Wirecard Targets Critics with Disinformation and Surveillance : Invisibilia Hacking, phishing, surveillance, disinformation... these are tools used to silence dissidents and influence elections. But what happens when these same methods are used against an ordinary citizen? The story of a man fighting an enemy he can't see and becoming increasingly paranoid.Which makes him a lot like the rest of us. What happens when you no longer know how to trust?

Trust Fall

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YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: Hey, listeners. Quick note before we get started - the episode you're about to hear was actually slated to run as part of our regular spring season before so much happened in this country. Anyway, we'd already decided to hold the episode until we got some answers to the central mystery in the story, which we did this week. So here it is.


From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin.


And I'm Alix Spiegel. And Hanna Rosin, you have the story.

ROSIN: I do. So last summer, I found out about this guy named Matthew Earl who lives outside London. And he was going through something creepy, like, super creepy - like, "Black Mirror" creepy.


ROSIN: So he's a guy who works at home like I used to work at home. He has his favorite chair. He'd just finished dropping off his kids at school.

MATTHEW EARL: First things first, have a cup of tea because (laughter) the school run can be a little bit stressful sometimes if they're nonstop talking.

ROSIN: Matthew's, like, reading the financial markets because that's his job. And then he gets a message from a guy he's working on a project with who tells Matthew to check out this document people are tweeting about. And Matthew clicks on the link, and he sees this nine-page document full of information about himself.

EARL: I read it and just thought - God, this is - what will people think, basically?


ROSIN: All right. So Alix, I printed out the document - the exact one that he was looking at. I want you to look at the picture in the middle and describe it.


SPIEGEL: OK. It's a photo of a dude. He looks like he just opened his door and is in the middle of some kind of conversation with whoever it is who is standing there.

ROSIN: Yeah. So he's just, like, talking to a guy at the door. Right?


ROSIN: OK. That's him.

EARL: Someone has literally taken a photo of me opening my front door.

ROSIN: The thing is, he has no idea who took this picture. He does not have any memory. This was not a selfie. It's not like his friend came to the door and snapped a shot of him.

EARL: Someone has come to the door. I don't recall who. But at that point that I've opened the front door, they've taken a photo of me. I must have spoken to them because they're that close to me when I open the front door. And you can see from the camera angle that it's been taken at chest height.

ROSIN: And then Matthew sees that there's another photo in the document. It's, like, a nice brick suburban house. There are geraniums in pots. It's summertime. It's his house.

EARL: And what was unnerving about the photo was that you can see from the picture of the house that all the garden and the foliage is in reasonably full bloom, which would have occurred around probably July that year. So clearly, the picture had been taken a good five to six months prior to this document coming out. How long have they been monitoring me and have I been under surveillance for?


SPIEGEL: Had he ever had any problems previously? Like, did he have any sense of where this might be coming from?

ROSIN: At first, no. Like, this is the first thing that landed, so this was his first experience. Like, a lot of things would happen after this. But at this moment, he had no idea. His main thought was like, who is watching me? Who's coming to my door? Who is 3 inches from where my wife and children sleep and I don't even know it? And his next thought is, like, what if there's a knock on my door tomorrow? It's just terrifying.

SPIEGEL: And destabilizing.

ROSIN: It's very destabilizing.

EARL: It's not normal for that to happen.

ROSIN: Mmm hmm. So here's what I want you to think about.

SPIEGEL: All right.

ROSIN: Let's say this happened to you. How would you feel next time you open the door?

SPIEGEL: I mean, I would feel like I was stuck in a Ben Affleck movie. You know, I would just feel like things are not going well for me. I have, like, fallen down a horrible rabbit hole.

ROSIN: Yeah.


ROSIN: So what happened to Matthew was he stopped being able to tell, like, is this the UPS guy? Is this not the UPS guy? Is this the gardener? Is this not the gardener? You know? So it was, like, one day he's this totally normal, average guy living an average life. And then he's pushed into this new world where he has to second-guess everything.


ROSIN: So that's what I want to look at today - what do you do when you land in a situation where you really just don't know anymore who or what to trust? Like, your compass is off.

SPIEGEL: What do you do?

ROSIN: We'll see.


ROSIN: So the thing that made this ordeal extra hard for Matthew is that he has kind of a hall monitor vibe. He's a guy who basically trusts people in charge. And his basic worldview is that there are good guys and bad guys, and if the bad guys do something wrong, the good guys will hunt them down. For example, in college he worked as a bartender - but not the fun, anything goes, "Coyote Ugly" kind of bartender. For him, a lot of bartending was enforcing the rules.

EARL: Yeah. I mean, there were these two guys that would - they would just crop up every three months or so.

