Surfaces - a short story for a thesis on border security

The dilemma of how to reconcile the needs of security with the desire for humanity is the defining question of the twenty-first century.

This sentence opens my thesis, "Loss Prevention: Customer Service as Border Security," written for the strategic foresight and innovation program that I just graduated. I decided to write about the future of border security after my friend and fellow writers' workshop member Peter Watts was beaten, maced, and arrested at the Port Huron border crossing. I remember the decision very clearly. Peter was facing a prison sentence, and I was on the phone with David Nickle. I was in tears. But as we spoke, something overwhelmed my despair. Something hard and sharp enough to cut a path down the centre of my life. An idea.

I'm a science fiction writer. My debut novel, vN, will be available next summer. For the past five years, I've belonged to the same writers' workshop that Cory once belonged to. Like Peter (and David), my SFI classmate Karl Schroeder is also a member of the workshop. He's the one who suggested I apply for the program and take up foresight consulting. Since then, I've been paid to write about the future of Canadian media and the future of gaming, among other things. I also joined the Bordertown design group, and attended the Detroit Design Festival with my first art installation. In January I will be visiting Intel's Interaction and Experience Research Lab to do a "futurecasting" session with Brian David Johnson of The Tomorrow Project, on the subject of my thesis. It includes a science fiction story about the future of humane border security.

I believe in the power of stories to help us understand who we are, what we want, and how to get it. Stories are among humanity's oldest tools for sharing information. Myths, parables, fairy tales, and fables all have a huge place in global cultures. Sometimes, our stories about the future take on the same cultural role as our myths about the past. We can use this same technique in a limited context to imagine a very specific future. This is called a foresight scenario.

As I wrote in my thesis, "[foresight scenarios] offer a vision of what might be, so that we can decide whether one course of action is better than another. For anyone who watches A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life each December, this is not such an unusual idea. Sometimes when confronting the implications of a new idea or policy, we feel like Ebenezer Scrooge crouched over his own grave asking whether these visions are the shades of what will be or what can be, and wondering how to avoid them. Foresight scenarios are a method of examining those implications, like Scrooge and his ghosts, from the inside."

Below is the scenario I wrote for my thesis. It's not perfect, and it doesn't present a perfect future. My secondary adviser Ken Hudson, who designed a virtual training environment for the Canada Border Services Agency, consistently reminded me that I could only choose where to place my surveillance, not if it was right to do so. My father has worked with surveillance technology for the past twenty years, so I was familiar with the market. I could choose between an ubiquitous but invisible style of security (the Facebook model), or an invasive and ostentatious style (the TSA model). This choice led me to thinking about the border as a service design problem. What design interventions could I imagine that would improve the experience of crossing international borders for both travelers and border security personnel? And would those interventions actually prevent things like what happened to Peter from happening again?

I think it's possible. I want to believe. But what I know for certain is that we'll never get there without imagining it, first.


By Madeleine Ashby

Brandy Schumacher occasionally suspected that she had some kind of split personality disorder. At home, she was quiet and kept to herself. Her best days were spent cuddling her fluffy silverpoint Siamese, Aloysius, in her lap while wearing pyjamas and reading vampire books. What litter she generated usually came in the form of food delivery containers. Her neighbours somehow managed to sneak in their greetings and gossip during the rare moments she visited the balcony to water her rosemary tree. (They were old people who loved both the sun and her quiet habits. Somehow, they always managed to keep her talking far longer than she intended to.)

But after donning her uniform, Brandy transformed into another person. She made eye contact. She asked almost uncomfortably personal questions, and then followed them up with even more. And she did it all with a smile – a smile that was so big and so bright that even the boy she dated for a whole month senior year of high school didn’t recognize her when she processed his passport last Christmas. The room made it easier, of course: Pearson had switched out those horrid fluorescent tubes lighting the customs room for more flattering “natural” LEDs as part of a civic re-branding campaign directed at international travellers. (This really just meant that they glowed beige, not white, but Brandy wasn’t complaining. The people waiting in line looked less like the walking dead, and so did she.)

This all came with being a BSO.

The communications training had gone a long way to preparing her for the transformation. Part of the qualifying exam asked multiple-choice questions about customer service. For the most part, a teenager working a retail job could answer them, but Brandy remembered a tough one about dealing with someone who had a nosebleed. The right answer was C: Offer the traveller a tissue before asking about the nosebleed. (Answer A was the reverse – questions, then tissue – and apparently almost everyone in her class got it wrong.)

But after the exam came the training, and the training was hard. Brandy’s French wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the best, either. She watched a lot of French films to keep thinking in the language. She also made sure to practise with the virtual role-play a number of times the day before taking her benchmark quizzes. But the hardest part of the training was learning to put her emotional uniform on with her real one. Like most of the students, she did all right at first – the uniform went a long way to putting you “in character” – but she tended to fall apart once any real problems came up. She panicked too soon in conflict situations, and was quick to pass even basic problems like surly travellers on to superiors. It wasn’t the sort of thing an officer of any authority should or would do.

