Mar 31 • 14M

40 Futures: v1.05 Project 404

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40 vignettes about the future of criminal justice.
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40 Futures is a speculative fiction series about the criminal justice system.

Project 404

Scrolling on his phone, a headline caught Keith’s eye: “Public records publisher doxxed, in hiding.” He clicked the link.

The story was about Darren Williams, the founder of Red A Industries, a shady constellation of companies that operated sites like MugshotMemories and Evicted.com. The news article made him sound like someone liberating government data for the good of society. In reality, he runs an extortion racket where people’s worst moments captured in mugshots, evictions, or divorce filings are posted online in an easily searchable format. Being magnanimous, however, he would take down the posts—for a fee.

Now, however, the internet had rebelled and published his home address, phone numbers, and Social Security information. Having pissed off tens of millions of people, Williams was now on the lam, hiding from the public’s view and unavailable for comment.

Keith looked up from his phone in his muse-less, whitewashed apartment. His desk was a cluttered rainbow of post-it notes and a few pens. Even though it was a sunny day, the light in his room was flat, due to the new construction next door. His surroundings didn’t stop him, however, from relishing in the smug satisfaction that the internet was so good at providing. 

Buried in the article was a passing reference to a hacktivist group that took credit for doxxing Williams. They called themselves “Project 404”. Having spent the past decade as a web development contractor, he wondered why a group publishing people’s records would use the error for when a webpage can’t be found as their nom de guerre. 

A notification popped up on his screen, breaking him of his reverie. It was from a potential client. Work had been slow for a minute, and that wasn’t about to change. Clicking the popup carouseled his screen to his email. The message was short and automated: Thanks but no thanks and good luck.

Letting out a sigh, he put his phone down and turned to his laptop. Beyond the day’s news coverage, searching “project 404”, true to form, unearthed nothing.

He messaged a friend who’d spent time working on projects supposedly associated with Anonymous during Occupy Wall Street and the ragtag cyber militia that made life hell for Russia during the ultimately failed occupation of Ukraine.

“Hey man, you see this project 404 dox today?”

“hey
    “just looked it up” 

Ellipses pumped on the screen.

“pretty funny”

“Yeah, you think it’s just for the lulz, tho?
“Seems ironic to be project 404 and make records found”

“lol, i didn’t think about that
“i remember bardo talking about them not that long ago ... seemed legit
hold on”

An hour passed before the friend sent over a jumbled alphanumeric link, which loaded pixelated, dancing graphics, like the GeoCities sites Keith made as a kid paying homage to the Sims, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and other adolescent obsessions. In the middle of the page was a menu with names, like “The Federale,” “Ctrl/Alt/Delete,” and “The Works.” Dynamic crypto prices were next to each. A bare-bones midi track with a That-Thing-You-Do-vibe auto-played in the background. 

Unable to scroll, he clicked on “Ctrl/Alt/Delete,” unfurling an accordion box of text.

“Ctrl/Alt/Delete is what it sounds like: We scrub all the criminal record data a single state has on you, including arrest records, mugshots, and criminal filings. This is only for people with closed cases older than three years.

“***Service not available in Mississippi***”

Overwhelmed by such a brazen operation, he clicked the next box.

“The Works is Ctrl/Alt/Delete plus we erase your recently expunged data from the most popular, private mugshot websites.”

He clicked the last option. 

“The Federale: We did what Congress wouldn’t and brought expungement to federal records. The higher price is due to higher risk.”

The dynamic pricing box indicated that “The Works” cost .5 BTC, about $23,000 dollars at that moment. Satisfied, pseudo-anonymized customers left flattering reviews and five-star ratings.

Keith’s face went soft and his eyesight blurred as he felt the track-wheel roll under his index finger. His arrest for a prank-gone-wrong was regularly flagged by background checks and type-A first dates. The dates usually didn’t care once they got the story about how an attempted chicken theft went sideways back in college. Automated hiring systems, on the other hand, were a different, humorless beast that kept him in a Kafkaesque churn of rejection. Forced into contract work, he was always chasing the next job, which had been a minefield of employers avoiding the cost and dignity reserved for salaried employees. 

Keith’s vision focused in that dim room as he opened another tab. Navigating to his crypto wallet, Keith wondered about the value of a second chance.

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Links from the podcast commentary

What is expungement? (ABA)

More states consider automatic criminal record expungement. (Pew)

Automated hiring software is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable job candidates. (Verge)

Alleged owners of Mugshots.com charged in extortion scheme, face extradition to California. (ABA Journal)

Powerful people pay to scrub their reputations online, it’s hindering criminal investigations. (Rest of World)