ROSIN: So he told me the story about how these Scottish guys who worked in the nearby oil rigs would come into the bar.

EARL: All they want to do is just drink. They start off quite friendly, and then it depends on how their mood goes.

ROSIN: So Matthew would try to preempt the inevitable rowdiness. He would tell them...

EARL: I remember you guys. And you're going to cause trouble again - and if you are, I've got the police on standby and things like that.

ROSIN: Yep. Matthew is that guy - the bartender who pretends to have the police on speed dial.


ROSIN: And then when he grew up, he repeated that pattern again, just in the finance world. He became what's called a short seller - but a very particular kind of short seller.

EARL: So a short seller is someone that thinks the intrinsic value of the company is significantly below the prevailing market value.


ROSIN: Let's say there's a company everyone loves. We'll call it Invisablink (ph). They manufacture invisible forces, of course. And there are stories in the business press about it - about how great and successful it is - and everyone wants a piece of it. But for some reason, the short sellers smell a rat. So they dig and dig, largely in public records, and maybe they find something - accounting shenanigans deep in the books or well-hidden fraud or maybe that the hosts are actually running unlicensed psychic hotlines staffed by NPR interns - something big and nefarious enough that they believe it will eventually come to light and tank the company. The short sellers will then bet against the company. It's a little complicated exactly how it works, but what you need to know is that they make money if the stock price drops. Got it? They make money if the stock price drops.


ROSIN: So looking at Matthew, you might think he's just a cynical guy who wants to make a lot of money. And he does make good money. But also, he does short selling like he did bartending, meaning that he's also in it to enforce the order. I talked to a lot of people who told me that as short sellers go, Matthew takes unusually great pride in ratting out companies that he thinks are lying or cheating or trying to get away with something. And he assumes that his job is to dig up the information and then put it out there, and then the proper authorities will do what they do. Like for example, in Matthew's office, the most prominent thing is a giant silkscreen of Pinocchio, mid-lie, surrounded by dollar bills. He's supposed to be a nefarious CEO or something.

EARL: Pinocchio's nose is quite elongated, and so we thought it quite appropriate in terms of we look in financial markets for companies and management that we think are presenting false information or potentially lying.


ROSIN: When I imagine Matthew hot on the trail of a bad guy, in my mind, he turns into Velma from "Scooby-Doo."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Velma) What's that?

ROSIN: He's, like, the earnest and brainy one. So everyone else is futzing around, making sandwiches, doing whatever, and Velma/Matthew is using her smarts, gathering the clues and putting the puzzle pieces together.

EARL: So you start off here, and you're looking at this company, and how - and this storyline here.

ROSIN: This CEO and that bank transfer.

EARL: And then it goes to - well, hold on, there's this bit here.

ROSIN: Who's behind this company? And, like, ooh, look at that. There's 10 other companies.

EARL: And then it becomes ever-expanding.

ROSIN: He's plotting it all on a graph. And oh, my God, the whole picture is coming together.

EARL: The scale is immense.

ROSIN: He's figured it out. He's done it. Jinkies.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Velma) Jinkies. Jinkies. Jinkies.

ROSIN: You just stay up all night, or what happens?

EARL: Sometimes, yeah.

ROSIN: And for Matthew, it's worth it. Because at the end of the night, the villain is finally unmasked...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Mr. Magnus.

ROSIN: And peace and order are restored.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We sure thank you kids for unraveling this smuggling mystery for us.


ROSIN: Or at least that's how it used to be for Matthew.

EARL: I think I was very trusting, yeah - and have always been very trusting up until the last probably five years or so.

ROSIN: Up until December 8, 2016, to be exact.

EARL: I think it was around 2 o'clock in the morning or something like that.

ROSIN: That's when the nine-page document was posted on the Internet - the one with a picture of Matthew opening his front door - although, he only actually saw it around 9:00, after he'd sat down with this cup of tea.

EARL: People had started kind of retweeting it on Twitter. And I read it with great alarm. I mean, it was accusing me of being a criminal and in a conspiracy, essentially.


ROSIN: In the world of London finance, this counted as juicy gossip. Matthew Earl, known as a buttoned-up brainiac, was portrayed in this document like a small-time mobster. It includes pages and pages of text and Skype messages under the headline When Criminals Fight. Matthew and his cronies were supposedly arguing over who owed who money and who they needed to bribe and what the exact wording of their alibis should be. So for example...


ROSIN: M. Earl to F. Perring - let's have a call to discuss this tomorrow, probably when you're not drunk.

He'll feel our pain. Oops, my pain.

I'm a liar. Ian is a liar.

