Digital anamnesis and other crimes [short story]

A database is a tool for forgetting; it decays on command, faster than nightmares and more thoroughly than graves.

That's why you copied your employers' databases the day the first Chinese aid workers flew in. All talk was of reconstructing India, the unburied bodies blamed on nothing worse than thirst and hunger, the burned villages on the brutish heat of the young century's worst drought. So unrelentingly generous as they had been with their carbon, Western countries had turned misers of their own heat-parched grain. Never mind: the proud tale of every news site on this side of the country's firewalls, the disappearing monsoon had killed the crops but raised the people's courage and selfless unity.

You remember different. Relatively safe and well-fed as you were, your hands were still bloodied with other men's more direct sins, as you trained the AIs that sanitized everything in the net suddenly made pliable by martial law. Under the prurient instincts you had burned into your software agents, gone were the forum threads spiraling down into hysterical rants about secret food hoards,the gruesome pictures of young men proudly posing with corpses of barely recognizable gender and age, even phone GPS tracks and drone footage. You saw enough during the training process to keep you from unbroken sleep for the rest of your life, and you were infinitely thankful that your software handled the rest without you having to look. The irony was lost on you, even as you trained other programs — in servers unattended by distracted engineers in panic over the crimes their loved ones might be suffering or committing, some of them far from innocent themselves — to weave together the same information you had erased elsewhere, turning anonymous mobs into lists of names through the face recognition algorithms used in street advertising, each list linked to the name of a person who had been near a geotagged peak of hate and never logged in again. Lynchings linked to conspiracy forums, connected to briefly viral videos, and from there to commercial satellite pictures horrifying once given the slightest context. A giant wall of data points criscrossed by hundreds of thousands of blood-red lines; more than a human could ever put together or hold in their mind, each death crisp and unique, without breaking heart and mind.

When your program dumped its indictments online, it was the first time so many individuals had been accused of so many atrocities in so much detail. The first selfie taken by a crazed mob, each face tagged with a name and a history of casual hate turned bloody by fear. The press, built for an age where the resolution of guilt was limited by human patience and the human eye, did not know what to do with it, so they did very little.

Stealing the database had been a crime; there had been no ready-made legal category for what you had done afterwards, the part that had made everybody uneasy in ways they couldn't define, but they made one up and charged you with it as well.

You haven't had online access since then, and are unlikely to ever will. They've told you what you did was one of the top stories for a week, and then disappeared without impact at the beginning of the season's Amazon dust storms. You hope they're lying, just another facet of the casual, unrecorded torture.