A Meeting By The River
A journalist learns the truth about PRISM and TEMPORA
When he arrived, my agency source was out of breath. He had clearly been running to make our appointment.
“Busy day at the office?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the river.
“You have no idea,” he panted, as he slumped onto the other end of the bench.
I dropped the newspaper into the space between us, and slid it towards him. Edward Snowden’s righteous face blinked out from the front page.
“He looks like something out of one of those vampire movies for girls” said my contact.
I ignored the diversion and got straight to the point.“Why didn’t you tell me?”
My contact inspected his yellow fingernails. “About PRISM? About TEMPORA? You never asked.”
“And would you have told me if I had?”
He chuckled. “Maybe. Depends on what mood I was in.”
A seagull wandered past. My contact eyed it with suspicion, as if the bird were an eavesdropper like him. I waited until it had waddled down to the bank.
“What’s the mood like, inside?”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re writing a process story?”
“Someone has to.”
“A waste of your time. Typical dead-tree media. Filling pages, yet missing the point.”
“Sounds like you don’t want to answer the question. Is it is pretty bad? Are they on a witch-hunt?”
He let out a blast of laughter. Down on the bank, the gull beat its wings and escaped over the water, heading for a refuse barge.
“Quite the opposite! Its more like…” he rolled his eyeballs as he found the right word. “I would say, relief”.
I shifted myself on the bench to face him. “Wait, what?”
“Relief,” he said again. “The programme was sucking up so many resources.”
“I don’t understand, I thought it was supposed to make you more efficient.”
“It was, I mean, it did. At first. But you’ve read how we were getting around the need for warrants, right?”
I had. The agency had been harvesting data from outside national borders, then sharing it with our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. They had been returning the favour.
“Of course. Mutual co-operation, the Special Relationship and all that. What went wrong?”
He leant towards me. “We were sucking up all the Internet traffic. Headers and content…”
“…yes yes, and keeping an archive to share with the others. What was the difficulty?”
Suddenly, my source reached over and flicked my forehead. “Think about it! How do you suppose we shared the data?”
I rubbed the spot where his finger had hit me. “I guess you just… did you just… e-mail it?”
The source shrugged. “As good as. We had shared folders.”
“Like a Drop Box?”
“Exactly. To keep everything synchronised.”
I let out a long, low whistle.
“So you see our problem?”
I did indeed. “The files you were sharing went via the same underwater cables. They became part of the Internet traffic. The very thing you were archiving.”
He placed his fingers together like a man at the confessional.
“We barely noticed, at first. Its a lot of data to begin with, so what is a few more Terabytes, here and there? But the problem just got worse.”
“Well of course it would,” I scolded. “Eventually, you would be archiving the archives.”
“Worse. We archived the archives of the archives.”
“Jeez. How many recursions before you stopped?”
The source turned his head towards me for a moment, but he could not meet my eye.
“Its out of hand now. I would say, most of the traffic we are harvesting is our own signal data, and the back-ups from other locations, looped back through the fibre-optics. The bandwidth is just colossal. Why do you think your domestic broadband speeds are still so sluggish?”
I said nothing. Instead I just gazed out onto the river, and watched the passenger boats and dirty barges manoeuvre around each other on the choppy brown water. When I turned my attention back to the bench, my source had vanished.