You think anyone can stop me? But I'm not being treated like a twat anymore.

Whoever was behind this document had spent a lot of time and energy dreaming up this whole plotline involving a cast of villains in Matthew Earl's criminal enterprise, and also a whistleblower, the supposed author of the document, who described himself as this noble employee who was compelled to tell the truth.

EARL: I am particularly sad that I'm forced to reveal the identity of my former employer, Matthew Earl, to you. I was hoping to avoid this move, but he leaves me little choice.

ROSIN: But that's the thing. Matthew had no fired employees. He had no employees. At that time, he was working at home, mostly alone.

EARL: It is absolute complete nonsense.

ROSIN: Matthew talked to his lawyers about getting the document taken down, and then he sat back and waited for the legal process to kick in. But in the meantime, he started to crack a little. Like, he knew that the document was a fiction. Obviously, he knew that. He was Matthew Earl. But he wasn't sure that anyone else would know that.

EARL: Yeah. I mean, the fear is that people do think that it's true or that they think there's no smoke without fire.

ROSIN: He kept repeating that - where there's smoke, there's fire. That's what people would think. So when someone shook his hand, what was that person really thinking? When someone declined to do business with him, was it really just because they changed their minds? And when his neighbor didn't say hi one day, did she really just not see him?

EARL: I felt shame that that's the impression that people would see. It's a weird thing. It's kind of - you know that you've done nothing wrong, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. But from an outside perspective, there must be something to this.

ROSIN: But the document, it turned out, was just a warning - the beginning. One day, Matthew says, after he dropped off his kids at school, he got a call from the guy he was working with. That guy had just dropped his kids off at school, and he claimed that he'd been accosted by two large Eastern European men asking after Matthew. Another day, Matthew got a ride to the train station with his kids' nanny. His little son was in the back seat. Then, when he got out of the car and turned around to wave goodbye, he noticed another car following the nanny's car with someone in it taking pictures of them.


ROSIN: And one night, two men came to the door.

EARL: It was December, so the nights were very dark. We live out in the country, so there's not much lighting outside, and it gets dark early. You never know if there's anyone outside, basically.


ROSIN: His wife Emma was upstairs reading the boys bedtime story, and she just happened to look out the window.

EARL: A car pulled up quite sharpish, and two men came out the car and started striding up to the front door. And I told my wife to just stay upstairs and get ready to call the police.

ROSIN: Matthew went downstairs to see who it was. He kept his phone on a hallway table recording, which is why the next scene sounds like when someone in a movie is watching a thriller on TV.

EARL: I had the chain on the door, and I opened it up just as far as the chain would permit.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. Are you Matthew Earl?

EARL: Who are you?

ROSIN: And standing there were two men in coats on a freezing winter night.

EARL: And they said, are you Matthew Earl? And I said yes, and they said, we'd like to talk to you. And I said, well, what about?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can you talk to us about (unintelligible)?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You've got quite an interest in Wirecard, though, haven't you?

EARL: And they said, you've quite an interest in Wirecard, don't you, Matthew?

ROSIN: Wirecard - a large German company, part bank, part new technology. Once upon a time, it processed payments for online gambling and porn. Now it's on Germany's stock index of blue chip companies, listed right up there with old classics like BMW, Siemens and Deutsche Bank. Now, Matthew had researched Wirecard, and he'd recently published a report alleging that Wirecard had processed illegal money transfers for online gambling companies that had done business in the U.S. And after his report came out, the company's stock had taken a hit, and Matthew profited when it did.

So it makes sense that Wirecard would be furious at Matthew, and this isn't uncommon. Companies often accuse short sellers of bad faith and tainted motives and of colluding with journalists to publish unflattering reports. Still, this little scene outside Matthew's door is a little strange. What if someone from Wells Fargo knocked at your door at 7 p.m. at night saying a couple of lines that sounded like Martin Scorsese wrote them?

You think anyone can stop me?

He'll feel our pain.

But I'm not being treated like a twat anymore.

It did not seem right to Matthew. So he did what he was used to doing when things seemed out of order.


EARL: I'm going to call the police.

ROSIN: After the men at the door, Matthew was certain that the authorities would jump to action and that justice would prevail.

So in your mind, you're just publishing the facts, and you trust in the system to take care of it.

EARL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I didn't trust the company but trusted institutions - legal institutions, regulators, authorities - to at least pay some attention to the allegations and the evidence that had been presented.

ROSIN: Matthew started by calling German authorities who are in charge of monitoring companies - the SEC of Germany. He wanted to let them know about the allegations he'd made in his original report about illegal activity the company was still involved in. Wirecard was a German company after all, and Matthew figured the Germans are keen on enforcing the rules. But it did not go how he planned.

