This is a short piece of mostly fiction. It looks at the secret life of data and algorithms. Enjoy!
I never knew my mother. OK, no one ever really knows their mum. But I never even got to meet mine. She made it clear at the hospital that she'd smother me to death if she was ever left alone with a mewling baby. Looking back, I think I might have preferred that fate.
I never tried contacting her in my teens - even when things got really bad. I sometimes typed her name into Facebook or LinkedIn, but always chickened out before pressing enter. If she didn't want me, then I didn't need her. A well-meaning friend got me one of those DNA kits for my birthday. It sat unopened for years before I worked up the courage to throw it out. I couldn't stand the thought of any connection between me and my bio-mum.
And then she died.
I'm told the will-reading ended with "somewhat of a kerfuffle". Her ex-husbands and various step-kids were blissfully ignorant as to my existence - as I had been to theirs. But, nevertheless, her solicitor had delved into the adoption records and tracked me down. So I was now in receipt of the residuary of her estate. Comprising a gently rusting Toyota Yaris and her old mobile phone.
My face wasn't quite similar enough for the phone's biometric lock to mistake me for her. Nor were my fingerprints anywhere close to hers. I'd read somewhere that people often use memorable dates as their PIN - much to security experts' chagrin.
How I'd love to tell you that my mum kept me in her heart and used my birthday as her PIN. She didn't. So I went to one of those shonky kiosks round the back of the High-Street and paid a bloke £100 in cash to unlock it. Ten minutes, and several creative swear-words later, I was in. Now what?
Faced with a sea of apps, I didn't know where to start. As I stared at the colourful icons, a pop-up notification pushed its way to the front of the screen.
"Overdue Smear Test Appointment. Dear patient, we have repeatedly contacted you about booking a smear test. Please can you contact the surgery on the below number to make an appointment."
Despite her death occurring in an NHS hospital, apparently that data hadn't dripped its way down to her GP. Nor, judging from the next flurry of alerts, had it escaped the silo and made it to her dentist, physiotherapist, and oncologist. In a world of endless data leaks, my mum's death just wasn't viral.
As the messages began popping up from various medical facilities, I started to build up a picture of my mother's various ailments. Of course, the messages didn't contain too much personal data - but there was enough to know which health professionals she was visiting. She was not a well woman. Either that, or a hypochondriac. Although, given what killed her in the end, maybe not.
I started methodically going through the apps on her phone. Each time I opened one, I hoped that this would be the key to unlocking my mother's secrets. Who she was. What she was like. If she ever thought of me.
The first app told me how many days she had been sober (not many). It contained a diary of her repeated attempts at sobriety. She usually fell off the wagon about nine-months before my birthday. The advert at the bottom of the screen cheerfully recommended a fun brand of schnapps to try.
The second app showed me who she liked to date - anyone it seemed - and how often she matched with a mate. Her inbox was full of messages from one-night-stands berating her for not calling back. An in-app prompt asked her if she'd like to upgrade to get access to wealthier dates, rather than the low-lifes it had previously presented her with.
The third app required biometrics to unlock. Even without that, it helpfully showed me her current credit card balance in quick-view. She was up to her eyes in debt. Dragging down I also saw her last few transactions. She was a regular fan of Starbucks - but always got a different order.
On I plodded. I could see which American cop-show she was in the middle of watching. The episode sat paused, waiting for a play button that would never come. All the suggestions on the home panel were for crime dramas and police procedurals. Digging through her history didn't reveal anything more interesting than a love of old episodes of Cagney and Lacey.
To my astonishment, she was a reader! The books checked out on her phone were all of a similar theme. Detectives, private eyes, and murder mysteries. I could see the star-ratings she'd given each one (5 stars to Sue Grafton, but only two to poor old Ruth Rendell). Her reviews were full of childish misspellings and called into question both the intelligence and parentage of most authors.
There was one social networking app installed. Her username was a jumble of letters and numbers unrelated to her real name. The only messages she seemed to have sent were to various politicians around the world. They were not polite messages. It was hard to infer her political views as she seemed to be an equal opportunity troll. Whether you were a socialist Australian Senator or a Eastern European Autocrat, my mum wanted you to know what a terrible person you were. And those people's fans left many messages telling my mum how awful she was.
