Cyberpunk stories were meant to be warnings; exaggerated projections of disturbing social trends. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert suggests that they turned out to be a lot more prescient than fantastic.
I planned to go see Dennis Villeneuve’s new cyberpunk film Blade Runner 2049 this weekend before it’s theatre run ends. I’m hoping that it’s better-than-expected opening weekend ($159.9 million) means that it’ll stick around for a few weeks before disappearing … just in case I wind up working over the weekend. I have high hopes for this movie, given the enormous impact that the first Blade Runner had on our understanding of the just-over-the-horizon technology-saturated dark future.
Speaking of, I’m beginning to think that our nihilistic vision of a neon-on-chrome cyberpunk future wasn’t wrong so much as it was imprecisely implemented. We got a lot less dark-and-gritty noir and entirely too much dystopian-consumer-exploitation out of our future. Evidence suggests that our culture has changed to greatly devalue human life in favour of worshiping business above all other values. This is a ‘dark future’ concept that we suspected could happen, so futurists crafted wildly-exaggerated stories (like the original Blade Runner) about it to warn readers and viewers just how awful it would likely turn out. Instead of heeding the storytellers’ warnings, we seem to have taken their horror stories as a blueprint for how to build our future.
With that in mind, I think I can guess the inevitable ‘next big thing’ in highly-profitable consumer services. It’s logical, easily achievable with existing technologies, and irredeemably reprehensible … meaning that it’s almost certainly going to happen. That seems to be our way now: we figure out the most abhorrent way that a technology can be misused, build a catchy brand around the idea, and then make a mint off of the execution of the concept.
Fair warning: this narrative is going very dark, very quickly.
I got the idea this week after my father called me. He’d been targeted in a ‘Grandparent Scam’ attack, and was performing his due diligence to confirm that there wasn’t any truth behind the scammer’s claims. If you’re not familiar with this delightful bit of con artistry, here’s how it works, as summarized by the Attorney General of Michigan Bill Schuette:
‘A grandparent receives a frantic call from someone they believe to be their grandchild. The supposed grandchild sounds distressed and may be calling from a noisy location. The supposed grandchild claims to be involved in some type of trouble while traveling in … overseas, such as being arrested or in a car accident or needing emergency car repairs, and asks the grandparent to immediately wire money to post bail or pay for medical treatment or car repairs. The scammer typically asks for several thousand dollars, and may even call back again several hours or days later asking for more money. He or she may claim embarrassment about the alleged trouble and ask the grandparent to keep it a secret.’
Fortunately, my father is still as sharp as a hunting falcon. He immediately picked up on linguistic and logical fallacies in the scammer’s delivery and wasn’t having it. His call to me was strictly a matter of ticking off a box on the standard post social engineering attack checklist. Good on him.
Not everyone is so lucky. These con artists deliberately target elderly people. If the scammer can fool his mark into believing that their beloved grandchild is in serious jeopardy, they can convince the mark to wire them tens of thousands of dollars in untraceable, unrecoverable cash. A victim can file a criminal complaint, but it isn’t likely to do any good because the scammers are often based overseas, outside local law enforcement’s jurisdiction.  Thanks to Internet voice communications networks, cheap long distance, Caller ID spoofing, and other ubiquitous technology advances, these cheeky criminals can ply their wicked trade all day every day and never be brought to account.
Funny how a con artist’s and a dot-com entrepreneur’s ultimate objectives are nearly identical: convince other people to give you their money, never deliver on your seductive promises, and get away with it.
That’s where I smell a vile (but highly profitable and sustainable!) business opportunity. Think about it … The best tactic for defeating the villain in a cyberpunk story doesn’t involve the authorities. That’s because governments and law enforcement agencies in cyberpunk stories can’t or won’t act to protect the common man. If they’re roused to take action, it will only be to protect the financial interests of the corporate behemoths that keep the economy humming (and the bribes flowing).
Enter the ‘remediation insurance’ contractors. Has your grandparent been heartlessly taken advantage of by an overseas scammer? Bank can’t or won’t do anything to restore the lost dosh? Police can’t or won’t do anything to bring the criminal(s) to justice? No problem … if you’ve purchased a ‘pensioner protection’ insurance policy (and have faithfully paid your premiums).