EARL: I phoned the whistleblower line there, and I said, do you speak English? Yes. Then as soon as I mentioned Wirecard, they then said, oh, actually, I don't speak very good English. Could you call back? Or then another time, the phone just went dead.


EARL: Can you hear me?

It was a very strange experience.

ROSIN: He later made a presentation to another set of German authorities - a prosecutor and then a policeman, who Matthew recalls as having a large Bavarian mustache. They seemed impressed by his presentation, but then months and months passed and nothing. He tried the London police and nothing.

I checked in with Matthew in December. It was around Christmastime, and he ducked out of a holiday party to talk to me on the phone. And I have to say he sounded kind of off - a little hard to understand, definitely losing his British cool. This whole ordeal, it seemed to be really getting to him.

EARL: In a way, it's weird because so much has happened. Suddenly, one...

ROSIN: Wait. Suddenly one what? I'm having trouble hearing you for a minute. Say it again.

EARL: It's alarming in terms of what I don't know. I don't know if you've heard that suddenly, I've got a tracker on my car.

ROSIN: Suddenly you've got what? For some reason it's so hard...

EARL: I've got a tracker on my car.

ROSIN: He was worried that I was calling to tell him someone had put an electronic tracker on his car. So many weird things had happened to him that now he was spooked by everything. Like, he told me for the last few months he was having trouble sleeping at night because he heard the creak of the floorboards or the floodlights would flash in the backyard and he'd think, is someone out there? And what was even creepier is that when he was outside, he was sure that strangers on the street were photographing him.


EARL: In London.

ROSIN: You're kidding. You just looked around, and people were taking pictures of you?

EARL: Yeah, I know. It's really weird. I was walking over London Bridge. We suddenly turned around, and we noticed that there was a person holding a iPhone up directly behind us within about five feet.

ROSIN: Jesus. Like, your life is like some weird spy movie. I mean, it's so weird.

EARL: Yeah, it's pretty horrible. It's not nice having to look over your shoulder all the time.

ROSIN: And Matthew told me that during this period, he was really starting to sink. He'd lost 15 pounds. He started losing his temper at home with the kids, like kicking the trash bin or just yelling for no reason. And a low point for him was when he had to drop out of all the family group chats because he didn't want whoever was watching him to know who his relatives were. But what was truly the worst was not that Matthew was in a spy movie. It's that no one was watching the movie. He felt totally alone in it.

Is there anyone you talk to about it?

EARL: No. I mean, this has always been the issue. If you were to talk to someone about it, they'd think you were absolutely mad because it is so unbelievable.

ROSIN: That's what was messing with him, not the fact that he'd encountered a bad guy - he dealt with plenty of bad guys in his career - but that the good guys who he'd relied on for his entire adult life were looking at him blankly and, in his view, leaving him out to dry. And now he just didn't know who or what to trust anymore. At one point during the conversation, he was even wondering about me.

EARL: It's more just for an assurance and confirmation that you are on my side, basically.

ROSIN: And I'm not working for Wirecard.

EARL: Yeah.

ROSIN: Oh, my God. No (laughter).


ROSIN: So Matthew Earl is in a bad spot. He's getting messed with, and the authorities are doing nothing about it. So he's at this critical point where someone like him, who has had a life where he expects the system will work for him, is suddenly shocked that it doesn't, and he feels helpless and alone. After the break, we take a trip to examine another way to operate in a world without trust when NPR's INVISIBILIA returns.


ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA from NPR. I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: So we left Matthew Earl wandering the streets of London, afraid he was being followed, freaked out, suspicious of everything, basically totally paralyzed, which is the place that I fear that we are all going to.

SPIEGEL: London?

ROSIN: (Laughter) I wish. No. I just have this feeling that something has gone wonky with trust.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

ROSIN: I mean that, on the one hand, we no longer trust anything. Like, the list of things that people in Western democracies no longer trust has just, like, ballooned in the last few years.

SPIEGEL: So like government, media...

ROSIN: Police officers.

SPIEGEL: Police officers.

ROSIN: Academics, school principals.

SPIEGEL: Experts.

ROSIN: Basically anybody in power and also each other. On the other hand, like, we're super trusting in some ways.

SPIEGEL: Yeah. Because then I get into an Uber all the time and I don't know them from anybody. So it's basically like trust is disregulated.

ROSIN: Yes. Disregulated - that's an excellent word. So I was thinking about this a lot, and I found this guy who I think has really interesting ideas about it.

MATTHEW CAREY: Hello, Hanna. My name is Matthew Carey.

SPIEGEL: So you have two Matts.