It was a thoroughly depressing jaunt through a miserable life. She seemed to be a mean drunk who enjoyed causing as much misery to others as she could. I wanted to hate her; I ended up feeling sorry for her. I still didn't know her. But what terrified me was the thought that I had somehow caused this. Was I responsible for how broken she had become? I couldn't stop thinking about it.
I left the phone on the kitchen table. Once in a while, a push notification would rattle through the wooden surface and I'd come running. Usually it was some creep sending her a dickpic. Or a text from a debt collector checking if she was still dead. But tonight was different. At close to midnight the screen flickered to life and there was a pop-up from an app I didn't recognise.
"Urgent. Need to talk. Can we meet tomorrow at 6am?"
I hovered over the reply button. Should I confess or play along? Did I know enough about my mum to convince someone I was her? Was it callous to inform someone about her passing in a text? But I couldn't miss this chance to meet someone who wanted to talk to my mum. Perhaps they'd help me figure out what sort of person she was. Perhaps they could convince me that she wasn't as pathetic as the evidence made out. Perhaps they could convince me that I didn't break her. I had to know.
I tapped out "Yes. Where?"
A second later the phone pinged again. "??? Usual place."
"OK," I replied pathetically. The app vanished from the screen.
I thumbed into her maps app. Nothing in there other than a few tattoo parlours which had been starred. My mum had left scathing reviews of each - and argued in the comments with the proprietors. There was no location history. No saved searches. No clues.
Then I remembered the car!
I scrambled out to the Toyota which had sat moribund on my driveway for several weeks since the recovery truck had dumped it there. The engine reluctantly coughed into life. The last fumes of petrol slovenly pumped their way through the engine - but the hybrid battery was still alive.
The infotainment system's screen was caked with finger-grease. Static filled the car as it tried vainly to find an FM station which went off the air last year. I looked at the screen and the station's jingle popped into my memory. Huh. So we had a shared love of classical music. That was something, I guess.
I prodded around on the screen - desperately conscious that her fingers had once made the same dance - until I found the GPS. There weren't any saved favourites - but the device asked if I wanted to resume "my" previous journey. I accepted its offer. After a moment of confusion as the GPS worked out where it was, it presented me with a route to an industrial estate about - damnit! - 5 hours from my home. I sprinted back inside, made a quick thermos of coffee, grabbed the phone, locked my doors, and started driving.
Well, I drove for nearly five whole minutes before pulling into the nearest petrol station.
I hopped out of the car and grabbed the nozzle. It stayed firm in its holster. I jiggled it, but it was locked. The fading LCD screen glowed a pathetic yellow as words "SEE INSIDE" drifted across it. So inside I trudged. Under the harsh fluorescent light I waited behind a queue of people buying petrol, papers, and porn mags.
"Unlock pump number 7, please?" I said.
The spotty oik behind the counter jabbed lazily at his keyboard.
"Yeah... nah..." came his Australian twang, "Your car's blacklisted mate."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Says here the car drove off several times without paying for fuel. So it's blacklisted. I can't release the pump."
My bloody mother!
"That wasn't me!" I complained pathetically.
"Yeah, right. I probably ought to call the police. Do you mind, I've got other customers to serve."
I dashed over to the next petrol station on the last few Watts of the battery. This one, thankfully, was an independent and evidently hadn't been turned-over by mummy-dearest. A scrappy piece of A4 on the door said "NO CARDS CASH ONLY" - so I let the in-store ATM fleece me for access to my own money. An extortionate 1% fee with a minimum charge of £2.50! "Thieving gits," I thought, and withdrew a couple of hundred quid to get maximum value for money.
On and on I drove. I'd scoured the car when I first got it. There wasn't so much as a solitary coin wedged in the seat, or a naff CD still left in the glove compartment. So I made do with whatever podcasts were left on her phone. The Bluetooth started streaming some "true-crime" nonsense. I listened as two bored Americans read out a painfully scripted advert for a mattress I couldn't afford and started ruminating on what I now knew about my mother.
She didn't follow up with any of her medical appointments and that's probably what killed her.
Well, that and the drinking.
Murder and death were her favourite forms of entertainment.
Oh, and leaving shitty reviews.
And sending mean messages to public figures.
In massive debt and frequently stole petrol.
Multiple partners, but never called them back.
Abandoned me when I was born.
What a mess. What a tragic life. I thought that I was glad I'd never contacted her while I was growing up. But one thought kept rattling through my skull as I drove along the endless motorway - did I do this to her? If I hadn't been born, would she have been a normal and well adjusted member of society?
