The following is an excerpt from Ramez Naam’s novel Nexus, dramatizing the futility of government attempts to stop the spread of a new drug once the knowledge of how to make it gets on the Internet. The drug in question allows human beings to link their minds together.
The battle over distribution of the Nexus 5 files lasted just under 31 hours. It began at 2:21 p.m. EST on Sunday, April 29. An anonymous slate connected to an ASIACOM Net access satellite began uploading large compressed packages to file-sharing services around the world, posting them to bulletin boards, distributing links to prominent news sites and scientific paper exchanges worldwide. Automated censor daemons in the United States detected the new files and noted their linkage to terms on the daemons’ watch-lists and the speed with which the files were spreading.
They alerted their human operators and instituted temporary blocks of the files at the North American Electronic Shield firewall. Fifteen miles south of Baltimore, at Fort George G. Meade Army Base, National Security Agency on-call supervisors started seeing alerts from their daemons. Someone was distributing files that claimed to show how to synthesize Nexus 3 and how to convert that into Nexus 5. Daemons were instructed to disrupt transfer of the files worldwide. A supervisor flagged the event and forwarded it to the International Clearing House on Global Technological Threats.
Systems in Europe, China, Russia, Japan, India, and 80 other nations received bulletins instantly. Many of them were already aware of the outbreak and had initiated their own measures. Across two-thirds of the Internet nodes on the planet, propagation of the files halted. Supervisors congratulated themselves. Fast action and international cooperation had saved humanity from a posthuman threat once again.
At 3:38 p.m. EST, a teenager in Portland, Oregon—who’d downloaded the files before the interdiction—repackaged and reposted them to a peer-to-peer sharing site with a new name, “Badass Neuro Shit You Should Check Out from Axon and Synapse.” The name referred to the credited authors of the neural software contained in several of the files. Other users of the peer-sharing service began downloading it, distributing the files to their computers, which in turn offered it up to others.
At 4:08 p.m. EST, the files were cross-posted to a San Francisco music fanlist with the comment “Is this the same as DJ Axon? Is this really how you make Nexus?” Daemons that had found no new copies of the files in more than an hour took notice of this new distribution.
The daemons logged the new file signatures, used emergency privileges to access the internal systems of every bandwidth provider in the United States, and added the file signatures to the block list. The signatures were broadcast immediately to cooperating agencies worldwide, all of which invoked similar powers. Spread of the data was once again halted. At least 450 computers, slates, and phones around the world had downloaded the files. Supervisors paged managers, picked up the phone to confer with their peers in other countries. Emergency staff were called to the office. Other filtering and blocking priorities were lowered to make room for more CPU cycles and more human eyes on this issue.
Access to neuroscience papers and health articles mentioning the synapses or axons of neurons became spotty. Emails, texts, and online posts mentioning those terms and others began to bounce mysteriously, or disappear silently, never to reach their intended targets.
At 6:11 p.m. EST an adult film star sunning herself in Miami, in the late stages of what had been an epic weekend bender, posted that she’d always wanted to experience what her lovers felt when they fucked her and maybe this would do the trick. She posted a link to the banned files. In the next three minutes, 48,000 of her fans clicked the link, only to find their requests denied.
A few hundred continued to search, found other links to a claimed Nexus 5 download, found that absolutely none of them worked, and began to speculate as to why. Their speculations in turn began to be rejected by their Net providers or to disappear from the Net soon after posting, fueling more and more speculation.
At 9:44 p.m. EST, conspiracy sites hosted in Mexico began to post that U.S. censors were blocking a new set of terms and files on the net. Civil libertarians forwarded the posts aggressively.
By 10:30 p.m. EST, daemons and supervisors at the NSA had identified and put down more than 80 new distributions of the original files, each of them using a new name to describe the contents and changing compression or file length to change the file signatures in an attempt to confuse automated censors. Daemons were given broad discretion to filter first, ask questions later. NSA officials were cautiously optimistic. The files were spreading, but slowly. Nexus 5 had not gone viral. They could contain this.
That optimism lasted nearly nine hours. At 7:28 a.m. EST Monday morning, daemons began reporting dozens of suspected new hits at various confidence levels, then thousands of suspected new hits, each with a different file name and signature.
A previously unknown hacker named Mutat0r had taken the original package and mutated it into a plethora of new variants; adding new and irrelevant files; reordering the existing files; padding out the beginning or end with texts from the Bible, the Congressional Register, random sites on the Web; and recompressing the package using thousands of different combinations of parameters.
Each member of the new generation had a new name, sometimes nonsensical, often misspelled, with new characters inserted, characters deleted, synonyms and slang and numbers substituted for original terms, words reordered. Each had a new file signature.