- The Problem
At 6:30 am Sam Perry and Thomas Kowalski were staring speechless at the screen in their improvised computer lab on the second floor of a terraced house in Salford, Greater Manchester. The lines the computer was producing right under their eyes could not be mistaken. Despite the earliness of the time of day, the atmosphere floated in the small, humming, stuffy room mid-way between awe and disbelief.
“How long has this been going on?” Kowalski wanted to know.
“It must have started last night, after I last checked, before I went to bed,” Perry replied. Since the beginning of the Aaron Swartz Project, he was functioning on a five-hour-sleep basis and lots of strong, black coffee with a handful of lumps of sugar. This used to be his study. He knew that it was more than likely that he would not be able to work here again after the project was finished.
“It’s not supposed to do …” Kowalski searched for a better choice of words, but was at a loss, “that sort of thing, right?” he finally said, nervously scratching his grey-red ten-day beard.
“You know how it works,” Perry tried to rationalize the situation by pointing out aloud, somehow impatiently, information they both knew, as if to retrace their steps to find a possible – though unlikely – flaw in the process. “Once the malware is inside the network, it locates the data automatically and starts copying it to the “basket”. It does that until the task is complete; it doesn’t have any freedom of decision beyond that,” his former colleague, long-time friend and now accomplice said to Kowalski. “By design, it can’t do or create anything I haven’t ordered it to. It’s a bloody virus! Most of the time, their purpose is to destroy or be incremental in one form of blackmail or another.”
Despite being a novice to the technical aspects of his and his friend’s enterprise, Kowalski understood that the “basket” was not actually a real basket but a virtual space for data storage that Perry had christened that way; a server rented abroad, in Russia, for that matter, under the pseudonym Mr Robert Bots. In order for the smoke screen to work properly, Perry had created fake personal data, several personae or avatars in fact, with emails, credit card numbers, bit coin accounts, physical addresses. The malware, Perry had explained, was a worm, in their case a sort of virus, while the designation of the server as “basket” came from the harvesting registry, as with apples for instance. “So, what is this, then? Is it the malware or the ‘basket’?”
Perry could only speculate but was interrupted by Kowalski, “I don’t know. It looks like text but, as it is, it’s still in progress –“
“What do you mean in progress?”
Sam Perry had already been trying to get his balding, short-haired head around the situation for half an hour, when Kowalski had arrived at his place shortly after 6 am. “It’s not finished yet,” he declared. After a pause, he added, visibly frustrated, “It appears that, as long as it isn’t, we can’t open the file to see what it contains.”
- Complete Access
Although Perry knew, as did his friend, that it could not possibly be his fault, he naturally felt responsible for their brain child’s sudden misbehaviour; they both did. It was like painting a picture and realizing there was a stroke on it that had not been noticed so far. And there was no way of telling whether the painter had just forgotten he put it there or whether someone else had done it.
The most reasonable answer to the problem was that it came from Perry’s malware. Despite the nearly impossible odds that the worm would misbehave, logic was pointing towards a flaw in its code. The realization that random behaviour could emerge, at any stage of the project, was deeply unsettling to both men.
The plan was to duplicate text recorded online – scientific, medical and technological texts, as well as historical and religious texts, letters, travel accounts, novels and stories – from fifteen of the world’s most prominent libraries. Neither Perry nor Kowalski had any intention of destroying the data. When the data had been duplicated on to another location, Perry would remove the worm through remote access from another server located in the Czech Republic and rented under the alias Franz-Ulbricht Allman. If so far everything went well, the infection and the whole duplication process would go unnoticed. Perry liked to think of his program as a Trojan copycat, since it was not aimed at destroying anything. But he and Kowalski had agreed to call it more affectionately, the same as the entire project, Aaron.
Once each target on their list had been checked, Perry would transfer the data from the “basket” to a last server in Portugal, this one rented as Mr Phô Quiyu. The entire database from the fifteen greatest libraries would then become accessible through a single URL to everyone with an Internet connection, its contents freely downloadable through Speedshareloads, and bring humanity one step closer to complete access.
It was the greatest non-political, non-financial hack for the common good since the Internet had become public, some forty years ago. In a sense, the two friends wanted to recreate the great library of Alexandria, only two thousand years later, online. Without any support from the outside. They were not part of any activist group, their initiative was theirs alone. Naturally, no one else knew about the reference, least of all of the project’s existence. And this time, there would be no burning down the database.
They had agreed to name the project after an American programmer and civil rights activist who fought for more transparency of and access to knowledge online. Aaron Swartz spoke about complete access at some point. When the news broke, despite being only nine years old at the time, Samson Perry remembered being deeply saddened by the passing away of the twenty-six-year-old MIT student who was presented on BBC World News as a programming genius and potentially highly influential humanist.
