LinkedIn, eHarmony and Last.fm were all hacked wide open this week.. But what would happen to us if everything got compromised? A short story about the biggest fear you don't even know you have.
For the hacker group Schadenfreude’s bizarre debut, every cast member and contestant on EGT! (Elderly Got Talent), the geriatric talent contest that was at the time the most-watched show on TV, had been hacked: addresses, phone numbers, bank account transactions, where they shopped and ate meals and vacationed, even emails. Americans had fallen in love with cute, older contestants, watching them sing and play the harmonica and juggle poodles. When their emails were made public, so too were the racist jokes, the longing for the days of segregation, and the bigoted accusations issued about the President as to why the economy was in the tank. EGT! was cancelled soon after.
It was a total hack.
But when the news had broken it was greeted with amused interest. Hacks were common and there was no reason to believe this was any different. The group claimed it had infiltrated “numerous” databases and had begun posting scraps of what it found. To the online audience’s pleasure, the earliest content pertained to celebrities.
The hackers said they’d pulled down terabytes of data, and had developed a tool to collate information by name, username, Social Security number and IP address, accessible through a crude search interface. Nobody knew how real this was, and how much was just bluster, but the first batch of leaks was both transfixing and complete. Through Twitter and the paparazzi, people were accustomed to having extensive access to their favorite actors and athletes. This was different; this was deeply personal, stuff even bloggers and gossip magazines could not reach.
After EGT!, the group released the next batches in fits. There were actors suspected of being gay who were confirmed. There were athletes who no one suspected were gay, and who spent most of the time off the court browsing porn and gay dating sites. The daily habits of celebrities were also intriguing; they ordered typical groceries and take-out meals, and also penis-enlarging supplements and sleeping pills and illegal narcotics by text message. The number of celebrities who clicked on stories about themselves, often reading the story several times in the same web session, was eye-opening. They Googled themselves. They Googled each other. They Googled exes, cyberstalking lovers from even ten years earlier. They sent emails and text messages and talked cruelly behind one another’s back. They read horoscopes. They paid for online tarot card readings. They played Solitaire and Minesweeper. It was a relief that celebrities spent as much time on Facebook (under aliases that had also been made public) and email and pornography and backstabbing as the rest of the world did.
The media descended on the story. Office production ground to a halt, everyone obsessed with their beloved celebrities, and with how uncannily familiar it all felt. Schadenfreude had wanted to get the public’s attention, and it had. Twenty-four hours after the celebrity content leaked, all the amusement ceased. Facebook, Google, Twitter, dating sites, email, bank accounts, most online social media sites – all of it, everywhere, was hit. Within weeks, nearly every person on the planet with information online would be hacked, their dirty little secrets available for peers and coworkers and loved ones to browse.
One Week Later
Gabby Lin hit the refresh button on her browser. Thus far none of her personal information had surfaced, but she knew it was coming. Most of her friends had appeared on Schadenfreude. Her newlywed husband’s information was there, though relatively harmless: some pictures of celebrities, a mild curiosity in ex-lovers, an interest in the Food Network and the New York Rangers that Gabby had not known about. He was innocent and honest and loyal. When her information hit the site, she would be none of those things.
An analytical assistant to a talent scout for the New York Yankees, her career involved gathering data of minor league players, mostly outfielders, and measuring their statistics against similar players. It was a job she loved and one that also played into her obsessive-compulsive mindset. Just as she could agonize over the number of errors a certain left fielder for the Trenton Thunder made, and the factors that might have weighed on the error – weather, sun blindness, too much topspin – so too could her obsession go in the other direction. For example, Pinterest and the 16,000-plus boards she had; her need to have more Facebook friends and Twitter followers than any of her peers, to the point that her only interest in the sites was to obtain followers, and never for the content; and her devout, passionate, every-night habit of logging on to www.sexwithmonsters.com, where with a login, a few keystrokes, and some uploaded photographs, she could watch monster(s) have sex with an avatar in her likeness. What began as fun turned kinky, and eventually into a habit.
