Discover more from The New Accelerator
Sounds like a plan to me
by Mick Schonhut
“Warble, warble, warble, warble, warble…”
My wristwatch beeper warbled annoyingly, and I woke up and fell off the couch. Crawling to my computer, I hit standby and ‘netted in almost immediately.
“Are you there, chums?” I typed, seating myself, and waited. It was just after 2am, my time.
A few moments later, the rest of the team came online: “I’m here, Nick,” said Simon, followed by “Good morning, Nick,” from Jazz.
“What happened?” I wanted to know if our unwelcome visitor had returned.
“The detectors that I set last night went off a few minutes ago,” said Simon, “and he’s back inside the system now”.
I groaned a long groan. This was every security chief’s nightmare, confirmed. Systems that were designed to be utterly secure were only really secure until proven otherwise. Until the next clever, new-wave hacker came along, that is, and you found yourself alone on the loneliest front line, finding the solution to an intrusion problem no-one else had yet faced. Statistically speaking, the odds were that you could learn from other people’s intrusions, and never have to face such a situation yourself. So much for the odds, I thought grimly, and turned back to the task at hand.
The previous night’s logs had told the story and alerted us to the intrusion. Several files had been stealthily modified, and then returned to their original condition, and then later new files had been created, and then deleted, presumably as an increasingly daring test by the intruder of his ability to exploit the hole he’d discovered in the system’s security. Or been told about. Or that had been set up for him by an insider. Reasonably high levels of paranoia came built-in with my job description…
Simon and Jazz had first alerted me to the incident, and we’d discussed how to handle it. We decided to set up a series of triggers, so that a repeat visit would alert us and allow Simon and Jazz to watch our visitor’s progress in detail, hopefully gleaning some information that would point to the visitor’s identity, or his Net host, or even his company. Implicitly, we had some level of wider Net responsibility here in locating the perpetrators, and using whatever means to close them down. Simply a matter of commonplace reciprocal survival among Net citizens, really.
Hopefully, the intruders were just talented anti-Net students having fun, but we had to consider more seriously the likelihood of some talent-for-hire with a commercial interest in our systems. As a medium size biotech company on the leading edge, with lots of patents, BioFrontier always have a lot to lose to intellectual intrusion. And not least, my team has just as much to lose if this happens: for starters, our jobs and our reputations.
Even so, I had reason to be optimistic: I had a good team, and strong security mechanisms in place. The successful auto-detection of the intrusion proved that much. Simon and Jazz were second-to-none as security managers, and were used to working as a tag team over the Net from their respective locations, to solve our most difficult problems. Although I’d met each of them only once in person, I had the utmost confidence in their abilities, having spent thousands of hours working with them online. Simon was confident, technically amazing, and experienced in system security problems from his years in government in post-Beijing controlled Hong Kong. Jazz too was staggeringly capable from her stint as security advisor to the Punjab regional government; certainly no small achievement for a woman in India. I’d been involved with the Net at various companies since it existed, and I knew they respected my long term perspective of the whole Net phenomena.
“I’ve found out how he got into the system” said Simon, “Do you want me to close him out?”
“Hold on,” I said, “Maybe not just yet. Let’s see what we can find out about him first. Can you redirect him without him knowing about it?”
“Give me a minute… Wait… Yes, I think I can. Stand by…” said Simon.
Simon and Jazz worked as a shadow team. One took the lead on a situation, and the other synchronized their own systems with the other every few seconds. That way, if anything went wrong, such as a system being compromised, the other could take over immediately. Simon was leading on this situation, but as many times I’d also seen Jazz lead and Simon act as backup. Myself, I was effectively blind: security protocol mandated that my systems were not attached to theirs, and that they operated as “twins” under my light protocol email-only direction. This was the best way to separate policy from practice, and direction from attack, under these circumstances.
What it meant was that, practically speaking, I had the frustrating role of not being able to see or do anything directly. Simon and Jazz provided me with “eyes and ears” through their systems, and relayed events as they happened, as well as any difficult decisions that needed to be made. When things got complicated, it could be as indirect and difficult as talking down a luckless stewardess landing one of those old Boeings.
“I’ve got him,” said Simon. “Do you see, Jazz?”
There was a lengthy pause, before Jazz said “Yes, that looks good. It should work, Simon”.
I was surprised. While acting as security leader, Simon almost never looked for approval from his team mate, and in her turn, neither did Jazz.