Back then, in 2003, Sam Perry wondered whether that young man, who looked like hardly more than a late teenager to him, would truly have done something to change the world or whether he was all talk and PR – whether his principles were sound and whether his activism would have achieved anything at all. Young Sam Perry left his bowl of Fruit Loops in orange juice on the kitchen counter, in front of the TV, and went online to find out.
It was not without some degree of surprise that he discovered that Swartz’s ideals appealed to him. And young Samson was even more surprised to see that, despite Swartz’s young age, he had already done much to make the world a better place. The young programmer’s efforts all seemed to be aimed at improving people’s lives in the Internet age 2.0. Sam felt inspired by Swartz who had been merely a teenager when he became known for his first programming exploits. And while Samson Perry kept reading about the young man, he realized that he had found a hero: someone whose goals were focused on the common good, were noble and honourable – and achievable. That was the day Sam Perry decided he would become a programmer.
That day, he also found out that Swartz contended that all books, articles, be they scientific, technical or literary, all that was harboured in one form of library or another, should be openly and freely accessible online and to everyone – because that was the Internet’s purpose. That was years before the creation of UNET, the United Nations Networks, where Perry and Kowalski would eventually meet.
- Perry and Kowalski
Kowalski straightened his aching sixty-three-year-old back from leaning forward with his hands on the desktop and allowed his eyes a little respite from the screen’s gleam. He shuffled his feet for a moment to get the blood flowing back where it was needed and rubbed his eyes. Being a librarian by trade, he was still more used to reading on paper rather than on a screen. He looked out the window at the street, for a moment, on that chill dawning day.
Despite the seasonal coldness and the permanently open window, Perry’s makeshift computer science lab was made comfortably warm by the combined heat of a dozen desktop computers standing on the floor around the desk, facing the window, and one server on a dedicated shelf to its right-hand side. The room was not that small at all, actually. But dim lighting, added to the fact that the walls were crammed with cardboard boxes containing all sorts of electrical gadgets and probably hundreds of kilos of spare parts, hard drives and components and the constant hypnotic humming of the computers and the lack of sufficient ventilation confirmed Kowalski’s impression that, under normal circumstances, it would be undesirable to remain in that room even for a short time, let alone days.
Perry was of another generation. Thirty-six years old, bespectacled and slightly overweight Sam Perry had grown up with Harry Potter and the social network frenzy of the early 21st century. Sometimes his older alter ego wondered how it had happened that the prime age adults of Perry’s generation were now taking decisions that were obviously reducing human rights to the size of a needlepoint compared to the fabric of a French Gobelin tapestry. Was it Potter and his magical friends budding wondrously into adulthood, Kowalski thought, or the JEPG-bonanza of deliberately handed out personal data on so-called social media that had led Western civilization to this point? Personally, Thomas Kowalski had had doubts about the very meaning of that notion, even when he was still in his twenties.
But Kowalski had discovered that, despite being a millennial, the Perry boy was a bit out of it all. Since the tender age of nine, Sam was most satisfied in front of a computer terminal, regardless of where that was. And for Kowalski it was plain to see, now, that young associate literally lived in this room. He had even dragged a mattress from his actual bedroom into this one. The carpeted floor reflected that cleanliness was at best a remote priority, like a hazy dream fading into oblivion upon waking up. The motley mixture of spilt coffee stains, crumbs of various foods, and dust particles that Kowalski believed to be the size and density of small pebbles appeared to have a life of its own in some corners. The occasional cigarette stub, having miraculously escaped the overflowing ashtray, could be found roaming the dark alleys between the cardboard boxes, while most of the room’s illumination came from the three screens on the desk and from a flexible neck lamp attached to one of the cardboard boxes piling up between the desk and the left-hand wall. If something caught fire in here, Kowalski remembered thinking when he first entered the room, they would both choke to death from toxic smoke before they reached the door.
The two had met five years before, during a protest march in response to UNET’s decision to let go almost half their staff, due to structural re-organizing. Artificial Intelligence, enhanced processing and new job descriptions, like digital administrator, had rendered a great many jobs obsolete. UNET had been initially created by the Security Council to guarantee more online freedom and security and its launch sanctioned unanimously in 2030. After forty years of existence, growth and development, all members of the Security Council agreed that the Internet had become a global country that needed coherent, cross-border policing and collaboration between the council’s members in order to limit, if not avoid, abuse and criminal activity on the webs. It had also created a lot of jobs.
Yet, as a matter of fact, the UN was pursuing commercial interests for each of its members, harnessing the thousands of gibibytes of personal data of the world’s user community. Within months, UNET acquired majority shares in the Alphabet group, Baidu and Pizza Hut. It also began monitoring most of the largest service providers and social networks, including dating services, under the Global Online Freedom and Security Act of 2033, also unanimously voted.