To take her mind off worrying, she had spent her evening assembling analytics based on the information posted on Schadenfreude about the entire New York Yankees team. Their personal habits were interesting. After a victory, the team typically went to dinner – often in groups of seven to ten – then retired early. But a loss found many drinking alone, or visiting nightclubs until late hours, arriving to the clubhouse, on average, seventeen minutes later than after a win. And their morals seemed to go down the tubes after a loss: Drinking was up 68 percent, adultery 34 percent, gambling 45 percent, illicit drug use 7 percent. None of this information had been available before the Schadenfreude hack. The results were astounding. A loss had such profound effects on the ethics of a team that, if not corrected, could send the entire season into a downward spiral.
Just then her phone rang; her husband, Jason.
“I can’t believe it,” he said.
“What’s the matter?”
“You haven’t seen?”
She knew without asking. She was already on the website and typed her name into the search browser. There were several Gabby Lins but she found the right one and clicked. The data was intense but true, even surprising: the pictures she had viewed, the emails she sent, the horrible amount of times she had clicked on Jason’s ex-lovers and sisters, an obsession, all there for the world to see. And while she had logged onto the sex monster site just for fun, she was surprised at the number of scenarios she had created in only the last four months: 6,438. That could not be true; there had been a lot of monster sex, but that number seemed inflated. Her analytical mind went to work; if it were true, it meant she’d had simulated sex with monsters 216 percent more times than she’d had real sex with her husband. She enjoyed sex with Jason, but the idea of a monster thrilled her. How could she possibly explain?
“Are you there?” he asked.
“Uh huh. Just thinking.”
"Do you know how I found out?”
“I wonder if it’s even accurate. How can they track the entire planet’s pornography habits?”
“My mother called. She’s the one who saw it. She spends entire days on Schadenfreude spying on the neighbors. She thinks you’re having an affair with someone who dresses up for Halloween.”
“I would never cheat on you,” she said.
“I know that. It’s just so …”
“Strange,” Gabby said. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Gab. It’s strange. And discussing it with my mother is strange. I went to the site – all those monsters, all the things you watch them do – stranger even still.”
“It’s one of those secrets I didn’t think I’d ever have to explain.” She clicked through a few more pictures. She was always pressed for time. She was appalled at where she had found the time to do … all that. “Other people have secrets. Did you know Alec Baldwin has a Pinterest board of road kill?”
“I’m not married to Alec Baldwin.”
“No, you’re not.”
She thought about road kill. Gabby was not a good person. She had been a good person a week ago, before her secrets were exposed. Now she was strange, and somewhat of a disturbed slut.
One Month Later
Devon Harrison/Harrison Walker had not left the Motel 6 in Horseheads, New York, in twenty-seven days. At first he felt he could not show his face to either of his families. His suspicions were confirmed after several weeks passed with no one checking on his whereabouts. Not his Ithaca family, Marie, his wife of thirty-one years, and their three grown children – Gabe, Nate and Julianne – nor any of his seven grandchildren, who a month earlier referred to him as Gampy Harry on Skype. And not his Canadian family, Cindy, his wife of twelve years, or their two young children, Peter and Lucy.
A travelling businessman, Devon had not set out to be a polygamist. Life had just worked out that way. He had two separate families, and two separate identities; two Facebook accounts, two iPhones, two bank accounts and retirement plans and driver’s licenses and mortgages, even two separate mugs that resided on shelves 290 miles apart: “World’s Greatest Dad.” Instead of outing him earlier, social media was a co-conspirator in his scheme. The technology made it easier to be in two places at once. Even if he was not there in person, he was only a phone call away; with a text message, a keystroke, or a mouse click he could appear. It was his eldest son, Gabriel, who first noticed the discrepancy: his father’s two bank accounts, both of which had far too much money for a salesman at a pharmaceutical company. He had traveled over the Peace Bridge so many times, the security guards on both sides knew him by name. When he picked up a suitcase from some burly men in Buffalo, and exchanged it for an envelope with a skinny man in Niagara Falls, there was no reason for border control to suspect anything. That’s what funded his lifestyle and kept both families happy.
