Austin Texas - October 25 2023 15:00 MDT -

As Gabrielle strolled along the riverfront in Austin, she enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her shoulders. A part of her missed the change of seasons in Boston but she was very glad to have warmer weather after graduating from MIT. She was enjoying a walk before her big meeting with the board of directors for Faithful Cyber Security. The company was preparing to collaborate with the international Trusted Internet committee in defining standards and she would presentation her ideas at the meeting this afternoon. As a brand new Ph.D with the ink barely dry on her graduation certificate, she was thrilled to be included in the meeting and honored to be the main presenter.

However, the real reason she was walking was because Dr. Marie Wilson, the person behind the committee and the new standards was also going to be in attendance. Gabrielle had admired Dr. Wilson during her graduate studies and she looked forward to finally meeting her. She absentmindedly reached into her pocket for cigarettes, then remembered she was trying to quit smoking, again. Instead, she reached for her phone, noted the time was 3:05 and decided to start walking back to the office. She wanted to stop by the rest room before the meeting to check her makeup and make sure she didn't stink after walking out in 80 degree weather.

Her shoes clattered on the walk as she increased her pace. Looking up she could see her the Faithful Cyber Security building and increased her pace again. However, after a few seconds she slowed down, her feet were bothering her in the new shoes she wore. While they were flat, they were dressy and not as comfortable as her old running sneakers she normally wore. At least she didn't have to worry about her skirt flipping up since she wore a pantsuit, her concession to dressing nicely as her boss had asked her to do.

Skyscraper under construction, with Crane

"Gabrielle, you need to look your best for this meeting," Brian had told her. "Something besides jeans and those t-shirts. I know you can do it, you did it for your interview just do it again for this meeting." She sighed as she remembered the meeting and the t-shirt she was wearing at the time, "There 's no place like 127.0.01". After looking through her clothes she had decided to splurge and buy a pantsuit and new shoes but as she walked she remembered why she normally wore more comfortable clothes. She stumbled as her shoes caught on a crack but caught herself before she fell. As she caught herself, she resisted the urge to pick her panties out of her butt crack as practice in appearing ladylike before the meeting.

The sun continued to beat down on her and she felt a bead of sweat trickle down her forehead to her blouse. She was glad the door to her building was only a few feet away. When she opened the door she was greeted with a blast of icy air from the air conditioning. Quickly moving forward, and sighing in relief, she stopped in the lobby to wipe more sweat from her forehead. After the pause, she walked over the elevators and pushed the up button. She wanted to stop by her desk and the restroom before going to the top floor for the board meeting. There was a ding and the elevator door opened, she stepped in and pushed the button for the 24th floor where her office was located. The doors closed and she pulled out her phone to check the time. 3:17, she decided to skip the 24th floor and head to the 33rd, she did not want to be late. She pushed the 33 button as the elevator continued to go up.

The elevator stopped at the 24th floor and she sighed while waiting for the doors to close. Since it was midafternoon and most people were working at their desks, she didn't have to stop and wait at other floors for people to get on and off. Looking at her phone again, the time showed 3:19 when the doors opened and she walked out. There was an open area and a hall where she could see the receptionist for the boardroom. Looking around for the restroom there was a sign that pointed to a hall left of the elevators. When she entered the restroom, she made her way to the sinks and mirrors so she could check her makeup. She also did a quick sniff of her armpits and was relieved that she didn't seem to smell. After a moment's thought, she reached into her purse for a stick of deodorant, went ahead, and applied some anyway. She put that back, looked in the mirror, back and forth and decided her blush needed a touch up. Another reach into the purse, a quick pat and she thought she looked good. A quick look at the stalls, she decided she didn’t need to pee and left the rest room.  

Pulling out her phone again, it now showed a time of 3:24, she was glad she hadn't stopped by her desk on the way up. She walked down the long hallway to the receptionists desk and the young man sitting there.

"Hello, I'm Dr. Richardson, I'm here for the board meeting."

The man looked her over, and then back at the computer monitor on his desk. After typing something in, he read the screen, looked her, and back at the screen.

"You are on the list, enter through the doors behind me, I will buzz you in." Behind his desk there were two large wooden doors so Gabrielle went around the desk towards them. As she approached them and put her hand on the handle she heard a buzz and then a click of the lock pulling back. Taking a deep breath, she pulled on the handle and opened the door. The door opened into a large room with a large conference table in the center. The wall on the right side was windows looking out at Austin. The other side was made of a fine wood. At the front of the room there was a screen with a white board peeking out from behind it. She felt like an extra walking onto a fancy Hollywood set for a movie about big business.