ROSIN: Two Matts.

SPIEGEL: And they both have, like, British-y (ph) accents.

ROSIN: I'm very sorry to the universe for bringing you two Matts with European accents, but that's how it landed. I love this guy's work. Anyway, we will get back to Matthew Earl's story later, I promise.


ROSIN: But now I want to take a detour with the other Matt - Matthew Carey - who started thinking about trust early in his life, basically, because of what his childhood was like.

CAREY: The time I spent with my mother was much more tumultuous because of the slightly choppy lifestyle. Things were a bit crazy.

ROSIN: So when Matthew Carey was a kid, his mom was part of a group of people called the New Age Travellers, who roam from place to place.

CAREY: So she lived on a bus which was converted. So they rip out the seats and you build in insulation and there's a stove and a kitchen area and some beds.

ROSIN: Basically, they just thought the government was out to get them. And so there's this one day his stepdad comes home and says, I've got this opportunity, and this is really great news because they need money, but I can't take this opportunity because the person who's offering it to me is the devil.

SPIEGEL: (Laughter) Isn't that what you said when I offered you this job?

CAREY: He said he'd looked in the man's eyes and he'd seen the devil. So my stepfather bought an old car and then we drove as fast as we could with the clear idea that the devil was at our heels, as well as a large degree of paranoia about customs officials and the police.

ROSIN: So Matthew Carey grew up to become an anthropologist. And he was doing his fieldwork in a place called the Atlas Mountains with a community of people called the Ishelhiyn - the Ishelhiyn Berbers. And they had a whole different way of thinking about trust.


ROSIN: This, by the way, is a recording he made of the place.

SPIEGEL: Where are the Atlas Mountains?

ROSIN: They're in North Africa. Actually, the part where Matthew was is in Morocco. And they're very, very dry. So you're basically, like, in the desert, but there are these communities of people who have lived there for a really long time and have, you know, made the desert bloom. And it's very isolated.

SPIEGEL: That's what I was going to ask. Like, how much contact do they have with the outside world?

ROSIN: Very little contact with the outside world.

CAREY: There isn't any traffic, but there's cattle and chicken and there's mules. Mules were really loud.

ROSIN: And there's this one unusual thing that Matthew noticed when he was doing his fieldwork there.

CAREY: The only time I'd ever heard anyone say the word trust was in the sentence (non-English language spoken). There is no such thing as trust.

SPIEGEL: So they don't even believe that trust exists?

ROSIN: Well, I don't know about that. But in Matthew's 12 years of being there and talking to lots of people, that's just a phrase he kept hearing over and over.


ROSIN: Why do you say that?

SPIEGEL: I'm, like, just struggling because I can't imagine having a society without trust. I mean, like, what does that mean? Like, they have to.

ROSIN: Right. This was confusing to Matthew, too, because he'd read all this literature which said that...

CAREY: All trust does is to make life better in all sorts of ways. It improves friendships. It improves economics. It improves politics. It improves your personal life.

ROSIN: So he figured he must be understanding it wrong. He just kept doing his fieldwork and talking to more people. And then one day, this thing happened.


ROSIN: So there were these three guys that Matthew liked to hang out with - one young guy and two older guys. And they always hung out together, just, like, joking and talking and drinking tea or whatever. And then on one of his visits, Matthew is just hanging out with the younger guy, and he's like, hey, let's go see your other friends. And the guy's like, uh-uh. And then Matthew finds out what happened, which is that they no longer speak to each other.


ROSIN: So a while ago the young guy had slept over at the older guy's house because he no longer lives in that village, so he needs a place to stay. Middle of the night, he hears a sound at the door. This is his version, OK, young guy's version.

CAREY: And he hears, like, the key turning in the door. And he sits up very scared, and he sees a woman come in with a candle.

ROSIN: It's the older guy's daughter.

SPIEGEL: Uh-huh. How old is the older guy's daughter?

ROSIN: She's in her 20s. The important part is that she's a little old to be unmarried by Atlas Mountain standards.


CAREY: And she sits down next to him and says she wants to talk. And he says she should go away and it's really inappropriate and someone might see them. And she insists, and he refuses, and she insists, and finally she just tries to slip under the blanket.

ROSIN: He's like, get out now. This is terrible. You have to get out of my room right now.


ROSIN: Because she's a young woman and he's a young man and this is his friend's daughter.

CAREY: She goes away at that point. And then he wakes up in the morning at about 6:30. And he'd normally expect to be served tea at that point and some bread and olive oil and honey. But he's left alone. No one comes.

ROSIN: He's, like, scared as hell. So he runs back to his house.