The hack had aired everyone’s dirty laundry: criminals, clergy, people who were considered upstanding members of their community, and who had been caught red-handed by Schadenfreude. It was eye-opening how much crime was happening online, all around, everywhere. Gabe had studied the Schadenfreude website and put the whole thing together. He asked his father point blank – was it true? – which sent Devin Harrison/Harrison Walker into a rage. He had raised his son, paid his way through college, even provided the down payment on his first house. He had been living the lie so long he did not feel an explanation was necessary.
But now everyone knew. Both of his wives, his children, his coworkers and secretaries and even the members of his two book clubs – one read romance, the other, crime. He emptied the Ithaca checking account the day of the hack and had been living off the dwindling funds since. The motel manager had agreed to let him pay cash by the night. He badly wanted to go online and check on his families, see what was new with the Schadenfreude hack, but he was scared. Many businesses and authorities were claiming the breach had been solved, for the most part, while other reports claimed it would take years to remove all the leaked information. And by then the group might have initiated an even more sinister hack. Like most people, he could no longer trust websites that before he had trusted completely. If he checked his email, or logged onto Facebook to spy on his families; if he checked his bank accounts or the LinkedIn page where the Buffalo people left him coded messages when to retrieve the next suitcase – if he so much as turned on his computer, that program that had ruined everything might still be able to track him down in his Motel 6 in Horseheads, New York, and then report his goings on to the rest of the world.
No, it was better to leave the computer off, keep the blinds closed, wait a bit longer. “Wheel of Fortune” would be on in a few minutes.
Six Months Later
Molly Newton began taking anti-depressants after it grew obvious Facebook would never be the same again. No one could ever trust that what they clicked and spied on would not be made public. Most of her other friends were already taking medication; she knew because she had read through the purchases on their bank accounts. The past several months had been difficult to maintain friendships at all. Everyone had secrets and no one had wanted them exposed. Since the hack, everyone was nervous and suspicious.
Molly missed her online communities: Facebook, SoundCloud, MyLife, Goodreads (though she hated to read), Twitter, Google+, Meetup, Foursquare, Pinterest, CafeMom (even though she did not like children), StumbleUpon, Flickr and LinkedIn, all of which she used to visit daily. When the hack occurred, she was nervous about visiting any of the sites lest more of her personal life get leaked online. She had been spending her time instead reading books and exercising; she had lost eighteen pounds and was in the best shape of her life. She had never looked better and could not feel good about it, because what she really wanted more than anything – more than being healthy and well-read and attractive – was to go on Pinterest and pin beautiful things to boards. The world was so much prettier and less cluttered on Pinterest, and she preferred it to the alternative of real life.
She arrived early to the restaurant. She had planned to meet her friend for lunch and had phoned to settle on the location that morning – another depressing point, having to arrange a meeting by telephone instead of text message or Twitter. Heather, her best friend of twenty-five years, the last six mostly through Facebook, also had never looked better. Both girls sat slumped in their seats. Face-to-face meetings were exhausting. Where before during lunch, both were busy updating their locations and statuses across various social media outlets, and texting friends who were not there and making future plans, the actual lunch had been an afterthought. It was easy to make small talk and spend time with a friend if you could also spend time with the rest of the world online. Now lunches were brutal.
“How’s Tom doing?” Molly asked.
“We broke up.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“How could you?”
It used to be any relationship change would be reflected in a number of locations.
“After the hack, we started spending more time together. We realized we only communicated through text message. And once we stopped texting, we had nothing to say to each other.”
Molly understood exactly.
“What about you?” Heather asked. “Dating anyone?”