Her heart had started to pound she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. In a few seconds, her heart slowed down and she felt calmer. Another deep breath, looking around the table and she saw her boss Brian sitting on the right side by an empty seat. He waved at here and pointed to the empty seat  so she approached the chair. He stood up and held it out for her while she sat down. Slightly uncomfortable at this gesture, she carefully sat down and pulled her chair in. Brian sat down again and she looked around the table. A thrill went through her when she recognized Dr. Wilson sitting at the head of the table. Her graduate thesis had covered Dr. Wilson’s trusted computing and implementation of the standard. For the last year she had been developing her ideas as a prototype and now it was time to present her findings and a plan for moving forward.

After sitting down, she had started to drum her fingers on the table in front of her. When she realized it, she moved her left hand over her right in order to stop them. While glancing around, she saw that most of the seats were filled with well-dressed men and women of the board. Even better, no one had noticed her bad habit. Swiveling her chair around, she saw another person enter through the doors, the owner of Faithful Cyber Security Jake Ashdown. He strode in to the head of the table, head high, looking over the people seated around the table. He nodded to the other board members and bowed slightly to Marie Wilson.

Car being cleaned and vacuumed

“Welcome everyone, and thank you for coming. We are honored today with the presence of Dr. Wilson, the chairperson of the Trusted Computer Standards committee. Today we will present our latest research for potential plans for implementing a unique solution for our security solutions while still meeting the standards requirements. Ms. Richardson, Senior Researcher for our Trusted Computer group, will present her research and ideas for moving forward. I am looking forward to her presentation.”

After his speech, Jake sat down and motioned at Gabrielle. “Dr.  Richardson, it is your show.”

Gabrielle stood up, cleared her throat and started to speak. Her voice caught and she coughed, cleared her throat again, feeling her fingers wanting to tap again. She decided to walk up to the front of the room and stand by the screen so she could point to her Powerpoint presentation. As she moved to the front of the room, Brian had started her display and was waiting for her to tell him when to proceed.

“Thank you everyone, I’m pleased to be able to present my research and recommendations to you. I’m Dr. Gabrielle Richardson and I’ve studied Dr. Wilson’s ideas during my graduate studies at MIT. I joined Faithful Cyber Security last year and I’ve been working with their team to develop and test my concepts for implementing Dr. Wilson’s standards.” She nodded to Brian and he clicked on the presentation on the laptop in front of him. The slide on the wall changed from the introduction to a slide of computers mixed in with fake news headlines, social media screens and other captures of events of the first cyber war.

Gabrielle paced back and forth before continuing her talk. “With the events of that last decade it is clear that our method of computer communication must change in order to ensure we have a secure platform for business, education, banking, and innovation. Dr. Wilson has successfully created a prototype of trusted computing using a combination of research computers and real world users. As expected, glitches were encountered and are now being corrected but overall the concept has proven out. The next step is to increase the size of the prototype and iron out the difficulties that can occur when more people and computers are involved.”

Gabrielle nodded to Brian who moved to the next slide. The slide showed computers connected by networks with people sitting behind them. Each computer and person had a label showing their Trusty Summary. “Based on my analysis of this initial prototype, the concept of trust is easily understood by the users and appeared to lead to healthier discussions. However, the sample set was small and did not include a wide range of personality types that are representative of a more typical internet user community. Specifically, the user population did not include the subset of users often called ‘trolls’ who purposefully work to derail discussions and incite other people. The first cyberwar brought attention to these kinds of people and there are now fewer of them interacting with the general population but they still exist in isolated communities.”

Brian clicked to display the next slide, which was a duplicate of the previous slide with the addition of a cartoon troll on one side of the computer network. There were some chuckles at the troll, and Gabrielle waited before continuing.

“While trolls in small numbers may seem harmless and ineffectual the events of 2015 through 2018 showed otherwise,” she said while nodding to Brian. “I’m sure we all remember how effective they can be, especially if automation or bots are used to amplify their message. The next slide was displayed which showed the trolls with a robot and megaphone amplifying the message on the computer network.