A consultant from Disney explained it as a confidence problem. She was the senior VP in charge of strategic communications, “cast member” division, which meant she designed the personality each non-costumed employee in the parks was meant to bring to life. (The people in costume, the Cinderellas and Mickeys and so on, apparently went through even more rigorous training in what the consultant affectionately dubbed the “Dao of Disney.” It involved going away to some kind of camp for two weeks.) The personalities were different for each park based on cultural expectations, with subtle gradations based on the age and gender of the park visitor the cast member was speaking to. Part of the cast member training involved taking them on a field trip to the animatronic labs down in the basement below the parks, where they saw how each artificial intelligence was calibrated. Cast members were encouraged to emulate this calibration – to think of their hand gestures and tones of voice and word choices as something they could adjust the way they might adjust volume or brightness on their phones.

Granted, the situation in the Disney parks was very different from that at the customs hub at the airport. But, the consultant stressed, there was still the potential for a lot of criminal behaviour in the parks that cast members had to watch out for while still maintaining a high standard of service – people kept trying to have sex in the Haunted Mansion, when they weren’t busy leaving human cremains there; the Pocahontas canoe ride was a regular site of aboriginal activist art; the parks themselves were common hunting grounds for pedophiles and crazed ex-spouses. Hearing these things about a theme park, Brandy wondered how she was ever going to manage possible drug traffickers or illegals or whatever other trouble the airport decided to test her with.

Her test came in the form of Jorge Rivera, exotic animal smuggler.

Rivera was a short-ish, balding man with outdated glasses and a preference for counterfeit Lacoste shirts. He never ventured into the rainforest himself to steal rare butterflies or jaguar kittens or spider monkeys. He also didn’t buy the animals himself, although he knew the gangsters and other lowlifes who did. The money he made smuggling animals was less than he would have smuggling drugs, but the risk was lower and the penalties smaller.

What made Rivera great at his job was his heart condition. It required beta-blockers, the side effects of which were so well documented that they were prescribed off-label for soldiers with PTSD. The man could be carrying a dummy external hard drive full of larval tarantulas, and he’d walk up to customs snapping his gum and smiling. What’s more, his medical ID bracelet usually gave him a free pass from security guards and police officers – it broadcast his condition to law enforcement layARs, and nobody wanted to bother the guy with the jumpy heart, much less use a stun gun on him.

Of course, Brandy had no idea about most of this.

What twigged Brandy to Rivera’s dishonesty wasn’t the series of answers on his customs form, or the big custom walking stick he carried, or even the fact that a man with a serious heart condition claimed to be visiting Canada for a hiking trip in Algonquin Park. (In retrospect, she realized this should have clued her in.) It was how her cultivated personality brushed up against his and caused no change to his affect.

Affect detection was another aspect to the training. In addition to the consultant from Disney, her cohort of recruits participated in seminars with an improvisational comedy troupe from Toronto, and a former relationship counsellor from Seattle who specialized in affect detection and had helped design an algorithm-based smartphone app that helped autistic children understand what the people around them were feeling. Affect, the counsellor explained, was more than the “micro-expressions” the Americans trained their airport personnel to look for. It included posture, gait, tone of voice, speed of response, and other things that Brandy had once taken for granted. Affect was a natural part of human communication that most all humans noticed on a subconscious level, the counsellor said. You were born with it. To prove this point, he had shown them video of a baby who started to cry when its attempts to elicit a change in facial expression from an adult failed. The cries only became more shrill and demanding when the adult continued not responding.

“That’s why you have to show some emotion,” he explained. “If you’re too stone-faced, the people in front of you will start to panic because they aren’t receiving any indication that they’re doing the right thing. So on the one hand, you can’t interrupt your travellers with too many questions – otherwise, you’ll never find out anything. But on the other hand, you have to offer cues that you’re still listening. Pretend you’re at a family or dinner, or something – all the same nodding and smiling, only this time you’re actually listening.”

Everyone in the room laughed, but Brandy worried: she’d never really been good at that kind of social interaction. She had decided to enter the CBSA because she wanted a relatively secure government job, and because she grew up in a family of firearms owners and therefore easily merited the payscale that came with carrying a weapon on the job. She hadn’t really considered the social intelligence requirements. She’d always thought that the agency would soon splash out on the same intent-detection devices they had at Reagan and Heathrow.

