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12.26.07

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

International Intrigue

By Annalee Newitz


THE FOLLOWING STORY is not entirely made up. But it's fictional enough that if you think you recognize yourself, or your friends, then you must be mistaken. He had a vaguely European-sounding name and a vague job doing something with the U.N., or perhaps one of its subcommittees or projects or councils. It sounded important because it had a lot of words in it, and one of those words was "Internet." That's why Shiva met him. They were at some kind of after-conference party, or maybe it was midconference. But anyway it was for some center or special-interest group at Harvard that was very concerned about the Internet in Africa. Shiva had come late in the afternoon to hear the keynote presentation, which wasn't actually related to Africa. It was delivered by someone whom she admired, a technologist with a social conscience who would have done something about Africa if he had had time after haranguing the U.S. government about putting its citizens under surveillance without warrants.

The keynote speaker talked rousingly about how easy it was for governments—even ones in Africa, he was careful to add—to spy on people's activities online. He talked about all the great activist groups at Harvard and elsewhere around the world where smart geeks were figuring out ways to hide personal data from invasive states. He invited them all to help out by contributing to several open-source software projects, and then he invited them to the reception for wine and cheese.

There Shiva met the guy with the European-sounding name, who regaled her with stories about the wine in Spain and setting up wireless networks in Africa. He was so entertaining that she forgot to ask him which country it was in Africa, and then she decided consciously not to ask him since she knew so little about African geography that she might come across as exactly the sort of person who didn't belong at Harvard. At one point, he mentioned Lagos, which she knew (to her relief) was in Nigeria.

One thing led to another, and they wound up back at Shiva's lab at MIT because the European guy got really excited when she told him about her project on assembling virus shells for drug delivery. He would be leaving for Lagos in the morning, he told her, and she thought: "What the hell. I'm going to take this guy back to my lab and fuck him." And she did, and it was pretty hot, especially because he seemed so interested in her work. Before he left, they exchanged email addresses.

Lagos is one of the biggest cities in the world, but its exact population size is unknown. A 2006 census claims the state of Lagos (which includes the city) has a population of 9 million, but locals say these numbers are low, and it could be as high as 10 or 12 million. A city like that, whose population can't even be pinpointed down to the nearest million, is a good place to disappear.

But the European guy didn't disappear, and he would occasionally write Shiva emails from Lagos, forwarding her links about local politics or commenting on how locals ate this green stuff they called simply "vegetable." He was setting up wireless networks and writing reports about it for his U.N. group or council or whatever. To get data in and out of the country, he wrote, he had to hide it on USB devices that looked like toy models of the TARDIS spaceship. People were so suspicious of anything that looked like a computer.

Eventually, the emails trailed off. He was in Switzerland, then Dubai, then Africa again. Never Cambridge. Shiva was busy prepping a paper for Nature, and then she was prepping for a conference. She hooked up with a couple of other people, started exchanging other flirtatious emails, then forgot about the European guy entirely.

Until one day she saw a picture of him on her favorite blog, right next to a post about how to make bicycles out of foam. Apparently, he had been selling bioweapons information to groups variously labeled "terrorists" or "insurgents," using his U.N. gig as cover. He had been teaching guerrillas about viruses. Nobody could figure out where he had gotten his data. They figured it was a disgruntled Islamic militant somewhere, a person with a vendetta against the U.S. government. Shiva never knew if it was her.


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who doesn't know anything about virus shells and has never been to Lagos.


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