We super sleuths are human and sometimes personal curiosity does get the better of us. And when that happens, we tend to deviate from the official brief given to us. Last week, it was my wretched turn to okay the daily alerts we send out to State governments. These are vague communiques – a relic from the British Raj – meant to keep the police and security agencies on their toes. At the same time, it also conveniently absolves us of the charge of intelligence failure should anything untoward happen. As the boss man repeatedly reminds us: “Send out some confusing alerts and the IB’s job is done. We can even pretend we gave a tip off if something goes wrong. That’s the clever and imaginative part of this intelligence business.”
He couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone in the IB is agreed that there is no poetry in this kind of work. Even the mandatory punchline at the end of every alert penned by the boss (“It’s better to be safe than sorry”) is as pathetic a cliché as any, although he likes us to believe it is his original. Incidentally, my own research into the origins of hackneyed phrases (to be made into an arthouse film, Arth ka Satya –The Truth of Meaning – by Anurag Kashyap starring a silent Karan Johar and a talkative coffee hamper) reveals that the copyright of the expression rightfully belongs to Irish novelist Samuel Lover (1797-1868) who also coined the one liner now lost to the English language: “When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen.”
Anyway, that apart, I had just finished the alerts on a dull Friday and put up my feet when a message flashed on my mobile: “Plans afoot to launch Desi Facebook. Request permission to investigate. Agent AB” It was one of our eager trainee operatives who was obviously excited. If that SMS made me sit up, then the one that followed made me jump out of my skin: “Entrepreneur with plan identified who is looking for an angel investor.” I immediately called up AB and asked him to set up a meeting with this enterprising guy. “I am accompanying you on this mission. We will be pretend we are interested in funding the project. So, do your homework and be prepared,” I hollered over the noisy line.
Later that evening as we headed to the Hyatt Regency for the appointment at the Polo Lounge, I was on edge. Several thoughts criss-crossed through my head leaving me in a state of mind that TS Eliot would have described as being “Distracted From Distraction By Distraction.” I had nattily dressed for the occasion like Anand Mahindra (the billionaire industrialist who recently offered to fund an honest desi Facebook in the light of the Cambridge Analytica controversy) even putting on a false moustache to look the part. AB was suitably dressed to play my clever Wharton-schooled assistant.
At the Polo Lounge we were ushered to a table where three informally dressed young men were nursing their cocktails. I ordered a medium dry nimbu paani (shaken but not stirred) and made myself comfortable. As a super sleuth should, I quickly sized up the trio seated across us. They were all in their late twenties or early thirties. The obvious leader of the group looked like a younger version of Nandan Nilekani, the non-executive Chairman of Infosys. Then there was a young chap – a Silicon Valley geek to the hilt with John Lennon glasses and a laptop. And finally, a confused man with the typical looks of someone who works with the government. “I am a consultant with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) – you know the Aadhaar people,” he muttered apologetically. He said he could not reveal his identity but offered us his fake visiting card with his fake Aadhaar number embossed on it.
“Well, let’s not waste time and get down to business,” I finally said after introducing myself as Anand Ambani and my assistant as Mukesh Mahindra. Without any further ado, we were given a briefing about how the desi Facebook idea evolved. Apparently, studies over the last two years by the trusted international consultants, Murugan- Saini, revealed that there was a huge untapped demand for a social media site that was truly Bhartiya – for Indians by Indians and of course NRIs. “What people are looking for is a trusted social media network which does not peddle personal data to vested interests. Privacy is a major concern, particularly after the Cambridge Analytica mess,” said the Nilekani lookalike. He added that the idea evolved after much thought and was something that was certain to work.
“Facebook has some 250 million users in this country and hopefully we can persuade over half of them to move over in a year’s time. That’s more than 100 million people. Wow! We could all be holidaying in St Moritz, buying villas in Tuscany and driving Lamborghini Venenos by the end of 2019…” That was the geek bringing his daydreams to the table. But he was cut short by AB who wanted to know the revenue model and the initial investment required. “Will it be a free site or will it charge a membership fee. How will money be generated? From advertising or will you also be selling data?” That sure was an intelligent query from the young feller. I made a mental note that he was sharp.