Brandy caught herself wishing for one of those fancy intent detectors while interviewing Jorge Rivera. As it was, her layARs only displayed his heart condition as a pulsing red glow on his left side, and a vaguely yellow aura surrounding his head in a cautionary halo. The rest of the herd glowed green. Brandy hadn’t seen a Red come through in months, and even he was part of a secret agency audit. He and a very silent, stoic child tried to enter the country through the family line, but the custody agreement he showed the BSO had a malfunctioning QR code. He got all huffy with the BSO, but upon separating father and child for interviews, the BSO recognized a kidnapping in progress. The agency usually did a kidnap simulation before the summer started. With so many kids off from school, it was easier to sneak them into other countries. A few weeks later, Brandy saw the kid in a commercial for a local butter chicken chain.

“Can you tell me why you’re visiting Canada today?” she asked, after ascertaining that he didn’t need a Portuguese translator. She blinked three times to obtain additional information on why Rivera was yellow. A tiny countdown appeared in the upper right corner of her glasses.

Rivera seemed not to notice the lights dancing across the surface of her glasses. His smile, the one he had greeted her with, remained in place. “I’m going hiking in Algonquin Park.”

She had to play for time. “Oh? For how long?”

“The whole week.” He lifted what looked like some sort of wizard’s staff. It was a gnarled old piece of wood about six feet long with a bunch of feathers tied to its head with a beaded leather thong. “Got my special walking stick and everything.”

Brandy examined Rivera. He wore a salmon pink polo shirt and pleated khaki trousers, with thick socks under the suede straps of his cork-bottomed sandals. The clothes didn’t make much sense, for a Yellow. Most of them came up to the kiosk with a lot of attitude, and that showed in their clothes, too: big logos, big jewellery, big sunglasses, even indoors. Rivera looked so…tame. Like the Brazilian version of her dad.

“Where are your hiking boots?” she asked.

He smiled affably and nodded in the direction of baggage claim. “I checked them. They’re too heavy to wear for so long, on the plane.”

“What about your camping equipment?”

Dimples deepened in his face. “My friends are bringing it.”

“Did you bring enough layers?”

He seemed absurdly delighted not to know what she meant. “Excuse me?”

“Layers. Your clothes. In Canada, we wear a lot of layers, to deal with the climate.”

He grinned. “Even in the summer?”

“Even in the summer. There are black flies.”

If possible, his grin grew even wider. “I’m not afraid of bugs. We’ve got some big ones, where I’m from.”

Rivera’s record came up, finally. He had no priors, but occasionally got surly about the weight of his luggage and once, ten years ago, had tried bribing someone at check-in not to notice the weight. (It was for this reason that he’d been Yellowed – the system took attempted bribery very seriously.) Almost every trip, he packed too heavy, but refused to check his baggage. He made a fuss, and eventually got his way. His home airport and preferred airline had gotten used to this, but his destinations in America, Canada, England, and Italy made no complaints. He checked the same number and types of bags on his return trips, but they always weighed in at the proper number and he never had to pay for the extra kilograms.

Why is his luggage so light on the way back? Brandy wondered. That almost never happens.

Brandy quickly assessed her options. His passport would tell her nothing. They were unreliable, these days. Worse yet, some would actually crash your system. Ditto the customs form – he had filled it out using the touchscreen on the seat-back in front of him, and it had popped up the moment she waved the passport across her desk. At best, she could use it to see if he was lying. She took another glance at his smile. He was too good – something was wrong, but she didn’t know what and she had nothing to hold him on. If she flagged him for no reason, it would go on her record and she’d have to explain herself. BSOs only got one mulligan a month, and she’d used hers on a woman who “couldn’t remember” how much she’d spent in the duty-free shop. She considered going for help.

For some reason, a vision Aloysius’ unique brand of feline disappointment arose in her mind. Oh, come on, Schumacher. It’s in the national anthem, for goodness’ sake. “We stand on guard for thee.” Try living up to it, for a change.

“Is there something wrong?” Rivera asked.

“No,” Brandy said automatically, but she was already matching Rivera’s fingerprints with the smart walls installed at regular intervals along the line. Ostensibly, they acted as advertisements for attractions in the Toronto area (that disgusting casino on the lakeshore featured prominently). They gave travellers something else to look at besides how long the line was and how slowly it was moving.

They also took fingerprints and added them to passenger profiles.

“Which hotel are you staying at?”

“The SoHo Met. Downtown.”

Then why are your fingers all over a map of Markham? Why are you so interested in the suburbs of Chinatown North?

Maybe that’s where his friends lived. Maybe he was meeting them later, and wanted to know how long the trip would be. Or maybe he was just lying. Brandy took another look at his grin. He was completely at ease, seemingly happy just to be there, unconcerned that she’d delayed him this long. No restlessness, no shifting from foot to foot, no huffing his breath or checking his phone. He was, in short, exactly what the VP of strategic communications, cast member division, wanted in a theme park employee. Completely unnatural.

Vampire, Brandy thought. Flag him.