“What seemed somewhat harmless, amplifying advertising messages by the use of bots grew into a weapon that was used to sway citizens of various countries. Competing countries used the weapons of social media, faux journalism, advertising and other electronic methods to focus on divisions and create discontent to distract from their other actions. Enemies of a country used a very potent weapon, the Internet, to divide an enemy without endangering their people and equipment. In addition, communication could occur in enemy territory and get lost in all of the vast collection of social media, forums, and chat rooms. A loud, vocal, minority was took over discussions, shouting down voices of reason in order to shut down rational solutions or encourage irrational actions. By targeting emotions, many people were willing to support these weaponized trolls in order to support their own belief systems. Without any violent actions, a small group could cause a division and almost a civil war without endangering their own people.

“People eventually learned to recognize these tactics which started with the idea of trusting a few people, trusting circle of friends and growing their circle. However, the trolls were still active and they began to adapt and change. These new trolls chose to act in a trusted manner and eventually turn on the people who were leading and proposing rational discussions or providing solid facts. These attacks would then divide the community and break the trust, again, among that trusted circle.”

The next slide was displayed, trolls were displayed but with masks, fitting in with the regular group of users. “With research and analysis of the first cyber action in 2015, Dr. Wilson formulated the idea for trusted networks where everyone could judge who to trust.” The next slide was displayed, with a sign next to the computers and trolls showing the trust factor. The trolls were reduced in size, showing their lesser influence on the discussion. “The prototype has shown the concept can and does work, however, there are potential back doors.”

The slide with the trolls wearing masks was displayed again, with the addition of the trust sign. “A troll could stay undercover, building up trust and eventually becoming a key contributor that gradually turns others against their best interests. In the time from 2016 through 2017, people learned to notice and block the loud, obnoxious voices from discussions. While this happened, the people behind the troll accounts adjusted and used softer messages, started following leaders and appearing to agree. Then after they were a trusted part of a group, they would attack these leaders, agree with the followers and turn the message to a different focus for discussions. The intent was to divide and conquer.”

Computers, internet and troll hiding behind mask

Gabrielle walked forward, pointing to the next slide, showing a crowbar used to pry out the masks of the hidden trolls. “The current standards and plans for trusted  networks are based on voluntary rollouts with the potential for the network to have moles that will eventually use their trust for their own benefit. What I propose is including forced installation and vetting before individuals are allowed to access the trusted network. I have developed tools that can install the trusted network protocols on systems without user approval. I am also working with a team of researchers on AI that would evaluate users and provide a neutral party for setting trust for people and hardware. Only by implementing automated controls can we truly gain control over the network and prevent future cyber conflicts or outright war.”

Brian clicked to bring up the last slide, which showed the trolls being locked up by software tools and updates loaded on the computers. When Gabrielle finished speaking, there was a brief silence before Jake asked a question. “You said that the AI technology would have to be developed, how long will it take to create a working intelligence for evaluating interactions and scoring trust?”

“We have already made some progress based on analysis of the open sourced data from the initial prototype. In addition, we are gathering information from current social media platforms from a variety of sources and adding that to our model. Understand the model may never be fully finished but I feel that a viable set of tools could be ready within three years, especially if we continue to monitor and adjust based on real life exchanges.”

“Why the need to force the ratings, why not let users and companies choose how and when to implement things?” another board member asked.

“We have many real life examples of broken analysis from the first cyber engagements, people failed to recognize trolls or bots because they heard what they wanted to hear. There were also safety issues because most users didn’t install security updates in a timely manner until companies started forcing them to. Maintaining security is difficult and many people won’t bother if they don’t see an immediate benefit. Forcing the settings will bring about an organized change quickly.”

There was a pause while Gabrielle waited for any other questions. After a few seconds, Jake stood up and said “Thank you Gabrielle, your presentation certainly provides us with ample business opportunities…”

“But what about the people affected?” Dr. Wilson interrupted. She had turned to face Jake, her eyebrows furrowed while she waited for him to answer.

“Excuse me, what about what?” Jake asked in puzzlement.

“What about the people affected when you force these settings on their hardware or their profiles? Don’t they matter?” Dr. Wilson asked.

“Well, of course they matter, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything that needed fixing but it is in their best interests if we…,” Jake said

“Stop, right there, who are we to decide their best interests? Who gave us the right to impose our will on them?”

