Probe, Check, Scope
I was in my office at the back of the house and had just finished doing my emails when the doorbell rang. It was half-past three in the afternoon, the usual time for children returning home from school to ring the bell and run away, so I ignored it. Then it rang again.
A man with a moustache and a clipboard was at the door.
‘We have reason to believe you have disclosed information to a third party which may compromise the security of the country and the safety of your fellow citizens,’ the man said.
‘Eh?’ I replied.
‘You may have done this unwittingly in which case a warning will be issued but no further action taken against you. If you have deliberately disclosed the information we reserve the right to prosecute.’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Go back a couple of sentences. Who, in the first place, are “we”?’
‘We are PROBE,’ he said. ‘We are one of the world’s leading security support and maintenance providers and we have been appointed by the government to support and maintain the security of the country.’
‘PROBE? I said. ‘Is that an acronym?’
‘I am not at liberty to disclose that information unless you are an accredited and approved stakeholder,’ the man said.
‘I am a citizen,’ I said. ‘Does that count?’
He consulted a sheet of paper on his clipboard. ‘May I see your passport?’ he asked.
‘What is this?’ I said. ‘I am at home minding my own business and you turn up and ask me for identification. Why would I show you, a total stranger, my passport?’
He showed me a PROBE identity badge on which was his photograph and a name that might also have been his.
‘Now show me your passport,’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘In fact I refuse to prolong this ludicrous, not to say sinister, exchange. Goodbye.’
‘Suspect refused to co-operate,’ he said, making a mark on his paper.
I’d had enough. I shut the door firmly in his face.
When I returned to my office I discovered that the window had been forced open; also that my computer hard-drive had been wiped.
I suppose I was asking for it.
The doorbell rang. A man with a moustache and a clipboard was standing on the step.
‘Good afternoon,’ he said. ‘I represent CHECK, one of the world’s leading security support and maintenance providers. We have been appointed by the government to support and maintain the security of the country, and today we are in your locality carrying out some research intended to help improve the delivery of our products. Would you mind answering a few questions?’
‘Shoot,’ I said.
‘Our policy is always to ask the questions first,’ he said, turning a sheet on his clipboard. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Fire away,’ I said.
He gave me a look. ‘With regard to intelligence gathering,’ he said, ‘including monitoring of emails, telephone calls and other modes of communication, we are interested in responses to the proposition “If you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear”. Would you say, in general terms, that you have done nothing wrong?’
‘Do you mean legally or morally?’
‘Let’s not split hairs,’ he said. ‘What about the following? Ever dropped litter? Smoked marijuana? Arson? Theft? Exceeded the speed limit? Manslaughter? Read or watched pornography? Rape, murder, high treason, blasphemy? Done any of those?’
‘What line of questioning is that?’ I said. ‘They’re completely arbitrary categories. And what do you mean by blasphemy anyway? I’m not even religious.’
He ticked a box on his sheet.
‘Some of them aren’t even criminal offences,’ I continued. ‘Watching porn for example.’
‘One thing leads to another,’ he said. ‘No smoke without fire, in our experience.’ He ticked another couple of boxes.
‘What did you do just then?’ I asked.
‘We call it profiling,’ he said. ‘It’s a technical term. Now, on a scale of one to five, if one is strongly disagree and five is strongly agree, would you say that you have nothing to fear?’
‘Absolutely not!’ I said. ‘I mean, I strongly disagree, especially on the evidence of how you are conducting this survey.’
‘I’ll put you down as a one,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, it’s just numbers – at this stage. You have nothing to fear but fear itself.’
‘That’s reassuring,’ I said, intending sarcasm.
‘You can rely on us,’ he said.
One day, remembering with fondness a holiday spent in the Highlands, I opened the folder on my computer which contained the photographs of that happy week. I was scrolling through them when I came across three blank spaces where three images ought to have been. I checked the numerical sequence and there was no mistaking that those photographs were missing. I could recall from their position in the sequence the scenes they depicted, and I knew I had not deleted them. When I accessed my remote data archive, I found them gone from it as well.
I contacted my internet provider for an explanation. The automated reply I received by email was completely irrelevant. I finally made telephone contact with somebody at the company, whose answers were confused, possibly even evasive. She said she would get someone to call me back.
Ten minutes later the phone rang.
‘Hi,’ said a man’s voice. ‘My name is Bob. How can I help you?’
‘You tell me, Bob,’ I said.
‘I represent SCOPE,’ Bob said, ‘one of the world’s leading security support and maintenance providers. I understand you have a data erosion issue.’
‘Data which you recorded and stored with your internet provider has eroded.’
‘Not eroded,’ I said. ‘Photographs have been erased. What does this have to do with you, Bob, whoever you are?’
‘Your issue has been reported to SCOPE as the eroded data may, could, will or did present a potential breach of national security,’ Bob said.
‘How could that possibly be?’ I demanded. ‘These were just holiday snaps.’
‘I am reviewing the data now,’ Bob said. A few seconds later he spoke again. ‘The GPS location, date and time references confirm that a security breach occurred when the data was recorded. You are denied further access.’
‘A beach, a mountain and a wee white cottage,’ I said. ‘Which one of those is a threat to national security?’
‘I am not at liberty to disclose further information unless you are an accredited and approved stakeholder,’ Bob said. ‘Goodbye.’
The line went dead. I realised I had been mistaken. Bob was not a man, but an automated message. And my data had indeed eroded.
James Robertson is a poet and novelist. His novels include The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still and The Professor of Truth. In his latest project, 365, he is posting a 365-word story every day of 2014 at www.five-dials.com