“Let me just hand this to you, and you can go right on ahead.” Brandy gave him a coded receipt to show the secondary inspector after picking up his baggage. While watching him leave, she deliberately avoided signalling her readiness to process another traveller. Instead, she tapped her earpiece.

“Did you get all that?” she asked her CO, Charles.

“Yeah,” he said. “Why’d you hold him up like that?”

“I’ve got a funny feeling. He was slimy. And his plans didn’t match up with his form. I checked his map searches.”

“He was slimy? That’s it? Maybe he just thought you were cute.”

Brandy rolled her eyes. If Charles weren’t gay, she’d have been seriously angry. In this case, his teasing was just an annoyance, and not something to really worry over. “Careful, boss. That’s harassment, and five minutes from now it’ll be archived on the server.”

“Noted. You flag him?”


“All right then. I’ll go see what he’s got in his luggage.”

What Rivera had in his luggage required the use of two blastproof boxes: one for the spiders, and one for the snakes. The clouded leopard kitten they wrapped in a thick blanket, and placed in a cargo trailer with a mesh enclosure on top. It (they were nervous about checking its sex and waking it up) was still wearing a tiny gas mask. Both Charles and Brandy guessed it had come all the way from Thailand. It might have been asleep for as long as three days. An emergency vet was on her way from Willowdale with some food and an IV drip. They had called the Toronto Wildlife Centre for help, and apparently they knew someone at Pinewood Studios who knew a venomous creature wrangler, because five minutes after opening Rivera’s luggage and figuring out what he was hiding in his “walking stick,” Charles got a text reading “DONT SHAKE THE BAGS!!1!” followed by “U HAVE A FREEZER?”

Now they had Rivera on ice, waiting for RCMP to take him so he could tell them who the buyers for his goods were. They were likely gangsters, or people pretending to be gangsters, or traditional medicine practitioners with links to other suppliers in the endangered species market.

Brandy ended up telling her neighbours this as she watered her rosemary tree and harvested more catnip for Aloysius. (She had already told him the story, with special emphasis on the rare jungle cat and how he was still more adorable.) As she left the balcony, she felt a little sad to end the conversation. In the elevator, she realized that this was probably the first time she’d ever felt that way about talking to her neighbours.

The system works, she realized.


Madeline Ashby wrote her first thesis on Japanese animation and cyborg theory. You can also find her on Twitter.


  1. The dilemma of how to reconcile the needs of security with the desire for humanity is the defining question of the twenty-first century.

    Um, I’d say that bigger questions are how we continue to exist in the face of rampant climate change and death-cage capitalism.

    1. I thought about this during Thanksgiving dinner, and what occurred to me is that climate change is a security issue, too. Or rather, it creates security issues due to resource scarcity. And we need to reconcile those needs with the desire for humanity, too.

  2. The terrifying implication of this story is that invisible and ubiquitous surveillance is somehow less invasive than overt demonstrations backed by the threat of force. 

    The border isn’t a service design problem, it’s a bloatware problem. 

    1. Well, the nightmare version of this story is The Trial by Kafka, isn’t it… one should probably be aware of both stories when designing a system like this.

      1. And this.  It’s true that border personnel are now asked to do more than they ever have before, and the agencies involved are larger than ever before. So are the budgets. So what you see when you travel is actually the result of years of strategy bent on increasing the scope, not decreasing (or editing) it.

    1. Thank you for writing this! My goodness, now it is clear I have been holding back for far too long believing I couldn’t write. You have shown that anyone can write and they don’t require talent to do so! There is hope for all of us!

  3. mmm thx for brain-noms

    “For some reason, a vision Aloysius’ unique brand of feline disappointment…”

    Do you have any info links for aspiring foresight/design/speculative fiction writers?

    1. Ooh, nice catch. Thank you.

      As for links, what I would suggest is looking at the work of Rafael Popper, Scott Smith, Peter Schrwarz, and going to to read some reports. The reports will give you the best sense of what these documents end up looking like. And for a stupendously cool example, there’s always the “Future of Science 2021″ in the navbar to your right, from the Institute for the Future. :)

  4. Great story, but more to the point, further evidence that the OCAD foresight program is kicking some serious butt. Bringing together SF writers like you, Watts, Nickle and Schroeder in an applied futures context is starting to produce some magic.  Quite a special place, from the looks of it. Keep it up!

    1. Thank you! The program does kick serious butt. I’ve seen some of the other thesis proposals heard about the research, and it’s all really compelling stuff. Media, accessibility, sustainability, it’s great work. I know some of the other students are working on publishing their stuff, so hopefully you’ll get to see some of it soon.

      And technically, we all knew each other from our workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars, before that. And Peter and Dave were never students of the program — though I did once sneak Peter into an early class first term. This doesn’t mean we don’t have conversations about the future, it’s just that we typically have them outside a classroom.

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