This business model assumes that – contrary to popular belief – banks really do care when their consumers get fleeced. It’s not that they value their customers as human beings; that’s unrealistic. They do, however, value their customers’ money. A bank can’t invest its customers’ savings for massive profits if they’ve given those savings away. Therefore, banks have a natural incentive to suppress foreign scammer activity below an acceptable loss threshold.
Thinking about it logically, what’s the best way to chastise existing scammers and discourage potential future miscreants from getting involved? Answer: fly a Reaper UAV over to wherever they operate out of and incinerate the scammer and everyone around him with a barrage of Hellfire missiles!
Think it through from an economics perspective: an MQ-9 Reaper drone only costs about $17 million to buy and about $5,000/hour to operate. The drone’s command-and-control satellite time can be leased pretty cheaply since the infrastructure already exists. An AGM-114 guided missile with a blast fragmentation warhead costs about $110,000. All-told, flying a drone over to Africa to commit indiscriminate mass murder would cost around $18 million for the first strike, and around a quarter million per strike thereafter. Less, if you can base your operation close to your ‘receiver(s).’
Your business plan will go down a lot smoother when you use innocent-sounding euphemisms.
From the bank’s perspective, the cost-effectiveness point for getting into this market niche comes at the 601st grandparent.  This can be driven further down by selling seductively affordable revenge insurance. If only 10% of the families of America’s 49.2 million elderly citizens purchased a remediation policy at, say, $100 per elderly relative per month, that’s still $49,000 added to the bank’s bottom line each month. After that initial investment, that fees alone would cover one or two extraterritorial mass murder operations per fiscal year and stay in the black (so to speak).
Factor in the discounts that you can wrangle with the ordnance manufactures for guaranteed repeat business, loans that can be made to the governments of the countries you just bombed to rebuild their cities, advertising and sponsorship opportunities on the sides of your drones, residual merchandising for the program’s cute cartoon mascot, and you’re talking about a very lucrative line of business. Sure, it’s all so staggering immoral that it defies rational thought, but think of the jobs!
About that … That’s the cyberpunk horror show reality that we all live in now, like it or not. Consider: on the night of 1st October 2017, the fiend Stephen Paddock fired hundreds of bullets at a packed crowd below him at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Paddock deliberately murdered 59 innocent strangers and wounded another 546. The ‘Las Vegas Massacre’ is currently the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
A few days after that, I was reading people’s reactions to the slaughter on social media. When the threat turned to the ‘bump stocks’ that Paddock had used to increase the lethality of his legally-purchased long arms, one of the posters mentioned that a Republican congressman had introduced legislation to ban one of the tools that allowed Paddock to pseudo-convert his semiautomatic rifles into (for all practical purposes) full-automatic ones. The next poster’s reaction was swift and vehement against even considering the idea: ‘That’s a damned travesty!’ he said. ‘Banning those innocent devices would put the company that makes them out of business. Think of the two dozen workers that would lose their jobs! That’s un-American!’
Call it un-patriotic, but I’m sick of subsidizing the funeral industry — both foreign and domestic.
The damming thing is, I can’t say that the writer was technically wrong. Morally wrong, absolutely. But morals don’t seem to factor anymore. The evidence clearly shows that we’re living in the bleak, nihilistic, cyberpunk world that Ridley Scott illustrated for us back in the original Blade Runner. We may not have flying cars drifting through a perpetually dark Los Angeles urban sprawl, but we sure as hell do have a culture that staunchly values company financials over the lives of innocent people. Given that, it only makes sense that someone will take the next logical step and launch a creative new economic venture that combines our love of technology, adoration of business development, and pathological indifference towards the suffering of our fellow man into a (literally) killer brand.
On second thought, maybe I’ll wait for Blade Runner 2049 to come out on Netflix. I think I’ve had enough bleak, existential horror to last me for a good long while. If I forget that, I can simply turn on the 24-hour news machine for a fresh jolt of despair.
 We traced our scammer back to Mali.
 $18,000,000 start-up cost divided by $30,000 loss per exploited elderly victim. 18M ÷ 30k = 600. Therefore, the money saved on the 601st and subsequent avoided victims is pure, sweet profit.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.