Although they understood the perfidiousness of that decision, like millions of citizens throughout the world, Sam and Thomas did not march against GOFSA that ominous year. Both were convinced that protesting was better than just watching idly as the UN grew to become the largest conglomerate in history, in one masterful stroke, but knew that marching peacefully would not stop that development. Besides, they were still working for UNET. When their livelihood was threatened by massive scale job cuts, two years later, though, they did march to protest. It was on that gathering event of soon-to-be-unemployed, in 2035, that Samson Perry and Thomas Kowalski found in each other a strangely kindred spirit. And during the following five years that led to their joint project, they became best friends.
When their employment was finished by UNET, both Kowalski and Perry had to find solutions to survive. Perry set up his own hardware store, THE RAM WAY, for people who still needed in-the-flesh know-how to fix and replace their computer equipment and gaming outfit. Sometimes, he even made house calls, often to find out that Amazon’s or Alibaba’s customer support would have to be contacted for the matter, but he could still bill them for his intervention.
Thomas Kowalski was a victim of his age and the times he lived in. He struggled for months to keep his head above water, helping school children with their homework and teaching chess. He had to give up his flat in Eccles because he could not afford the rent any longer and moved in with a friend in Bolton for another six months. Just before he was thrown out there, due to a personal disagreement, he found a position in an antiques store dealing with a whole stock of rare, old and precious books and documents. He was then in charge of determining whether the texts were genuine or replica and establishing a price. The rare book business was alive, in spite of whatever impressions of the tech age may have suggested to the younger generations, who thought of books as artefacts from a long gone time, and it turned out that Kowalski had been the most competent person the store’s manager had employed in a while, which meant that he could afford a flat of his own again, even though a very small one, in Salford, near where Perry lived.
Since their chance encounter, the two friends exchanged views on everything that might be of importance over the years, from the current political situation, to childhood memories and philosophy. Naturally, Aaron Swartz came up when Perry spoke about his earliest motivation to become a computer engineer. The first outlines of what would become the ASP emerged soon after they discussed Swartz’s notion of complete access. When the project was still in its early stages, Kowalski drew up a list of libraries that held the most precious documents, placing the U.S. Library of Congress, the National Library of China and the British Library on top of the list. Those, he explained, were, among others, great places of knowledge and wisdom but access to their contents was all but easy; or free, for that matter.
- Who am I?
Both Perry and Kowalski were skilled and more than competent in their respective fields, but neither of them had the slightest notion of what exactly would happen when, or rather if, their plan succeeded. The final step of the project was to send the URL of the database-library to every notable news agency around the world with a short manifesto attached to state its purpose. There had to be a whole lot of recipients in case more than one decided to not publish the URL, therefore the list featured agencies in Britain, continental Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa. Someone, the two associates hoped, would be bold enough to oppose the status quo of library-owned information. And if one news agency decided to publish, others would follow, until there could be no shutting down the ASP without risking major public controversy. By the time one targeted institution got the legal foundation for a claim to shut down the Aaron Swartz Project Online Database, it would be too late. It would be part of the pop culture 4.0 – viewed, shared, discussed and commented millions of times – and since it was non-profit and their creators wanted no pride in its ownership, the database would practically be owned by the public. Perry and Kowalski would very likely be in prison by that time, anyway.
But it was a gamble all the same. Their project could just as well be uncovered by an institution’s security protocols discovering the malware infection. In such a scenario, the competence and means implemented by, for instance, the Chinese National Library, to unveil the theft, would inevitably lead back to Perry and Kowalski – and initiate their certain demise. Or the program could crash for any number of unpredictable reasons. But everything had gone well, so far.
Perry estimated that the database could be online within one week. Although neither of them took any particular pride from a personal point of view, they revelled in the profusion of precious documents as much as in the idea of how easily those would soon be accessible to a mind-boggling amount of people.
Yet, they could not get their heads around the one file that had appeared less than six hours earlier and was missing an actual title contrary to all other entries. There were simply the letters spelling file with one low dash directly preceding and one following the word that blinked at the top of the entry list.
“Maybe it’s a glitch?” Kowalski was phishing for an explanation.
“There can’t be any glitches at this stage,” replied Perry. “If there’s a glitch, it very likely means that the project has been compromised. Besides, apart from shutting the whole thing down, I don’t see what we can do about it.”
“Perhaps,” Kowalski went on half-jokingly, “it is a very special one. You know, like, I don’t know, one of those books that we thought didn’t exist – Aristotle’s book on comedy, for instance, or Caleddin’s compilation of Britain’s Druidic mysteries until the Romans.” Seeing the incredulous look on Perry’s face, he felt compelled to keep spinning this thought on, now with enthusiasm, “or the Necronomicon!” But Perry’s expression had turned into benevolent reprove at the idea while he silently agreed to the possibility of the existence of a secret never before mentioned text.