Jake stood, mouth slightly open while Dr. Wilson stood up, leaning forward and staring at him. Gabrielle had been feeling excited about support for her ideas but now her heart sank in her chest.

“We give ourselves the right because we are designing systems that will improve the internet experience,” Jake finally answered. He stood up straighter and tugged at his tie while Dr. Wilson stepped back from her chair and walked towards him. She stopped in front of him, still staring at him.

“How do we know this change will improve the internet experience? I believe it will but we don’t have proof yet that it will improve things. And it may not improve the experience for everyone.” She was standing before him, eyes blazing, hands on her hips while he stepped back.

While Dr. Wilson was upbraiding Jake, Gabrielle’s heart had started pounding and  she found herself getting angry. Not sure how she got there, she stood up, ready to yell. Just before she started, she took a deep breath and prepared to speak in a lower tone. She knew if she started yelling she would lose her support with the board.

“We have the right because people chose to not exercise it themselves,” she said, interrupting Dr. Wilson. She felt light headed but continued in spite of how she felt. “In order to protect them, like policeman or fireman, we need to force this update,” she said. A bead of sweat trickled down her back while her heart raced in her chest but she would not let go of her idea. She had seen her mother become a cult like person, addicted to the 24/7 media bursts in the ‘tweens. Her mother had become a zombie, only spitting out what she had heard from ‘news’ shows, finally becoming estranged from her children while Gabrielle’s father stood by helplessly. The world needed to change and she knew her idea was the right way to go.

“Dr. Richardson, I ask again, who gave us that right? No one can give up rights, they can choose to not exercise them, but they cannot give them away. And we are only offering them a tool, which can be used for good or evil. Myself, I only see good uses right now but I am sure that someone out there will find a way to twist this tool, and the ideas in order to create something that most other people think is bad. I do not want to add to that by forcing this idea on everyone. If it was wrong for social media, for corporations to act this way, then it is wrong for us to act this way no matter how noble our goal might seem.” Dr. Wilson had walked back around the table until she stood in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle stood with her chin stuck out, hands in fists at her side, willing herself to not rush forward. She admired Dr. Wilson and wondered at this betrayal of the concepts she thought Dr. Wilson supported.

“If a person sees another person drowning, shouldn’t they try to rescue them, even if they flail and try to hit them? Or if they see another person choking, shouldn’t they try to help them to breathe again even if they violate their right of personal space? The abuse of the internet, the attacks on people have led to suicides, to depression and mental anxiety, doesn’t that require us to act? Or must we respect another’s rights even if they die from our inaction?” Gabrielle spit out the words, never raising her voice but never flinching as she stared at her hero.

Dr. Wilson smiled slightly and said “Well done, but I would tell you the situations are not the same. Helping a person who is dying is a one-time act and it is agreed in life and death situations we must help others even if it appears to violate their other rights. This is done because we recognize that the right to life is the highest right and without that right all of the others are meaningless. But those situations do not justify forced deployment of a tool that they must use for the rest of their life in order to make it most effective. These ideas, the software and hardware modifications are only tools, if people do not want to change the tools will never be as effective.”

“I don’t agree, we must deploy these tools, people will adjust and learn to use them and appreciate how they improve their lives,” Gabrielle retorted. She thought that Dr. Wilson didn’t understand the effects and said “I have seen what happened with the wild west internet, I see the need, no, the requirement, to make sure people are safe on the internet.”

Dr. Wilson shook her head slightly and said “I understand, many people were hurt and are being hurt by the anger and hate and it needs to be reduced. It’s why I came up with my ideas and why I work with the standards group. But what you want to do is simply more of the same with some moral outrage to justify your actions.” Dr. Wilson turned back towards Jake, who was standing, listening as Dr. Wilson and Gabrielle argued. “Jake, I think there are good ideas here, but if your company backs the idea of forcing these updates on users I will oppose your certification in the committee. I will do everything I can to fight your implementation of forced updates and automated evaluation of users. People must be the ones to judge trust, not an algorithm developed by developers who can isolate themselves from the affects. We have tried that and the experiment didn’t end well.”

Jake cleared his throat, tugging at his tie again and said “Thank you Dr. Wilson, we will consider your input for our ideas. Ladies, gentlemen, if there are no other questions, I’m asking our guests to leave so the board can discuss our plan for moving forward.”