“He will think he is still intruding,” said Simon, “but I have fixed it so he has access to a harmless area. So harmless, I created it just for him. He can do what he likes, and we can watch and wait until he gives his identity away. They always do.”
Between ourselves, we always referred to hackers as males, mostly because they usually were. We also assumed that there was a strong egotistical influence for any amateur attack: so a file could easily contain an identity, a home page URL, a mail address, or some other signature that we could track. Usually this was the case.
Meanwhile, I was getting really tired. “Simon, Jazz, it sounds like you have this character under control,” I said, “and I have a horribly early start tomorrow. Can I leave you to beep me again if I’m needed? Otherwise I’ll see you in ten days or so when I’m back from Europe?”
“OK, Nick, have a great vacation,” said Simon.
“Well, it’s mostly business, but I hope to squeeze in a bit of vacation too,” I said, “Meanwhile, please keep me updated on tracking down our visitor.”
“We will, Nick. Have a good trip,” said Jazz.
The rented mountain bike still felt a little unfamiliar, but handled well. Newer than my own machine, it had more modern features like one-touch shifting, and a lighter suspension system that made it less stable in straight lines, but much more maneuverable in the turns. At least if I made a complete idiot of myself by falling off, there would be no-one except a few cows and sheep to see me. Cycling along Hadrian’s Wall in the spring, I was at least spared the attentions of droves of camera-happy tourists.
Last week’s presentation in Geneva had gone very well, ironically enough on the subject of Net security. I never failed to be surprised how after all these years, there was still a fundamental mistrust of the security of the Net. Even from people who would quite happily read their credit card number over an ordinary cell-phone. Maybe they weren’t so wrong after all.
I’d stopped over in the UK for a few days to see the family on my way back from Geneva, and cunningly saved a day or so for myself in my schedule. It wasn’t often I had a day off, but I was determined to find the time, this time around. So, a short drive and one rented mountain bike later, I was beginning to immerse myself in the joys of the great outdoors, the physical challenge of staying on the bike, and pausing occasionally to enjoy the scenery of the spectacular line of ancient stones that snaked dramatically over the northern English countryside, marking the end of the Roman Empire at its height. Every few miles, I passed the ruins of a garrison post, where troops from the Mediterranean had been stationed for months at a time, and no doubt wondered if they’d ever see the sun again.
It certainly didn’t bother me. After time away, I always relished the moist English weather: dry climates are OK to visit, but there is really no substitute for the delightful kaleidoscope of smells that accompanies a damper climate.
Heading back after a challenging day towards the bike rental place, I was a half mile or so west of Birdoswald garrison, and negotiating a particularly slippery slope at reasonable speed, next to, it has to be said, a particularly kaleidoscopic cow field, when I had the strangest feeling of being watched. I shrugged off the feeling since concentration is required on these tricky sections, and increased speed on the long downhill. Through the whistle of wind through my helmet, I heard a few strange whine-phut, whine-phut noises. Glancing down to check the tires, all seemed in order, and then I hit a large rock. The lightweight suspension catapulted me aloft, and on touchdown sent the bike and I careening down a very steep section; not exactly as I’d planned, but under these circumstances you go where the bike takes you.
After a very exciting downhill mile, when I may possibly have broken a few records, I stopped the bike to pause for breath, and stared for several minutes uncomprehendingly at the neat bullet hole shot through the bike’s saddle bag. I set several more records getting back to the bike rental place, and was still looking over my shoulder several hours later, when I got on the plane at the airport.
The limo home from Logan seemed to take hours. There were several passengers, and the driver seemed to take back road after back road to deliver them through the late rush hour commute to their homes. Eventually though, I was the last one, and the lights of my apartment building came into view through the dusk. I swung my bags out of the van, and unlocked the apartment door.
Grabbing a beer from the fridge, I checked for phone messages, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end again. Two messages, one from my boss telling me to be at the office next morning, or else. And a crackling, brief message on a bad line. It was from Jazz.
“Nick, it’s Simon. I think he’s in trouble. I haven’t been able to reach him. Please get in touch. Please…”
It was almost unthinkable that she would use the phone: she must have had no other choice. I didn’t understand why she hadn’t used our tag team’s secure channel, unless she thought it had been compromised. But how could that be?