“Or a yet unrevealed gospel written by a woman author; or a complete translated version of the Book of the Dead of ancient Egypt; or –“
“I get the idea.” Perry pulled his friend out of his reverie. “And I admit that it has crossed my mind, too.”
For half a minute they just stared at the screen in silence, thinking about possible solutions to their conundrum.
“What if,” Kowalski broke the silence, “it did come from Aaron? I mean from within?”
“You mean like something the program actually created – of its own volition?” He added that last part almost with disgust.
“Without going so far as to include free will or a conscious decision, could it be more like a mutation, as in plants, or in fact, in any biological organism?”
Perry leaned back in his worn relic of a desk chair, folding his hands on his receding hairline. He said, “For all we know, someone could have caught wind of our thing here and MI5 or the FBI might have set a trap to lead us on, to see where we are going, before they strike,” failing to supress a yawn. “In one week we’ll know. Until then, your guess is as good as mine.” He stood up from the chair walking towards the door. “I’m going to make some coffee.”
- End of the Line
One week later.
There was no need, now, to do anything more. If they decided to run, their families would be harassed by the authorities who would probably use them as leverage respectively against the two friends. Kowalski had not seen his three children in a while but he was ready to greet them from a prison parlour. At least, this way, there was a chance they would one day learn the truth about why their father was locked up for copying books. Perry only had an aging mother withering away in a nursing home. She did not remember having a son anywhere.
There was maybe a remote chance – perhaps one in a million – that the judge and the jury would, despite the squashing evidence, declare the two associates not guilty. They knew exactly by heart what they would say during their hearing. And only through a miracle would that make things better. But for now, they did not have anything to say.
Sam Perry, suddenly intoxicated with the moment’s infatuation, or panic, staggered out of the room and came back the next moment with two cold beers. Kowalski had taken a seat on the mattress pushing the blanket aside and leaned against cardboard boxes. His partner in a wondrous crime slumped back onto his desk chair, popped open the bottles on the worn spot of the desk’s edge and held one toward his friend. For a moment they sipped their beers in almost solemn silence.
The URL to the database was online; the batch of emails sent out.
This was probably the single most outstanding achievement in their entire lives.
For half an hour they sat like this, drinking beer and smoking American Spirit. The same question was on both minds: What’s the title going to be? Apart from finally knowing what exactly the document contained. They knew it must be a book or an article. Whether that document had existed before remained to be determined. Then, Kowalski asked half into the room, half to his friend, “Do you think it’s possible that a virus could create its own entry to the database?”
Perry knew that one of the two had to ask at some point. The wait would otherwise be unbearable. “I don’t,” he said. He knew that it did not make any sense. He took a drag from his cigarette and watched the smoke curl into a thick cloud, slowly dissipating in the room’s stuffy atmosphere as he exhaled. “But I think that we should consider the possibility, however unlikely.”
Billions of documents from the fifteen greatest libraries humanity possessed to date were now gathered in one single place on the web. The address read: http://www.aspod.fu.org/. Before noon someone somewhere around the globe would probably figure out what had happened. But the link would be online for a long time by then. The toothpaste was out of the tube and there was no putting it back inside.
From his spot on the mattress Kowalski peered at the main screen’s lower right corner to see how long they had been sitting in silence for. Perry, still slouching on his chair, saw his comrade’s gaze and answered his unasked question, “Forty-five minutes.”
Anxiety at what was going to happen next had been ripening inside either man’s chests. Kowalski lit another cigarette. Perry went for the kitchen again, returning with two more bottles of beer. They chinked and took a deep draw. Sirens were now audibly approaching their location.
“Almost one hour,” Kowalski said surprised and relieved at once.
“Yep,” his friend said, grinning keenly. “There goes our lives.”
Tires screeched as civilian and regular police’s cars came abruptly to a halt. Car doors opened and were slammed shut, someone with authority in their voice shouted orders as men and women officers hurried into position; a few heartbeats of silence. Then the entrance door of the building was busted open. More shouting. Heavy-geared, armed agents hurriedly climbed the stairs to their destination.
Perry remembered something, and, looking at Kowalski, discovered that they were thinking the same thing.
As the ramble in the staircase ascended, someone was already knocking hard at Perry’s flat door while shouting something neither of the men inside registered. Both darted towards the screen to see if the title of the one document appeared now. At the top of the humongously vast database that had been online for the better part of an hour featured a title where there had not been one an hour before. Kowalski and Perry avidly gushed at the suddenly decipherable entry.
And they both smiled at what they witnessed.
Another much closer door was busted open.
The entry read –