‘Shut up, Jose, we’re not dead. Be cool and hand me that USB stick. Keep your hands low. The cop can’t see us until I open the doors.’
‘What about the cameras?’
‘There’s a known bug that causes them to shut down when the LAN gets congested, to clear things for external cams and steering. There’s also a known bug that causes LAN traffic to spike when there’s a law-enforcement override because everything tries to snapshot itself for forensics. So the cameras are down inside. Give. Me. The. USB.’
Jose’s hand shook. I always kept the wireless jailbreaker and the stick separate – plausible deniability. The jailbreaker had legit uses, and wasn’t, in and of itself, illegal.
I plugged the USB in and mashed the panic-sequence. The first time I’d run the jailbreaker, I’d had to kill an hour while it cycled through different known vulnerabilities, looking for a way into my car’s network. It had been a nail-biter, because I’d started by disabling the car’s wireless – yanking the antenna out of its mount, then putting some Faraday tape over the slot – and every minute that went by was another minute I’d have to explain if the jailbreak failed. Five minutes offline might just be transient radio noise or unclipping the antenna during a car-wash; the longer it went, the fewer stories there were that could plausibly cover the facts.
But every car has a bug or two, and the new firmware left a permanent channel open for reconnection. I could restore the car to factory defaults in 30 seconds, but that would leave me operating a vehicle that was fully uninitialised, no ride history – an obvious cover-up. The plausibility mode would restore a default firmware load, but keep a carefully edited version of the logs intact. That would take three to five minutes, depending.
‘Step out of the vehicle please.’
I made sure he could see my body cam, made it prominent in the field of view for his body cam, so there’d be an obvious question later if no footage was available from my point of view. It was all about the game theory: he knew that I knew that he knew, and other people would later know, so even though I was driving while brown, there were limits on how bad it could get.
‘You too, sir.’
Jose was nervous, showed it in every move and the whites of his eyes. No problem: every second Officer Friendly wasted on him was a second more for the plausibility script to run.
‘Everything all right?’ The cop asked.
‘We’re late for class is all,’ Jose was the worst liar. It was 7:55am, first bell wasn’t until 8:30am and we were less than 10 minutes away from the gates.
‘You both go to Burbank High?’
Jose nodded. I kept my mouth shut.
‘I would prefer to discuss this with an attorney present.’ It was the cop’s turn to roll his eyes. He was young and white. I could see his tattoos peeking out of his collar and cuffs. ‘IDs, please.’
I had already transferred my driver’s licence to my shirt-pocket, so that there’d be no bag for him to peep in, no chance for him to insist that he’d seen something to give him probable cause to look further. I held it out in two fingers, and he plucked it and waved it past the reader on his belt. Jose kept his student card in a wallet bulging with everything, notes and paper money and pictures he’d printed (girls) and pictures he’d drawn (werewolves). The cop squinted at it. I could see him trying to convince himself that one or more of those fluttering bits could be a rolling paper and hence illegal tobacco paraphernalia.
He scanned Jose’s ID while Jose picked up all the things that fell out of his wallet when he removed it.
‘Do you know why I stopped you?’
‘I would prefer to answer any questions through my attorney. I got an A+ on my sophomore Civics term paper on privacy rights in the digital age.’
‘Shut up, Jose.’
The cop smirked. I could tell that he was thinking words like ‘spunky’, which I hate. Because when you’re black, female, and five-foot-nothing, you get a lot of ‘spunky’, and its ugly sister, ‘mouthy’.
The cop went back to his car for his roadside integrity checker. Like literally every other gadget in the world, it was a rectangle, a little longer and thinner than a deck of cards, but because it was cop stuff, it was ruggedised, with black and yellow rubber bumpers, because apparently being a cop makes you a klutz. I snuck a look at the chunky wind-up watch I wore, squinted through the fog of scratches on the face for the second hand. Two minutes.
Before the cop could scan the car’s plates with his IC, I stepped in front of him. ‘May I see your warrant, please?’
Spunky turned into mouthy before my very eyes. ‘Step aside please miss.’ He eschewed commas for the sake of seriousness.
‘I said I want to see your warrant.’
‘This type of search does not require a warrant, ma’am. It’s a public safety check. Please step aside.’ I side-eyed my watch again, but I’d forgotten where the minute-hand had been when I started, because I wasn’t the coolest cucumber in the crisper. My pulse thudded in my throat. He tapped the reader-plate on the car door – we still called it the ‘driver door’ because language was funny that way.
The car powered down with an audible thunk as the suspension relaxed into its neutral state, the car shaking a little. Then we heard its startup chime, and then another, flatter sound accompanied by three headlight blinks, three more, two more. It was booting off the cop’s diagnostic tool, which would then slurp in its entire filesystem and compare its fingerprint to the list of known-good fingerprints that had been signed by both the manufacturer – Uber – and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The transfer took a couple minutes, and, like generations before us, we struggled with the progress bar lull, surreptitiously checking each other out. Jose played particularly urgent eyeball hockey with me, trying to ascertain whether the car had been successfully reflashed before the cop checked. The cop, meanwhile, glanced from each of us to the display on his uniform’s wrist to the gadget in his hand. We all heard the file-transfer complete chime, then watched as the cop tapped his screen to start the integrity check. Generating a fingerprint from the copy of the car’s OS took a few seconds, while the log files would be processed by the cop cloud and sent back to Officer Friendly as a pass or fail grade. When your end-users are non-technical cops standing on a busy roadside, you need to make it easier to interpret than a home pregnancy test.
The seconds oozed by. Ding! ‘All right then.’
All right then, I’m taking you to jail? All right then, you’re free to go? I inched toward the car, and the cop twinkled a toodle-oo at us on his fingers.
‘Thank you, officer.’
Jose smelled of flop-sweat. The car booted into its factory-default config, and everything was different, from the visualiser on the windscreen to the voice with which it asked me for directions. It felt like someone else’s car, not like the sweet ride I’d bought from the Uber deadstock auction and lovingly rebuilt with junk parts and elbow grease. My own adrenaline crash hit as we pulled into traffic, the car’s signalling and lane-changes just a little less smooth than they had been a few minutes before (if you take good care of the transmission, tires and fluids, you can tweak the settings to give you a graceful glide of a ride).
‘Man, I thought we were dead.’
‘That was painfully obvious, Jose. You’ve got a lot of fine points, but your cool head is not one of them.’ My voice cracked as I finished … Some cool customer I was. I found a tube of coffee in the driver’s compartment and bit the end off it, then chewed the contents. Jose made pleading puppy eyes at me and I found one more, my last one, the emergency pre-pop-quiz reserve, and gave it to him as we pulled into the school lot. What are friends for?