ROSIN: The young guy's conclusion is that the older guy is trying to set him up, that he's trying to create this situation where the young guy has to have a shotgun wedding with the older guy's daughter because he's got to marry off his daughter. And the younger guy is pissed about that.

SPIEGEL: Oh. OK. All right.

ROSIN: And the older guy is like, you tried to get with my daughter. Like, you tried to assault my daughter.

SPIEGEL: So did Matthew Carey try to figure out who was telling the truth?

ROSIN: Yeah. He talked to them for a long time, including the woman. And I know it's totally awful how she's just, like, this footnote in the story. But Matthew couldn't, like, exactly determine who was telling the truth. He just knew that they had had this rift. And it was awful, and they stopped speaking to each other, and he was really sad about it.

CAREY: And it was obvious to me that after a betrayal like that, that was it. There wasn't any way back. But then I visited again a year later. And they were all friends again. And at this point, I just - I sort of scratch my head and bafflement because I was trying to work out what could possibly have gone on.

ROSIN: Because what was weird was they hadn't exactly forgiven each other. They each still totally thought that the other one had done the bad thing and that the thing was really bad. But they just kind of set it aside. And that's what was interesting to him, what he was trying to figure out. Like, what is it about the culture of this place that allows them to move through this kind of betrayal? That was his question.

CAREY: I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it and realized that every time I'd said to people, why? Why has X done this? Why did Abdul Karim (ph) steal a chicken? Why won't Mohammed (ph) pay the money back? People always said to me, I have no idea. Only God knows. It's impossible to know.

ROSIN: Like, he told me a story about this guy Abdullah who ran what at the time was the only shop in town.

CAREY: He is the most sullen man I've ever met, I think. I mean, if you talk to him, he's nice enough, but he never smiles. Abdullah just sits there, looking like his granny has just died.

ROSIN: So people might say, oh, he's in a bad mood that day. But what they don't do is speculate about why. Why is he like this? What is going on inside his head?

CAREY: And there's a complete absence of speculation about other people's interiorities.

ROSIN: They have a fundamental assumption that you don't really know a person. And what that means is that if someone betrays you, it's not, like, such a shock. Like, it doesn't surprise them that a person just does a thing that they didn't think the person was going to do.

CAREY: When somebody here betrays our trust, what happens is we have an idea of who they are, and they behave in a way that runs against that idea. We say to them, I thought you were different. I thought you weren't like that. How could you do that to me when I had this idea of you? It's a tyrannical way to behave. I have this idea of you. You have to conform to it, or our friendship is over.


ROSIN: So, basically, he's saying we're stuck in this binary. We either totally trust someone, or they betray us, and then we're done with them. But this other way of thinking - and he calls it mistrust with an M. That's the name of the book he wrote about this, "Mistrust." It just gives you a third option.

This is so hard to get your head around. It's basically, like, saying trust people less, and that's a more liberating world.

CAREY: Have more respect for the fact that you can't know them and that their behavior might sometimes betray you or let you down.

SPIEGEL: But, like, OK, you can make the argument that that's a reasonable approach. But how does that relate in any way to Matthew Earl?

ROSIN: What do you mean?

SPIEGEL: I mean, it feels like, you know, extending that philosophy to actively bad actors feels like it is a completely different situation and probably not the right way to go.

ROSIN: No, no, no. It's not about that. It's more that when someone like Matthew Earl finds himself in a place where some bank is sending men to his door and none of the usual institutions are helping him, then mistrust just gives him another way to be.


ROSIN: So, of course, institutions, like friends, will sometimes betray you. But that doesn't mean you're like, I give up on all people and all institutions. They're all liars and thieves - and just slide into cynicism and paralysis because if you do that, you won't try to fix anything or hold anyone accountable. So mistrust, which is basically like intelligent skepticism - it just gives you more resilience, so you can play the long game. And I would say we kind of need that right now.

CAREY: So not just to say, oh, you can't trust anything and dismiss it all on block. Not just to say, OK, I'm just going to assume that everyone is lying to me. That just produces a general sense of helplessness, and that leads to a questioning of everything. And they no longer have anybody to whom they can turn because they don't trust anyone.

ROSIN: Instead of constantly wishing, oh, I want to go back to before - I want to go back to a time when I understood things - we can just start to accept this new reality and learn how to mistrust. Just, like, snap out of being shocked, so we can start to figure out what we want to do.

SPIEGEL: Do you think Matthew Earl is paralyzed? I mean, what did he do?

ROSIN: We'll see. NPR's INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.


SPIEGEL: Welcome back. This is INVISIBILIA from NPR. Now we return to London, where Hanna continues her story of the short seller ducking spies on the street.

