You are standing in a simulation of the North American continental weather, up to your ankles in thunderclouds. You twist a virtual control with your right hand and Alice up. Now you're tall enough to see across the Atlantic to Britain, but the curve of the earth prevents you from seeing most of Europe. You Alice down, and the clouds rush up to meet you. Under the cloud cover is Milwaukee. You can see the individual lightning strikes, and with a step you are at the site of the most recent one.
A clock appears above you to the left, and you wind it backwards, seeing the thunderstorm disappear to the south, then forwards, past the red marker of the present, the storm rolling over the city and receding, growing gradually more transparent and imprecise as you move further into the future.
Another giant joins you: Janet Pennington, of Compound Eye. She wears an Alice-blue Alice band to keep her immaculately hairsprayed blond coiffure in place, though she has stopped short of a pinafore.
"A lot of this we do with satellites," she says, "but the ground-level stuff relies largely on the distributed sensors in millions of bits of Gu. More common, of course, in heavily populated areas, which is also, happily, where there's more demand for the information."
The scene flickers, lightninglike, and switches to a busy intersection. This time the clock spins by itself, and traffic surges and recedes in the tidal movement that even widespread telepresence hasn't fully eliminated.
Now the buildings go transparent, all the public areas visible - like the police view in New York. "You don't need to tap into the buildings' own security cams for this," says Pennington. "You do for true real-time, of course, but just for navigation you can use the aggregate of the thousands of images seen by Gupets and Gu-servants on a daily basis, with the moving elements - mostly, the people - stripped out. Nice in a mall. I always used to get confused in malls, because they all have the same stores but in different places. Now you can just query the publicly exposed Compound Eye data - the mall doesn't even have to do anything - and everything else goes transparent and a big red arrow points to the store you want, and then a path shows you the quickest way to get there, taking crowds into consideration. Traffic, the same way. Road conditions, accidents, traffic density. Crime statistics, too, including time of day so you can avoid dangerous areas. None of this is new, but what is new is the grassroots, massive sousveillance approach."
"Sousveillance being?" you ask, as the two of you walk along a street bare of people and lined with partially transparent buildings.
"The opposite of surveillance - being watched from above. This is being watched from below. It keeps governments and police honest, for example, and has done increasingly ever since Rodney King."
"But don't you strip out the faces - even the people, most of the time?" You gesture to the unpopulated scene around you. The occasional warning sign rotates in the air above an intersection or alleyway; if you pay attention to them, they disgorge data, including the movement of wireframe figures without recognizable clothing or faces, who re-enact traffic accidents or street altercations.
"We strip them out for public reaccess, yes. But when the data gets to us, it's archived in a rolling window thirteen months in length. Within that time, anyone who can prove their legitimate interest - usually through a police complaint of some kind - can access the raw, unstripped images and use them as evidence in court, if they want. We have algorithms, too, to look for images of violence or even arguments, property damage from all causes, people tripping and falling, anything like that, and those go into a long-term archive indefinitely in case someone says, 'I tripped over on Fifty-sixth near Tenth in January eight years ago and now I want to sue the city for not maintaining the sidewalk.' I mean, good luck to you if you try that, but the footage will be there."
"And I believe that there's been some controversy about police and intelligence access to the database."
Janet stops and faces you. "Look, Susan, governments have to meet the same standards anyone else does for getting access to our data. They have to get some kind of official court document to show that they have a legitimate interest, and their application is recorded. Anyone who believes that data involving them may be accessed can place a request to know who is accessing it and for what purpose. That's so that they can know the charges against them and face their accusers in court. You know, Magna Carta stuff."
"And will the people accessing the data be informed that someone is being informed about that access?"
"Yes, and so ad infinitum. It's an open system, as open as it can be and still retain privacy and control. And news media may not release any data which has not been authorized for release by a court, incidentally."
"I can think of circumstances in which I'd want the news media to release data involving me despite the fact that a court didn't want me to. And many examples of that happening, in fact."
"If it's your private recording, there's nothing stopping you. Or you can contact other people who were recording in the area and get their private recording, if it exists. But once it hits our servers, we don't disgorge it without court order, end of story, because it's aggregated, automatically collected data from multiple anonymous members of the public, and that's the only responsible way to handle it."
"You're in an interesting position, Janet," you say as you both resume walking. "I mean, Compound Eye is registered as a nonprofit corporation, but you're performing kind of a public service, and some of what you do is heavily regulated by the government."
"Yes, well, the point there is that we aren't a part of the government, any government - because we're international, of course - and no government controls us. No individual controls us - there's a board - and no company controls us. Our individual users, who both provide and extract data, don't control us. Every access to our raw files is logged, and those logs are independently inspected to ensure that nobody tries to get around the system."
"How do you keep running? I mean, thirteen months of data, that's got to be some serious storage."
"Much of which is holographically and redundantly distributed around the spare storage capacity of millions of devices owned by companies, individuals, other nonprofits and even a few government agencies. We have a couple of large sponsors, Jennings-Jansen being one, and they take every opportunity to proclaim that their storage solutions are used for our "critical moments" database - all those accidents and arguments. Other corporate sponsors give system admin time, programmer time, and we have volunteers. There's a small core staff, of which I'm one, paid for out of publicly recorded donations. We do everything we can to avoid becoming another Wikipedia or Google or BopDeBoop."
"So, is it true that it's possible, with the right kind of warrant, to monitor an individual through Compound Eye?"
"No, it's not. We don't do the intelligence services' work for them. If they want to monitor someone they have their own spyders and their own network of Gu-based sensors that they can use. But it is true that we're considering a request from several probation services to allow them to monitor individuals with their consent, so that they don't have to wear trackers. That is under consideration. Not implementation, though, just consideration."
"But it's possible?"
"It's technically possible, yes."
"And you don't allow parents to monitor their kids, either."
"No, Susan, we don't. Again, if they want to do that, there are technologies for it, but we're a data aggregator primarily. It just so happens that in aggregating a lot of data we collect some information which is valuable as court evidence, and we believe it serves natural justice to release that data under strict conditions."
"But mostly, you help predict the weather and route the traffic."
Pennington smiles at you with a note of relief. "Yes, that's right."