I hit standby on the system, and expected to ‘net online. Instead, there was nothing. Not even an error message. My keys had to have been disabled by someone. Reaching for my password book, I tried a few of my alternative access methods, but no luck. I found a few old passwords that I’d forgotten about, but decided to save them for a rainy day. If I used them now, they might be noticed, and who could tell when I might need them next?
I was, by now, quite paranoid. The combined effects of being shot at, the uncharacteristic panic in Jazz’s voice message, and the disorienting effects of jet lag were all seriously taking their toll. I decided to hit the couch, while I still had a chance of sleep; I might need the rest tomorrow.
Next morning, I made enough money transfers to pay off all my credit cards and my unpaid bills, refilled the bird-feeder outside my kitchen window, packed a small bag with enough essentials to last me a possible lifetime, and wiped clean all the disks on my home system. Then I leapt in my car and headed for Corporate Headquarters. If anyone was watching, let them work out what I was up to. I certainly didn’t know.
Two hours later, I had to sign in at the security desk and was ushered up to my boss’s third floor office. Something was clearly wrong, and I didn’t have to wait too long to find out what it was.
“You bloody idiot, Nick. How could you leave your team to handle the situation, without knowing the cause? What were you thinking, leaving like that? Have you always been such a glory-seeker that all you care about is the next self promotional exercise in far away places?”
My boss, McShane, head of Corporate Security, was apparently really annoyed about something, so I took some time before answering.
“I’m not sure what you have a problem with, but as far as I’m concerned I was simply proceeding as scheduled. We had a situation before I left, certainly, but my security team had it under control before I left for Geneva”
“If you had it so under control, Nick, then how come Simon Wang has been missing for more than a week?”
I paused, and decided on attack as the best form of defense. “Well, if someone hadn’t canceled my security keys by the time I got home last night, I might be in a better position to give you a status report. Why don’t you fill me in on what happened?”
“I’m sorry, Nick, it’s gone too far for that. It’s out of your hands now. Senior management has lost confidence in our operations unit and we need to make changes. I’m sure you understand.”
“Understand what? That you need a scapegoat for this, and I’m the most likely candidate? Are you telling me I’m out of a job? If so, you know I’ll see you in court…”
“Now, Nick, think for a moment. We’re prepared to offer a very reasonable package, a generous one in fact, in return for your cooperation. No criticism implied in your record, the Company still willing to provide references, and so on. You’d lose all that if you brought a legal action against us. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about the confidentiality contract you signed with the company. That would make any legal action quite difficult to bring without giving us a reasonable counter-claim. You should read these details before you decide.” McShane handed me a letter, which I scanned briefly, then read again.
He had a point. In my absence, I’d obviously been tried, judged, and found guilty, and now they were offering me a lot of money to go along quietly with the verdict. I realized why of course; if it wasn’t me, then it would have to be McShane himself who was the scapegoat. That’s why he was being so persuasive, in his own way.
“Double it, and I’ll accept,” I declared. It was worth a try.
“Done,” said McShane. “And no hard feelings I hope”
“Don’t push your luck,” I said. “Just show me where I sign, and tell me when I get the money.” I was kicking myself inwardly – I should have asked him to triple the offer. Too late now.
So there I stood, out on the street. Ten years with the company behind me, one former colleague unaccounted for, and one very scared one, both of whom knew nothing of my sudden corporate demise, and me with nowhere to go next in particular. Then I remembered the bullet holes in the cycle bag, and wondered if I really should have held out for more money. After all, how much did a personal bodyguard cost these days?
Well, what to do, what to do? I could just take the money, have some fun in the sun, and never look back. Or I could take the money, save the fun in the sun until later, and track down and wreak some arbitrary vengeance on whoever or whatever had worked so hard to put me in this situation. I grinned. Put that way, there was really no choice involved.
I checked in to the local hi-tech flea pit motel, the “Happy Surfer” I think it was called. ‘Netting in to their crude pay-Net system, I sent one simple email message to the last address I had on record for Jazz. It said only “Are you there, chums?” followed by my hotel phone number. I pulled a rather bad designer beer from the room’s mini-bar, and waited.
Half an hour later the phone rang. Jazz sounded quite distant, relieved to hear me, and still very scared.
“Nick, I can’t talk now, you’d better meet me.”
“Tell me where and when,” I replied in my calmest tones, “and I’ll be there.”
“An airport is probably the safest. Let me think. Denver, maybe. No, how about Pittsburg, the day after tomorrow?”