“Well,” said the Nilekani lookalike with an all-knowing smile, “I was just coming to that. Initial investment would only be a million dollars. That’s about Rs 6.5 crore – peanuts, if you ask me, when you think of the profits to be raked in. But before we come to that let me explain the unique revenue model we have developed. We will be selling data by actually not selling data,” he paused for a moment for that to sink in. “Well you may think that doesn’t make sense. But you will soon see that it does.” With that he signalled the geek to start the presentation.
It certainly was a mind-blowing concept. And it worked something like this: The site would be quite like Facebook – an online social media and networking site facilitating friends to network, join groups and expand their friend circle. Members can exchange messages, post status updates, share photos, videos and links and receive notifications of other users and their activity. They can also like posts or, crucially, dislike them.
And then came the fascinating part. The Nilekani lookalike took over at this point virtually disregarding the visuals flashing on the laptop screen. “Gentlemen, it’s all about information management and reconfiguration,” he said with measured pride. “You could call it a technological breakthrough or a game changer. What we have developed is a unique system with the help of which every post, visual, comment, like/dislike and forward put up by users and their friends on the site as well as all their commercial activity on the Net is copied real time to a central depository. From there, at the end of every 24-hour cycle, the information is transferred to a reconfiguring unit.
“It is here that algos with a sense of humour and mischief work 24/7 to completely transform the input; likes would be converted to dislikes and vice versa; comments completely altered; posts and forwards interchanged in a way that it bears no resemblance to the original. So, a left liberal becomes a right winger. A conformist a non-conformist. A Congress backer a committed BJP supporter. A link to a political story becomes one which opens to filmy gossip or even a music video. A visit to Indore transforms into a trip to the South of France or Greenland. Orders placed on the net are similarly changed – for example, shoes purchased becomes a pair of speakers or a shirt brought is identified as a chair. The possibilities are limitless. In short, you become what the algo wants you to be!”
This reconfigured input, we were told, then goes to a secured bin which would be accessible to those who pay a fee to mine whatever they want from it. “In this mad scramble for data, everyone – political parties, marketing agencies, advertisers, manufacturers, airlines, hotels, travel agents, retailers and what have you – will queue up. And they will be ready to pay the price we demand. After all, we will be giving them content supposedly generated on the site – and authenticated by our friend from UIDAI – which they can crunch and munch as much as they desire,” The Nilekani lookalike paused for a moment. “Remember, in doing all this we will not be compromising anyone’s personal information because what we give is reconfigured stuff. It is the algos who will have the last laugh and of course we guys – we will be laughing all the way to the bank! Now how’s that for an idea?” he concluded before taking a bow.
I was stumped into silence and so was AB. Finally, I hesitatingly asked the most obvious of questions: “What will the site be called? Have you zeroed in on any name?”
Several suggestions were apparently considered – Apnabook, Fasalbook, Desibook, Bharatbook, Fakebook, Phasedbook, Fekubook and Aadhaabook (After Aadhaar!). But the consensus veered around to Fizzbook since it had some “zing” to it.
“But the inputs you will be providing to the data crunchers will be totally fake. What happens when they discover they have been fooled?” AB wondered.
“Aha, that’s a good point but we have factored that in. This will obviously be a hit-and-run operation. The idea is to make your money while the going is good and escape to some tax haven in the Caribbean. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun – sea, surf, sand and sun?” It was the Nilekani lookalike at his persuasive best.
However, I was untouched by his sales pitch. Moreover, it was getting late and my head was reeling from the five nimbu paanis I had imbibed. So, I promised to give the project a thought and get back in a week’s time. “Six crore plus is a lot of money in this part of the world. We have to think about it,” I said as a parting shot.
On my way home, I toyed with the idea of alerting the government on the devious scheme that I and AB had been privy to. But on second thoughts I shelved the idea. No one would believe us and we may end up accused by the I&B Ministry of peddling fake news!
(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)