Cubiclenama: The BlackBerry Spies

by sidin in , ,


If you follow me on Twitter or on Facebook you've probably already received a link to the latest edition of the weekly Cubiclenama column I write for Mint.

But there is more value-add in this blog post. So don't go.

When I first started writing the column, in December 2008, the idea was to poke a little fun at the workplace. Or, to paraphrase the column's boilerplate, to look at the pleasures and perils of the workplace.

Since April the column has gone from being fortnightly to weekly, but my mandate hasn't changed. I still need to file, every Thursday even though they really like it by Wednesday night, around 850 words of somewhat amusing prose.

Humour writing is exhausting. Especially so when my product, in this case Cubiclenama, appears on a page which has pretty high standards. For instance every Thursday the same space is occupied by the wonderful, curious and endlessly informed Salil Tripathi. How do you follow a top act like that?

Which means besides poking fun at HR and IT and Consulting and Banking and BlackBerrys and things like that, I also need to make the reader think a little bit. Somehow. At least by some form of free association.

Compounding this problem further is the fact that many people read excellent workplace columnists like Lucy Kellaway, and all people read Scott Adams. Kellaway is one of those rare writers who make you laugh and think at the same time. Her column for the FT is an institution.

Adams is God.

So most weeks I start worrying about the column around lunch time on Monday.

First I start to Google for offbeat news stories about murders or electrocutions or amputations in the office space. Many of them are not usable directly or indirectly. But they sometimes point at themes. They point at some aspect of the office space or office culture that I might resonate with. The trick usually is to find something that is obscure enough to be fresh, but not so obscure that few people connect with it.

So I can't do anything with the IT or jargon used in a newsroom. Few people would be bothered. But Lotus Notes jokes are good. Bloomberg terminals can be touched upon briefly. Spam email is old news. HR is an unending fountain of delight.

Eventually I end up reading or discussing something with somebody that generates a small seed of an idea. And then I semi-think about it till Wednesday morning. At which point I think about thinking about writing about it. (I don't know about you, but often the hardest part about writing a column is the writing of the column. The brain sometimes does anything to delay the typing. That and Twitter.)

And then around noon on Thursday I panic and begin to type. (For weeks now I've been using the excellent Q10 app on the office laptop to write. If there is a lot of noise in the office or in my head, I listen to Rainy Mood on my headphones. It makes me drink a lot of water and pee a lot. But it is most soothing. Too soothing and its difficult to keep the language funny. Too frenetic and I feel rushed by the music. Boring podcasts are very good.)

This week I didn't have to Google at all. As soon as I heard about the whole BlackBerry-government imbroglio I knew I had to write about it.

Eventually I wondered what the government would do once it had access to BlackBerry messages.

Sometimes, when the idea forms perfectly, the columns write themselves.

I rarely link to columns or articles on the blog. But quite a few people seemed to have liked this one. So here it is:

Note: There is a small Cubiclenama group on Facebook. It has been dormant for a while. But I hope to ignite the existing community and attract new members by amplifying the experience with relevant and engaging content.

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The BlackBerry Spies

Originally published in Mint and on Livemint.com.

Sometime in the near future.

Deputy director Kumar of the National BlackBerry Monitoring Agency of India (NBMAI) briskly walks into his shiny new office. The floor creaks under the weight of his shoes. The maple wood must be replaced, Kumar thinks.

The offices of NBMAI are located in the netball stadium custom-built for the Commonwealth Games. After the Games, the facility was handed over to a developer for maintenance. Who converted it into a commercial centre. Now NBMAI shared a floor with a KFC and the top floor of a Big Bazaar. Thankfully, the netball field itself remained untouched, and netballers from all over India were allowed to use the facility, whenever they wanted, between 6am and 8am on all Sundays.

Kumar marches through a vast warren of cubicles. Employees peer at computer monitors.

Every piece of data exchanged between two BlackBerrys in the country is routed through NBMAI’s servers. As per government regulations, NBMAI employees are allowed to randomly pick any voice call, text message, instant message, email or MMS from this flood of communication.

The first few weeks of NBMAI were turbulent. Kumar and his superiors slowly realized that depending purely on human agents to randomly pick messages would lead to chaos.

For instance, on one evening, in the early days of the agency, Kumar discovered that 23 of the 34 monitoring experts were all looking for threats to state security, especially photos, on Deepika Padukone’s BlackBerry.

A few weeks after that the home minister suddenly visited NBMAI’s office for a surprise check. However, an employee had already read an email Kumar sent to the home secretary, from his BlackBerry, about the trip.

When the ministry team arrived they saw a banner: “NBMAI welcome the home minister. We wish you a successful surprise inspection visit.”

In yet another case of blatant misuse, a Lok Sabha member convinced one of NBMAI’s employees to tap into an arch-rival’s Berry. A debate was afoot, and the MP asked this spy among spies to rush any dodgy messages to Parliament.

Damage, however, was averted at the last minute. The MP stood up and said: “Speaker sir, I wish to bring to your notice this message sent by the honourable member last week. In it the member says, and I quote: ‘Lolz u cnt hz 3G yt. Eeeheehee reg: MNP. C u at Nth Blck @ 8.’ My question to the House is this: What does this mean for the country? In fact, what does this mean in general? Anyone?”

Since then Kumar had made several changes. First of all, a computer program was installed that could automatically check messages and flag problematic ones. Second, Kumar made it illegal to target checks on any individuals. Yet, NBMAI still faced crises on a daily basis.

Kumar settles into his office chair and switches on his computer. Instantly he notices a series of emails. One is an emergency message. The letters glow red. He summons his CTO.

“Sir,” the CTO gasps, “our terror-attack module flagged over 7,000 terror messages last night. We need to do something about this.”

“My God! 7,000 messages! We must alert Home immediately!”

“But it was a misunderstanding...”

“What do you mean?”

“Sir, there was a national conference of management consultants in Mumbai last night. It appears that their BlackBerry messages are throwing up many false positives.”

“I don’t understand...”

“First of all, in the morning there were several messages that mentioned airports, drops, flights, transfers and even one that said someone was going to ‘crash on the plane’. Our algorithm went mad.”

“Assuming a plane attack no doubt. We must fix this. Then?”

“During the day they had presentations. So we detected messages about ‘blowing up charts’, ‘exploding the process flow’, ‘boiling the ocean’, ‘deep dive’, ‘drill down’, ‘critical path’, ‘go live’ and more than one ‘helicopter view’. The system decided that some form of airborne attack was imminent at Marine Drive.”

“Understandably so. And then?”

“During the evening we got bombarded with ‘mission critical’, ‘chain reaction’, ‘collaborate’ and ‘cross platform’.”

“Oho. This must have set off our rail terror alert logic.”

“Correct. But things got completely out of hand in the evening. When the conference got over.”

“Oh God...”

“Yes...”

“The military site attack sensor...”

“Correct. We fended off all the ‘ice breaker’, ‘break out’ and ‘north bound’ alerts. But when three thousand ‘touch base’ messages flooded the system, it immediately alerted Siachen.”

Kumar shakes his head in frustration. He stands up in order to say something. When suddenly the wooden floor, built by the lowest bidder, gives way, and he disappears into the ground.

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life.