EARL: It has been over two years of unrelenting harassment. And it's not stopped. It's not stopping.

ROSIN: Matthew now lives somewhere else. He and his family left the big house they loved, the one that had been pictured in that nine-page document, for a new house, where none of their neighbors knew they'd been surveilled and no men had ever come to the door. They wanted to re-establish normal somewhere else. But whoever it was who'd been following Matthew just followed him to this new house.

When is the last one that you got?

EARL: Today. At 2:00 today.


ROSIN: They come through his email, an endless stream of phishing attacks all day every day for years.

EARL: One, two, three, six, seven.

ROSIN: Like, hundreds, thousands you said.

EARL: Yeah.

ROSIN: The interlopers are good. They perfectly mimic the sites Matthew frequents, the headlines that would most catch his eye.

EARL: Nytimes.com - and it looks real. I mean, look at the - look at the content of it. It looks like a...

ROSIN: Wait a minute. I would never know that was a fake.

EARL: News from CNBC.

ROSIN: That's amazing.

He gets fake emails about his own company, about things he's written about on his blog - fake congratulations, fake invitations.

EARL: LinkedIn requests, person I know wants to invite me to view an album through Dropbox.

ROSIN: Falling for any one of these phishing attempts could ruin Matthew's life. They could harvest his passwords and then be able to send emails through his account as him and get into his bank account and God knows what else.

EARL: Lucien's (ph) a friend of mine. That's an ex-colleague. This is my sister.

ROSIN: That's your sister? Oh, my God.

EARL: It's a psychological attack, really. It's kind of like trying to constantly remind you, we're still here; we haven't gone away. And although we haven't got people coming up to the door, we know who your friends are. We know who your sister is. We know who you speak to.


JOHN SCOTT-RAILTON: Friend, how are you?

EARL: Hi. I'm not too bad. How are you?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Oy, you know. Here we are.

ROSIN: This is a conversation Matthew had this week, many months later, with a guy named John Scott-Railton from Citizen Lab, which is the cybersecurity watchdog group based in Toronto.

SCOTT-RAILTON: So basically Matt, as I think you know, tomorrow is the day where we will go public ascribing this operation to an Indian company called BellTroX, which has been active for years running an absolutely massive hack-for-hire operation of which you were one of the many targets.

EARL: Oh, wow.

ROSIN: While Matthew was waiting for the German or British or some other authority to step in, he decided to try a less official route. He went to Citizen Lab for help. He told them what was happening to him, and he forwarded John and his colleague Adam Hulcoop the suspicious emails, hundreds of them, diligently day after day for years, which actually allowed Citizen Lab to launch their own investigation, keeping tabs on the hackers over a long period of time. And the surprising thing is that in the end, Matthew kind of joined forces with them. He became as helpful to them as they were to him.

SCOTT-RAILTON: One of the things that was so powerful about working with you is that - and I think you remember this from the time - we would have these moments, me and Adam, where we would feel like these guys had like slipped out of our grip for a while. You know, we'd been, like, watching a server, and then they would stop using that server. And we'd be kind of like, where have they gone next, right? And we wouldn't know. And then, like, a day would go by and you'd message me and say - hey, John, I just got this new suspicious email.

EARL: (Laughter).

SCOTT-RAILTON: And we'd look at it, and we'd be back in business. And without you being so vigilant, we probably wouldn't have found some of them.

EARL: Wow. That's fantastic. Well, I'm glad that sending on all those messages was worthwhile. I mean, because there was - there were a lot. But...


SCOTT-RAILTON: There were so many messages, Matt. I think you're one of the most targeted people I have ever interacted with. You might be No. 1 on the list.

EARL: I wonder if there's an entry for "Guinness World Book Of Records" (ph) for that (laughter).

ROSIN: So the hard work paid off. This week, Citizen Lab released a report detailing a global hacking operation run by a company in India. And they named many victims, not just Matthew - government officials, human rights groups and journalists. Citizen Lab shared its information with the U.S. Justice Department, which is now conducting its own investigation into cyberhacking, which has become a huge criminal problem. And they've already made one arrest in New York.

Now, the Citizen Lab report did not say that they had established any link yet between the India-based company and Wirecard in Germany. But the report did identify a group of people - mostly investors and journalists - who had written critically about Wirecard and who had all been cyber harassed around the same time. Wirecard has publicly denied having any contact, direct or indirect, with the group in India. We had called them back in March about Matthew's case in particular, and they sent us this voice memo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was no targeted surveillance directed exclusively against Mr. Earl.

ROSIN: Wirecard did admit sending private investigators to Matthew's house, but they said they didn't intend to harass him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The investigation was at all times within the legal framework.

