

Look, he said to whoever would listen. They have cameras that can take pictures of us from space and we won't even know it. They hear our phone calls, watch our Internet use, catch us on video as we walk down the street. They have access to all our personal information in every data base everywhere. They know stuff about us that we don't even know ourselves. What're they doing with all that?

Who are "they"? people would ask. You're just being paranoid. Nobody cares about what websites we visit or what our emails say. And anybody who's afraid of being watched must have something to hide. Just keep changing your password and you'll be fine.

Armand Henry knew everything was not fine.

He found others with similar concerns. They formed communities of interest and became hacktivists. They hacked into high-security sites to prove just how vulnerable they were. They lobbied the IT community for support. They met with government officials and made presentations to legislative committees. They wrote editorials for newspapers and cable TV stations. They spoke at community centres, schools and universities. They stormed the Internet with blogs, town hall discusions and email campaigns.

Only the civil libertarians and social outliers listened. Government officials said security was more important than privacy. The media didn't take them seriously. Politicians wouldn't touch it. The public found it all too complicated and boring.

We have to do something, the hacktivists said. We have to show people how vulnerable they are. Armand brought up the classic sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. We can hack into the power grid, he said. We don't have to hurt anybody, we just have to get their attention.

The hacktivists liked that idea. They set up a huge, complicated plan and on August 14, 2003, they struck.

What followed was the biggest power outage in the history of North America. More than 50 million people in the Eastern US Seaboard and Central Canada lost power. Almost immediately, theories began to surface: terrorists; squirrels eating through wires; computer failure; cosmic radiation; Canadians.

The plan was to let the public flounder for about twelve hours, issue a statement, then restore power. But when they frantically tried to reverse engineer, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, despite the complex precautions the hacktivists took, the FBI's cyber crimes unit busted them cold.


The government put out an announcement that the outage had been caused by a software failure in Ohio. They made no mention of the hacktivists. In fact, there was no way of knowing whether the plotters were responsible for all or even part of the event. But the authorities were not about to play into their hands. The hacktivists had broken the law and they had to pay. A core group of six was quietly sentenced to house arrest for five years.

They were forbidden to communicate with each other. They were observed 24/7, with cameras in their homes and listening devices on their phones. They were shadowed whenever they went out. Their home computers were confiscated. All their online accounts were closed and saved somewhere in cyberspace for future reference.

They went to work, they came home, they ate and they slept. They watched a lot of television. They worked out in their basements and quarreled with their families. One hacktivist became born again. Another gave up the fight and simply waited out his sentence in silence. One started seeing enemies behind doors and under his bed. He was taken away. Two more became even more militant, convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

But Armand bided his time.

Plan B: run silent, run deep

Eventually, the five years were up. The hacktivists had slowly integrated back into society. They were impatient to get back on line and catch up with the immense changes that had taken place since early 2004 when they began their sentences. Most of them saw the huge increase in IT use as positive. More users leads to more awareness, they reasoned. More awareness means more vigilance.

Armand was not convinced. He saw the mass adoption of social media and hand-held devices as addiction. They've been bought off by bright shiny things, he said. They've all gone over to the dark side and they don't even know it.

On the evening before his release, Armand dined with his parents. He reminded them of his Year of Not Speaking when he was ten, and how he communicated with them about how he felt. He would tape the cover of his latest Superman comic to his bedroom door if he was fine, and a drawing of Lex Luthor if he was feeling out of sorts. They asked him if he was OK after five years of house arrest, and he replied that he was feeling super.

The next morning, the FBI agent came to Armand's apartment, removed the surveillance equipment and returned his computer. "Don't even think about trying anything," he warned Armand. "We'll be watching you."

Armand knew that not all the devices were gone. He smiled his half-smile, thanked the agent, shook his hand, and walked him to the door. Then, sometime before dawn, Armand Henry vanished into thin air.

