Object 11

The Conversation Brokers

2021, Dhaka, Bangladesh

"I can't go outside without being photographed. I can't visit a shop without people downvoting me. At home I get all sorts of mail through the door, and now you're telling me I can't even have a private conversation in a restaurant? Don't we have any privacy any more? Is this what our country has come to?"

So said Dr. Rajib Ahmed, the Bangladeshi Minister of Law, in an interview in front of the High Court during his corruption trial. The previous year, the Minister had been accused of soliciting bribes from corporate executives in Dhaka in return for favourable legislation.

In itself, this was not an unusual incident in Bangladesh — or anywhere else in the world; indeed, corruption is still with us today. What was unusual was how the evidence for the case was gathered not through emails or forensic analysis or a whistleblower, but from a necklace array recording sold through a conversation broker.

By 2020, necklaces had become an essential component of wearable computers. The first models had basic microphones to pick up their users' voices and subvocalisations, but later models soon included more advanced array microphones that could record and locate conversations with multiple participants in 3D space. Social historian Andrea Galloway from the Long Now Foundation explains their unexpected effects:

"If you give people technology that lets them listen into conversations from dozens of metres away, and this technology is capable of recording all the time... well, is it any surprise that all sorts of embarrassing and confidential conversations began appearing? The first recordings were supposedly made available by ‘accident', but it wasn't long before the disruptive nature of the technology became fully apparent."

Dr. Ahmed was one of those who had been recorded. In the corner of an upscale restaurant in central Dhaka, a woman happened to notice Ahmed on his way out. She was no fan of the Minister, and at home decided to see if she could isolate his conversation from her necklace array’s buffered memory. When she discovered that she could, she uploaded her recording to an online leaks dropbox and received several thousand dollars from a conversation broker. The next day, Ahmed was hauled in for questioning. He simply hadn't imagined that a quiet, private conversation in an exclusive restaurant could possibly be at risk of being recorded.

Excited by the secrecy-busting potential of necklaces, enterprising hackers worked on improving their capabilities. By repurposing acoustic software originally designed for tracking insects, they managed to create 'virtual distributed microphone arrays' by networking individual necklaces together with highly accurate centimetre-level positioning. Just a few people scattered across a conference room floor or a crowded party could record and isolate every word uttered and identify every speaker, even if there were hundreds of people in the room.

This level of surveillance technology was a chilling scenario for those concerned about privacy, and it got worse before it got better. Galloway explains:

"Most conversations people overheard weren't valuable to them or to anyone they personally knew. But some entrepreneurs understood the corollary: that all conversations are valuable to someone. They became 'conversation brokers' and created a huge market that was constantly being supplied with new eavesdropped and streamed conversations. Unscrupulous journalists bought conversations of confidential chats and phone calls; blogs bought every word said by celebrities; corporate espionage firms bought the private conversations of important executives. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up with the brokers within days of their launch, salivating at the prospect of big payouts if they happened to record the right people."

Since it was already illegal in most countries to make unauthorised recordings of private conversations, the biggest conversation broker sites were quickly shut down. But they persisted underground — the technology was too powerful and the rewards too high. Indeed, conversation brokers saw plenty of semi-legal activity, particularly by law enforcement agencies and lawyers. A favourite tactic was to cause mistrials by catching jury members discussing trials when they shouldn't — which was practically all of them.

Many people sought to defend themselves. One strategy involved 'defensive recording', constantly streaming their own digitally-signed audio, marking it as their own and thus private so that any attempts to upload similar recordings could be matched and removed by court order. This saw some success, but didn't prevent transcripts or altered recordings from being posted. A variation was to forensically examine unauthorised recordings and determine the necklace wearer's identity. Again, this worked for a little while, until virtual repositioning software was released.

A more extreme approach was to simply stop talking out loud. Silent messaging was by definition immune to necklace arrays for at least another two decades, and so the more security-conscious began to exclusively use SMSes to discuss anything remotely private. Contemporaries describe the deeply unnerving feeling of walking into a busy conference hall or a packed restaurant and not hearing a single word spoken out loud. Thankfully, this odd practice has mostly died out now, although for a while there were scare stories about people completely losing their ability to speak as a result of 'SMS overuse'.

Rajib Ahmed, reminiscing in India 40 years after his conviction*, had this to say about the necklaces:

"I heard some say it was the death of privacy. Hah! When I was a child, they said exactly the same thing about CCTV and Google and drones. But being able to eavesdrop on anyone you want, well, it was a real leveller! I don't just mean that you could listen in on rich crorepati or politicians like myself. I mean you could listen in to your neighbours and friends and enemies and parents. Yes, it caused the most enormous fights, and yes, it made us all a lot more careful about what we say. But maybe that was a good thing. You see, everyone learned that sometimes we say things we don't mean. Sometimes it's OK to be wrong, and to take things back. It's OK to be humble."

In the years after he was released from detention, Ahmed became a fierce anti-corruption activist. However, he maintained that the greatest gift of necklace arrays and conversation brokers was not their ability to catch criminals such as himself, but a more enlightened attitude towards the hypocrisy, weakness, and faults of others. When everything is being recorded and everything is being remembered, you have to be more forgiving of others, and of yourself. You've got to be kind.

*Ultimately based on grounds unrelated to the recording, since it was inadmissible in court