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Initially, it just seemed to be a benign initiative to help students combat depression and anxiety issues. As the sheen started wearing away, the horrific realities began surfacing. The online portal ‘Confide’, which captivated frustrated students with its noble intentions had turned out to be an arena for manipulation and experimentation.
‘Confide’ was started on September 11th 2018, as a social media platform for the students within the college to share and discuss their grievances. The anonymous administrator of the platform went by the name ‘Liberator123’. With its alluring interface and interactive sessions with top psychologists from around the world, Confide proved to be a haven for depressed youngsters desperately seeking help. Some were struggling to cope with academic pressure, while others had personal issues to tend to like financial stresses, floundering romantic relationships or the loss of a loved one. The platform seemed to have the answer for all their problems, and justified its tagline of ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.
Vikas Shah, a 3rd-year Mechanical Engineering student, says, “I used to spend 4-5 hours on the platform every day on weekdays and 8-9 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. It was the only place, though virtual, where I found true peace. The admin would ask a lot of questions about our feelings, emotions, thoughts and perspectives, and would then proceed to offer methods to infuse more positivity into our days.” So what went wrong after that? A 2nd year Computer Science student, who prefers to remain anonymous, answers, “He started revealing his true colours. Our problems and fears were being used against us. I was going through an awful phase financially. My father had just lost his job, and my mother was working overtime to keep the household afloat. I found consolation in Confide and poured all my problems into the platform to lift the weight off my head. A few months later, I started getting emails asking me to pay a few thousand rupees to continue. ‘We will leak such contentious and controversial information if you don’t comply with our demands’, it said. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even go to anyone for help. The monetary demands only increased over time, plunging me further into financial crisis. There was only so much I could pay without my parents’ knowledge. I am now working part-time during weekends to pay the amount.” This is the story of just one of the students.
Almost all ‘Confiders’ have been subject to such blackmailing or manipulation. Some students who were grappling with falling grades found themselves spiralling downward even more in the semester following their joining the platform. More than 80% of the students who had joined the platform to battle the mental trauma associated with their strained relationship broke up with their partners in less than a month. The cybercrime cell is now hot on the mastermind’s trail, trying to track the serial manipulator down. Stealth Shiva contacted an officer from the cybercrime cell and asked about the progress that had been made.
The officer said, “The IP address of the administrator seems to be untraceable. We haven’t been able to get any insights into the way he operated.”
As the students and the police department were left scratching their heads, Stealth Shiva received a call from an unknown number, claiming to be a whistle-blower from Confide. The information provided by him is documented here: “The mastermind feels each person’s feeling stems from a combination of their memory and their perception of that memory. What causes fear in one person might not trouble another person at all. Each person has experienced life differently and is programmed to respond to his circumstances distinctly. But every person has a vulnerable spot inside them which can be exploited. If appropriately identified, the spot can be repeatedly struck to break the person and drown them in insanity. But the mastermind wants his influence to encompass the whole country. There are too many people, and as a result, too many variables involved. But some common triggers could send shivers down the spine of a majority of the populace. Some of them are financial insecurities, danger to oneself or their loved one, being convicted of a crime, etc. These common triggers could be used to bring the bulk of the population under a single umbrella. Then, through rigorous questioning and discussions, the distinct fears hidden inside each individual can be narrowed down to and then exploited.
‘Liberator’, as he calls himself, is designing complex machine learning algorithms to reach his depraved goals. The potential of AI is beyond the comprehension of most people. But, in the hands of criminal geniuses like him, the possibility becomes horrifically tangible. Ideological conquest is the most efficient method of conquest. Unfortunately, not many recognised this fact. With their sparse population, the Europeans conquered much of the world and left a permanent stamp on their colonies mostly using ideological conquests. With great strides in technology, the opportunities for this has only multiplied. The AI system was being programmed to come up with scenarios to exacerbate the plight of the participants to a point where they could never pick themselves up.
“No one can really stop him! He is everywhere but can’t be seen! He might even be listening to us speaking…” the whistle-blower said, his voice trailing off, before hanging up.
It is really frightening to think that such a person was sitting among us in the class, hanging out with us late at night and dining with us in the mess. He blends with the community seamlessly which makes him indiscernible. He seems to have recognised the fact that it is “more efficient” to live unnoticed in a crowd than to flee and go into hiding. What is the fate of the institute? What is the future of the nation? Only time will tell…
Stealth Shiva hopes that the mastermind is tracked down and his mission is stalled before the situation goes out of hand.