The FBI, annoyed that they hadn't inserted a microchip into him when they had the chance, was flummoxed. Finger-pointing, recriminations and tougher surveillance protocols followed. Meanwhile, they deemed the disappearance suspicious and launched a massive manhunt. But there was no sign of Armand - no return to his apartment, no visits to friends, no sightings in the city, no record of credit card use, no trail on the Internet.

But there was one sign of life. One morning, his parents noticed that a plain envelope with no return address had been slipped through the mail slot. It contained the cover page of the latest Superman comic. There were no useable clues.

The FBI watched the others in the Core Group closely to see if Armand would try to communicate with them, but no one had seen or heard from him. The member who was born again went to Bible School in Texas, became a famous preacher and changed many lives. The member who gave up and waited for his sentence to end joined an investment firm on Wall Street and made a lot of money. The member who went over the edge became a recluse and wrote fantasy novels for a huge Internet following. The remaining two lived vicariously through Wikileaks and Anonymous, outwardly leading normal lives.

He's planning some huge event, the authorities said, bigger than the power failure. We need to find him before he does irreparable harm. They put him on the Most Wanted list. They posted his mug shot all over the Internet. They created a hash tag on twitter and urged everyone to be on the lookout for him. They went on television and spoke to sensation-seeking journalists, hinting that Armand was now working for the Chinese. They spoke at high schools and colleges and community group meetings. They succeeded in making him a celebrity, but they didn't succeed in finding him.

And every month like clockwork, a plain envelope with no return address slipped through the mail slot at his parents' house. And every month, it contained the cover of the latest Superman comic.


The authorities were right to suspect that Armand was up to something. He had found refuge in a safe house run by some members of Anonymous so he could work on a special project - a cloaking device that would enable him to roam the Internet without detection. By his second month of seclusion, he had perfected it. He spent the remainder of his time getting up to speed on the latest developments in communications and IT.

And then, exactly one year to the day after he disappeared, Armand Henry resurfaced.

An important meeting was being held at the United Nations in New York. Just as the chair started to introduce the keynote speaker, his microphone went dead, the doors were locked shut and the giant video screen behind him began to flicker.

Armand's face appeared before the assembled leaders of the world. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I apologize for interrupting your meeting, but I have an important message for you."

Caught unaware, the audience sat in stunned silence. The speaker grabbed his cell phone and attempted to call security. He could not connect. He tried to activate the panic button under the podium. Nothing. Armand pressed on.

"For the last ten years or so, a growing number of IT insiders have been warning the world about the dangers of big data," he said. "Since the early 1990s, we have seen unprecedented growth in the information holdings of governments, corporations, institutions and individuals. But it's been growth without planning, without risk analysis and almost completely without regulation or oversight. It's the Wild West without a sheriff, and today our rights and our liberty are in danger.

"What do I mean? You are all aware of the consequences of unauthorized access to classified government information. But you may not be aware of the consequences of unauthorized access to everyday information. Every time we switch on a light, make a phone call, surf the net, drive through an intersection, buy something, pay our bills - you name it - our actions are counted and the data is stored.

"The trends and patterns found in these statistics help us improve efficiency, reduce costs and develop new products and services. They can help us cure disease, reduce hunger and poverty, promote democracy and human rights. But those same statistics can also be used to disrupt power, transportation and communications; fix the stock market, sporting contests and elections; set prices and reduce consumer choices; the possibilities are endless.

"And worst of all, when combined with our personal information, this data can be used to manipulate perceptions, attitudes and behaviours on a scale unimagined by the advertising industry in the 1950s. Anybody with an agenda to implement, an axe to grind or a product to sell can access and use our data any way they want. "I, ladies and gentlemen, have that capacity."

He paused and the room started to buzz.

"Soon others will as well," he warned. "The time to act is now! Take charge of this so-called information revolution before it's too late! Make it serve humankind, not subjugate it. You have the power - if you work together."

The screen began to fade. "I will now return to my place of seclusion," said Armand. "The ultimate test of your ability to take back control of the information revolution will be whether or not you can find me and stop me."

The screen was almost black. Armand's voice was barely audible. "I will be watching you. Good luck until we meet again."

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