Dr. Wilson nodded at Jake and said “Thank you for inviting me, I learned a great deal.” She turned towards Gabrielle and said “Dr. Richardson, you have many good ideas that I can support, continue with your work. But consider the people, they are the reason for what we do.” She turned towards the rest of the room and said “Good day, and I look forward to hearing of your application for certification to the committee, with the recommendations I’ve made.” She nodded to the room and walked out of the door.

Cars stopped at traffic light, construction sign

Gabrielle was still standing, stunned, heart still racing at the confrontation. Jake cleared his throat again and said “Dr. Richardson, thank you for your presentation, the board will review your proposal and decide on how we want to proceed. In the meantime, I recommend that you consider how you could implement Dr. Wilson’s recommendations into your work.” He turned to the table, while Gabrielle worked to calm herself. Her boss Brian had stood up and was gently guiding her to the door. The room was silent and Gabrielle felt a flush rise up her face. In spite of her emotional turmoil, she managed to walk out with her head help up high and without stumbling. Brian walked with her as they both exited through the door.

As the door snicked shut, she felt herself start to grow limp and felt somewhat light headed. Brian looked at her, then looked worried as he pushed her towards a chair in the room. The receptionist glanced over briefly, saw that Brian was helping her then went back to watching his monitor.

When Gabrielle got to the chair she collapsed into it, all of her anger leaking out and shame filling up the spaces. She wiped away a tear as Brian sat down next to her, waiting for her to recover. She closed her eyes, willing herself to calm down, then took a deep breath, then another and brushed away another tear that had leaked out. Brian waited, an expectant look on her face as she said “I’m alright, I just didn’t expect Dr. Wilson to object to my idea.”

“I didn’t either, it makes sense to me to force updates, but she is definitely her own person on these things.”

“Well, what do I, or what do we do now? I don’t think the board is going to approve additional research on my ideas after she threatened to not certify the company. And do I still have a job here?” she asked.

Brian looked at her and said “If I have anything to say about it, yes, you will have a job here but I don’t know that you will be working on the project you had intended.”

“I suppose not, but she did like some of my work. It’s just that, damn it! She’s wrong, I know it,” she said while slamming her fist in her hand. Brian jumped back as she continued. “I’ve seen easily people can be manipulated and guided down the wrong path. I’ll just have to come up with better proof for why my idea is right.”

“Gabrielle, you might want to back off, at least for now. Let yourself build up a reputation in this area before you decide to take on Dr. Wilson.”

“You mean give up my ideals, my moral compass, just to toe the company line?” she said with scorn.

“No, take a step back and try to see a larger picture, you might be wrong. Or, Dr. Wilson might be wrong or you both might be wrong and we need to do something else to improve how we use the internet. But if you won’t listen you won’t have the opportunity to learn more.”

Gabrielle stood up, and said, “It sounds more like typical corporate politics, I thought you were better than that. I need to get back to work, I have a lot of research I need to redo.”

Brian also stood up, a sad look on his face as he said “Gabrielle, remember to listen.”

“I’ll see you at the office,” she said and walked to the elevator while he waited for the board meeting to finish. She only had to wait a moment before the elevator button dinged. There was no one else waiting to go down so she had the elevator to herself as she went down to her office floor. The office was still busy but no one stopped her as she went back to her lab. The lab was quiet so she went over to one of her stations and started reviewing her paper and research data.

In the midst of her review, deep in thought, she was startled when she heard “Gabrielle, I heard about what happened.” She looked up and saw Daniel standing there. He had just started a month ago, as a paid intern working to pay his way through college. He had been assigned to help Gabrielle out and she valued his assistance.

“Hi Daniel, did you hear that Dr. Wilson doesn’t like my idea about forced updates?”

He pulled a chair to him, turned it around backwards and then swept his leg over as he sat down. “I heard, what will this do for your project? I thought you had made a lot of progress and today’s meeting was just a status meeting, what happened?”

“Dr. Wilson had a moral objection to my idea and told the board she wouldn’t back certification of our software and hardware updates if we implemented it. Which is the kiss of death so I’m not sure what to do now.”

“I think your idea is the right one,” he said.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but it doesn’t help,”

He sat quietly while Gabrielle continued to look over the data. She couldn’t see a new way to move forward but she needed to find one. While she was looking at the data, Daniel said “I have an idea, there is an organization that might help you out.”

Photos by J.T. Harpster

Powerpoint Image by Tamara Harpster