A few hours from my destination, and having had my fill of murder-chat, I pulled into a layby and had the most uncomfortable nap of my life. I didn't dream, I was too wound up. I wanted to believe all the insights I'd found were somehow wrong. That, hope against hope, my mother had at least one redeemable quality. That the person I was going to meet had some scrap of data to help ease my conscience.
The next morning, after a tart's bath in a supermarket toilet and a disgusting meal-deal, I crawled into the industrial estate. Trucks lined the road - and I hoped their drivers were sleeping better than I had. I dutifully followed the sat-nav between rows of lock-ups, garages, and wholesalers.
"You. Have. Reached. Your. Destination."
Thanks GPS. Now what? Do I wait here? Do I get out? Have you led me into the arms of one of her lovers - perhaps out for revenge? I sat and seethed. All those dribs and drabs of data - but there wasn't a single selfie on her phone. Not one video of her. No voice-notes and no voice-mail greeting. I wasn't seeing her through a glass darkly, I was barely even seeing her shadow.
A gunshot rang out! I yelped! No! It was just an eager tapping on the passenger window. My heart felt like it was going to explode. I scrambled out of the car, and faced...
Who? Who was that knocking on the car window?
From the top of the nearby warehouse, the Observer couldn't hear a damned thing. They fiddled with their laptop and pinged a laser onto the car windscreen. In the background noise they could just about make out the driver of the car say "really sorry ... didn't ... over the phone ... she died."
The other figure - the taller one - slumped against the car bonnet, blocking the laser-mic.
The Observer squinted at the screen and flicked over to the CCTV. Whoever they were had angled themselves away from the camera. No amount of zoom-and-enhance would get around that. But the CCTV's history might show something. Yes, there it was. They'd arrived in a car a couple of hours earlier. Looking up the number plate in the database showed that it was an Uber. The driver had a reasonable rating and had been working with them for a few years - so was probably not involved. The Observer made a note to investigate them later because, well, you never know.
Annoyingly, the passenger's Uber account had only been registered yesterday. The email used to sign-up was disposable, as was the phone number. Payment had been made on a foreign-registered credit card. That was going to take some time to trace. A delaying tactic, no more.
The slumped figure stood up and started walking around the car. This caused the laptop's fans to whine in protest as the automated gait analysis software sprang to life. The target had only taken a few steps, but looked like they were limping on the left leg. No immediate matches popped up - but it was a useful piece of evidence to file away. As they walked, the Observer ran a thermal imaging scan over them. They still weren't close enough to get a detailed look, but there was a cold patch on their finger indicative of a wedding band. The infrared camera stayed trained on both suspects, slurping up data.
The driver of the car was easier to backtrace. A supermarket car park had pinged their number plate earlier that morning. Their loyalty card had been used a few minutes later which confirmed their identity - easy! The sandwich they'd bought was Halal. Might be a coincidence, might not. Noted on file anyway. Just in case.
In the distance, the figures embraced. They broke off and both got into the car. There was no time to affix a tracker on the vehicle, but the ANPR system could follow them wherever they went. The car was a hybrid - another interesting data point. As the Toyota turned out of the industrial estate, the Observer reviewed what was now known.
From the brief glimpse of both suspects, the Observer had their height, weight, and probably ethnicity.
Dietary choices indicated religious sympathies.
Car choice was correlated with political affiliation.
The car had been involved in a number of petty crimes which raised the risk score of the driver.
The driver's unwillingness to talk on the phone showed they knew they were under surveillance.
Additionally, the driver had recently withdrawn an unusually large amount of cash.
Personal history showed they had bounced around foster-families and care homes, which is a strong predictor of anti-social behaviour in later life.
Avoidance of CCTV suggested professional counter-espionage training.
Body temperature was normal on both of them - but both had elevated heart-rates. A classic sign of guilt.
Driving style was erratic, highly suggestive of panic.
Neither party looked at the rooftops for signs of observation; they were acting innocently. Almost too innocently.
It all painted a fairly obvious picture.
The Observer updated the file and marked it urgent. The data flew up to Control where the algorithms would assess the incontrovertible evidence. That would set in motion a series of events which would probably result in "urgent action" being taken.
Realistically, what choice was there? The data spoke for itself.