The Confessions: What If All Your Secrets Became Public? A Story by Joshua Cohen

In sum, then, I would like to remind this Committee that to declare this myriad phenomenon terrorism, and to seek to assign responsibility for it to a single nation, or even to a colluding group of nations, and/or to a collaboration of intelligence services, and/or internet service providers, and/or internet corporations, would essentially be to accuse some of the most powerful and profitable entities on this planet of a crime that required their own suicide. Which is a strange, even inconceivable, notion, and yet no more strange or inconceivable than the Vice President’s decision to broach the specter of an “alien” or “extraterrestrial enemy.” Those remarks, which he has since retracted, are as perfect an embodiment as any of the current chaos.

It is my hope, here and now, to allay this chaos by realigning the terms of the debate. In order to avoid levying more wild allegations against insufficient adversaries—which will only provoke and lead us into wars of more conventional weapons—we must ask some basic questions: Can the harm that is even now being done to us be stopped? Can it be reversed? And what are we to do—if our way of life online is to be restored, in any form resembling what it once was, or in another form yet to be determined—to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again?

Thank you.

[The prepared statement of Dr. Latesco follows.]

7/4/20XX: Last Sunday at twilight, we were clamoring down in the van from the retreat—which had been so inspiring: a week of prayer and spiritual exercises, a week of disconnection from the world and reconnection to God—and the moment we were off the mountain and onto the paved road through the hills, we entered the zone of signal, the zone of service, and all our phones lit up. The van was vibrating with messages. We’d been in Eden, and then, suddenly, we weren’t anymore. As if we’d sinned. We were flooded with news of the leak.

7/5: The diocese is in an uproar, and everyone’s coming to me for advice. About how to advise the laity about dealing with this. About how, never whether, we in the clergy should go about purifying our own online profiles. I’ve become a chaplain to the chaplains. This is because I’m the junior priest, I’m the youngest, and the older priests are disposed to associate youth with technological expertise. They’re lost, they claim, in this new computerized age, and they presume, because I can’t grow a beard, that I am not. But I am. We’re all lost. We’re all lost together.

7/7: I meditate, as I must, on my own foibles: on what’s now known, or knowable, about me. And what torments me the most, I’ll admit, aren’t the embarrassing things I’ve written and remembered, but the embarrassing things I’ve written and forgotten. What I wrote to my parents about Father Emry’s bad breath and body odor, what I wrote to the Bishop about the substandard fare at the Ignatian Center, my lamenting the flagrant plagiarism of homilies (which was, unfortunately, and despite the denials, an accurate lament), my anger about being disciplined for talking during Ordination Mass (though I was just talking to a fellow seminarian who will remain nameless, telling him to quit fussing with his phone): I had no memory of most of the slights. And so I would never have known, if not for this humiliation, what I had to atone for. Going forward, I’ll never again be unable to know what I’ve done that commands my repentance. This is good news. This is the newest gospel.

7/8: This crisis most resembles, because it most perverts, the sacrament of Confession. Such unprecedented exposure is like a coerced Confession: It’s as if the practice has been imposed upon everyone, not just Catholics. Sins have been admitted to, or just disclosed, both venial and mortal, but this admission, because involuntary, is without contrition. Rather, people are feeling contrite not because they’ve committed the sins but because their commission of sins is now conspicuous. People regret not what they did but that other people have become aware of it. This is why the seal exists: The priest must keep whatever he is told in Confession sealed in utmost confidence, not, as I’d previously assumed, so as to protect the confessor’s privacy but, as I’m realizing lately, so as to enable the confessor to experience guilt about having engaged in the acts themselves. To enable him to feel this guilt in his heart, and not merely exhibit all the exterior signs of mortification and remorse as a reaction to public pressure.

7/1: Throughout our Scriptures, God has interfered, He’s meddled. Why not so now? What happened? We priests often get a version of this question, and we often get it from the children at Sunday school. I didn’t have an answer until recently. For people wary of darkness, God revealed Himself as light. For people wary of famine, God revealed Himself as an edible tree. For people wary of drought, God revealed Himself as water and flooded His Creation. Why, then, would God not reveal Himself to us in wires? In wirelessness? I believe this leak to be a miracle. I believe that for the Church to survive, this must be deemed a miracle. If transparency is but materialist revelation, can we not regard what has been revealed as an indication of our souls’ yearning for God, if not of the presence of God Himself? For what or who else is He, if not the sum total of what we have always sought to keep from one another?

Chairman Comstock: Thank you, Dr. Latesco, for such a thorough presentation. I’ll now yield time to myself.

I wanted to circle back to what you were saying before, about how it’s going to be—futile, you said, for us to pin down who’s responsible for—what did you call it? This transparency? Would you mind explaining why?

Dr. Latesco: At the risk of venturing into guesses and fictions.

Chairman Comstock: Indulge me.

Dr. Latesco: If I must, Mr. Chairman.

To begin with, then, let us concur with the current expert opinion that all of this began on what we have been referring to as the dark web—that part of the web not indexed by search engines, which traditionally has trafficked in hacked information: stolen bank information, stolen social security numbers, and so on. Then, let us propose that at some point, some unidentifiable point, caches of other files started appearing there too—files comprised of logs of search histories and browser activities. Say that all of these caches had been obtained in phishing operations, and say that all of the phishers bought and sold these caches, sometimes to each other, and sometimes directly to illegitimate, and even legitimate, online advertisers and retailers.

It was only a matter of time before this trade in the logs of sites that we visited and keywords that we searched came to the attention of more sophisticated criminals, parties acting independently or on behalf of a state or states that brazenly went about stealing and ransoming this information. They were stealing this information for blackmail. They threatened to make this information public if certain sums of cryptocurrency were not received. Simultaneously, there appear to have also been bots pursuing something similar: Not only were they targeting users so as to take their logs, and their email and social accounts, hostage, they were also intervening in the ransom chains by stealing that information from the bots that had stolen it initially. Sometimes the subbots ransomed this information back to the primary bots, sometimes they auctioned it to sub-subbots—to whomever or whichever was the highest bidder or bounty consortium, whether human or virtual, usually virtual.

Concurrent with this advance, the caches began their migration from the dark web to the light.

Imagine it like this: Imagine a black market of information that went public, becoming essentially a black stock market of information, which, with increased speculation and automated trading, crashed.

It was this crash, or, if you prefer, this transparenting—this transference of hacked data from illicit obscurity onto the publicly accessible web—that wreaked the major havoc. Vast exabytes of this compromised and compromising data were being indexed by search technology and so were affecting search results.

Each of us rushed to get whatever we could on everyone else, even while we all attempted to close our own accounts. To erase our tracks. To delete our traffic. To blank our lives. Only to realize that that was impossible.

The sheer amount of this so-called private data—the financial data stolen and stored on the dark web, in combination with the contents of users’ email and social accounts—so overwhelmed the amount of so-called public data that the public was overwhelmed, the public was corrupted.