ROSIN: They repeated their position that Matthew's original claim against Wirecard - that they'd made legal money transfers - was false, that he'd made those claims to benefit himself because as a short seller he would make money if the stock price dropped.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wirecard rejects all accusations made by Mr. Earl as false and fraudulent.

ROSIN: This week, Wirecard did find itself in some other legal trouble unrelated to Matthew. Police in Munich raided their headquarters and German prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into certain Wirecard board members. So it's bits and pieces of a picture that's not yet complete. But, you know, for Matthew and John, small victories.


SCOTT-RAILTON: Remember how I was like, one day we will get this thing out? Here we are.

EARL: (Laughter) Well, yes, I know. But I thought you were thinking it would be a little bit longer.

ROSIN: Matthew went through many horrible years without much hope. But in the end of it, he might actually be better off than the rest of us because he learned to operate in this new world, to not get paralyzed when a machine much bigger than you feeds you a lie about yourself and no one comes to your rescue. He learned to be nimble. He mastered his own technophobia. And he figured out how to save himself, which John sees as a skill we all desperately need to master.

SCOTT-RAILTON: I think that we will just eventually be at a place where we have the same kinds of intuitions that we might have walking down a street at night. Like, OK, this is safe, this is not safe. I think that it is going to take us a lot of pain and a lot of tough experiences on a very individual basis to get there.

ROSIN: Because Matthew is not the only one.


ROSIN: Cases are popping up all around the world of companies or groups with vast resources and vendettas targeting individuals. Like Susan Fowler, who called out sexual harassment she experienced while working in Silicon Valley. And for weeks and months, she describes cars following her, getting suspicious phone calls, phishing emails. It can happen to a private citizen. It is happening. And if we're lucky, we'll be able to patiently fight back.

SCOTT-RAILTON: It would be nice to have a little celebratory victory lap tomorrow or the next day where we just all kind of decompress.

EARL: Yeah. Well, we could get a drink organized on Zoom or something (laughter).


EARL: Something secure, but yeah.

SCOTT-RAILTON: Oh, yeah, definitely. I'm 100% in.


ROSIN: I suddenly had this whole new image of Matthew. He ditched his hall monitor vest for a tight black T-shirt. He was somewhere in our near future giving TED Talks about deep fakes and hackers for hire and how to stay vigilant when the world leaders and the police are acting like lunatics and shadowy forces are watching your every move. And only the most practiced will have the stamina to survive.


ROSIN: What is a time or a situation in which you feel truly rested and can completely block this out?

EARL: (Laughter) I generally plug my noise-cancelling earphones in. I listen to all sorts - David Bowie, all kind of - AC/DC.

ROSIN: AC/DC? You're one of those guys?

EARL: Yeah. Well, that's helpful in terms it just blocks everything out (laughter). You kind of get - you hear the beginning of it and then you kind of switch off from the rest of it.


AC/DC: (Singing) Back in black, I hit the sack, I've been too long, I'm glad to be back. Yes, I'm let loose from the noose...

SPIEGEL: That's the one, the only, the Hanna, the Rosin. INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

LIANA SIMSTROM, BYLINE: Our senior editors for this season are Deborah George and Anne Gudenkauf.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Check, one, two.

SIMSTROM: This episode was produced by Yowei Shaw.

SHAW: Hey.

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, BYLINE: INVISIBILIA is also produced by Kia Miakka Natisse - me - and Abby Wendle.


MIAKKA NATISSE: Our manager is Liana Simstrom.

SIMSTROM: We had help on this episode from Pranav Baskar, Alec Stutson and Oliver Whang.

SHAW: This episode was mastered by Patrick Boyd.

WENDLE: Fact-checking by Jamison Pfeifer and Will Chace. Our technical director is Andy Huether and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

SHAW: Special thanks to Matthew Earl's family.

DEBORAH GEORGE, BYLINE: Also to Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Steve Zansberg, Emily Bogle, Nick Fountain.

SIMSTROM: Parth Shah, Liza Yeager, Alice Yeh, Emily Schneider and Patrick Lucey.

MIAKKA NATISSE: Music for this episode provided by Blue Dot Sessions, Ramtin Arablouei and Yung Kartz.

SHAW: To see an original illustration for this episode by Leonardo Santamaria, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

SPIEGEL: And now, for a moment of nonzen.

ROSIN: Colonics - is this what people do before the Oscars? This is a wicked, horrid process that you do to your body. On the other hand, I dropped, like, five pounds last night, so (laughter)...

SPIEGEL: Really?

Thanks for listening, and take good care of yourselves.

ROSIN: And stay safe out there. We're thinking about you.


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