“No. I’m best when I can stalk a guy online for a few weeks until I know his routine and likes. Then I can craft a personality I think he would enjoy and conspire an accidental meeting. I’m much more relaxed when the relationship is based on deception.”
Four minutes into the lunch, neither had anything else to say. Both friends had embarrassing secrets leaked in the hack, although they never discussed it; it was easier to pretend this was happening to everyone else.
“You heard about the guy with the two families, right?” Molly asked, digging for some banter. The Harrison case had become the story that people most identified with the hacking crisis, many even sympathetic to the polygamist husband, who had been maliciously and unfairly exposed.
“Sure, who hasn’t?”
“He killed himself. They found him hanging in a motel room.”
“That’s horrible. When did it happen?”
Molly shrugged. “Couple days ago I guess. He ran out of money so he was being evicted. Every time I look in the newspaper, it seems someone else is killing themselves.” That was another thing depressing Molly; having to read the newspaper again to find out the news. The suicide rate was on the rise. Everyday someone was leaping into traffic, or leaping onto train tracks, or sucking down a bottle of pills. Where before this news could arrive by Twitter and Facebook and text message while the body was still warm, now people had to wait several days, even up to a week, to learn who had died.
“You would never try it, would you?” Heather asked.
“I don’t think so,” Molly said. “I’m too afraid of what people will say about me when I’m not around to defend myself. What about you?”
“I thought about it. But I keep hoping they can fix the problem, and everything will be like it used to be.” They studied the menu. “They are going to fix it, aren’t they?”
One Year Later
Bud Murray opened the door to find three more boxes. That made the fourth delivery that week. He did not bother to ask his wife, Eileen, if she had ordered the stuff. He already knew from asking that she had not. “Anticipation Shopping” was what the retailers were calling it. Once everyone’s information went public, the general citizenry panicked, but some clever people saw an opportunity. They hired analysts to sift through all the data; based on a person’s spending habits, what they clicked on social media sites, keywords found in their emails and text messages – it was possible to predict with 94 percent accuracy what the person would buy, and approximately when.
Rather than waiting for people to make purchases, the stores had just begun shipping; those who did not want the products could return them with no charge, but more times than not they just kept the stuff. The stores then charged the credit card, kept track of the purchases, and knew roughly when to ship new products.
Bud Murray did not have a Facebook account. He did not understand Twitter and barely went online. He had an email address that his daughter set up for him, but he only checked it a few times a year. What he did have was a bank account, and a retirement account, both of which had been leaked to the Schadenfreude site. While Bud appreciated the ingenuity it took companies to anticipate customer needs, he hated that strangers were milling through his personal information and making guesses about what was in his refrigerator.
“What is it this time?” Eileen asked. Eileen loved to shop. She loved the stores, the hunt, the joy of finding a great deal, and was frustrated with “Anticipation Shopping.” But she had to admit, it was convenient, and the stuff typically arrived just in time.
“Looks like some laundry detergent,” Bud said.
“I ran out Tuesday. What else?”
Bud opened a box. “Timberland boots, men’s size ten. I don’t need boots.”
“Last time you bought boots was 1992. You could use a good pair.”
He shrugged. It was more of a pain to seal the box back up, address it and drive it to the post office. He probably could use them. After all, he had not needed the snow tires or the stepladder, though they had come in handy, and he never would have bought himself a riding lawnmower, but he had to admit – it made mowing the grass much nicer. Come to think of it, the yard was in need of a fresh cut, and he laced up his new boots to see how they felt.
“Heading out to cut the yard?” Eileen asked.
“Hot out there. I’ll bring you a lemonade in a bit.”
He opened the door. “Make it a beer instead.”
“We’re out of beer. But who knows, maybe a box will arrive this afternoon.”
Jon Methven’s novel, “This is your Captain Speaking,” is on sale today. Pick it up at your local bookstore or find it online here: www.jonmethven.com.
Illustration by Cara Vandermey