“I’ll meet you in WHSmith, at 2pm. Good luck, and be careful.”
She hung up and I didn’t immediately, but I heard a click that meant a third person did. Obviously there was no time to spare. I checked out of the motel briskly. If I was being watched, I had a lot of tracks to cover before I traveled anywhere at all.
It took me about four hours to set up a new identity for myself. At least enough of one that would pass reasonable official scrutiny. Most of this was done using a motley collection of public access terminals located at banks, public buildings, and more flea pit motels that charged by the hour. Some level of anonymity established, I debated with myself whether to fly or drive down to Pittsburg.
Since I didn’t know my next steps, it seemed worth the extra effort and time (probably an extra six hours) to drive. I would have the advantage of a mobile operations center from which to support my next move, whatever that turned out to be. My car carried some state of the art security screening and snooping equipment that I’d customized myself, and was now relatively untraceable. Nissan-Subaru had built it well originally, and I’d added a few security features over the last year that I really felt uncomfortable without.
Without further reason for delay, I set the car’s auto-navigation systems to take me to Pittsburg Airport, dialed in a 10 kph excess on all highway speed limits, and set emergency proximity detectors to 50 yards. I left cellular communications switched off, and told the car to alert me when we crossed state lines. Strictly speaking it’s still illegal to sleep while you drive, but these days almost everyone does it anyway. The onboard billing system would take care of any toll charges, so dimming the glass to privacy mode, I got underway and tried to get some sleep.
Luckily, I was so tired that the events of the previous few weeks didn’t keep me awake for too long. The questions, the suspects, the motives that were bothering me, all faded away, and it seemed all too soon that the auto-navigation system woke me to say that we were approaching Pittsburg airport.
I went inside to get a bite to eat and find WHSmith. I was running a little early. Pittsburg was one of the first Air-Malls to be constructed in North America, back in the ’90s, after the pattern of the European model. To all intents and purposes it was a shopping mall with an airport attached. The shopping crowds thronged the designer stores, and some of them went on to depart for distant places, or make their connecting flights. The crowds made me feel somewhat safer as I ate a leisurely brunch and strolled over to rendezvous with Jazz.
I was still 20 minutes or so early, and had no idea how late she would be, so I took the time to survey the science fiction shelves in Smiths, as I often did when given the luxury of time alone in a real paperbook shop. Keeping one eye on the people coming and going around me, I noticed William Gibson’s latest posthumous cyber-collection was just published, and picked it up to take a look. Charlene Brusso’s latest blockbuster was topping the charts as usual, and Terry Pratchett’s 50th Discworld novel, “Golden Eerings”, appeared to be doing very well.
Jazz startled me with her soft familiar voice close by, “Don’t look up, I think I may have been followed.”
“Let’s walk for a while, then,” I said, putting down the book, “and see who comes with us.”
We followed the standard routine and strolled among the shoppers, staying neither too close or far from each other, so a casual observer would find it hard to tell if we walked together, or were merely heading in the same direction. After ten minutes or so of stopping to look in store windows, checking reflections, and doubling back to examine to goods on offer, it seemed we were not being followed, at least not obviously. I caught up with Jazz in a store entrance.
“Either we’re not being followed, or they are good,” I said.
She looked suddenly small and tired, “I think they are probably very good, but we need to find somewhere to talk anyway.”
“My car is outside, and it’s the safest place I know around here?”
We windowshopped carefully towards the exit.
Back in the comparative safety of my car, I got busy switching on every security device at its disposal, before driving out of the airport taking turnings at random, heading vaguely east. “It will be much harder to find us if we’re moving,” I said, “I’ve waited a long time for this, so please tell me what happened.”
Jazz visibly composed herself, relaxed into the upholstery, and began. “You disconnected, I think, after Simon thought he had everything back under control. He’d sidelined our visitor into an area where he would think the attack was proceeding, but he could do no real harm. We all thought he’d get careless, and make some move that would reveal his identity. Stop me if I’m wrong on any of this”
“That’s exactly as I remember it,” I said, “otherwise I would never have left you to handle it.”
“That’s what we thought too. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. It was as if whoever it was knew the very moment you’d disconnected. Everything just blew up in Simon’s face. The intruder unleashed attack program after attack program, and Simon’s system was compromised while he watched. Even his anti-viruses couldn’t stop this guy as he broke out of Simon’s containment area, and started taking the system apart. I connected in and began analyzing his attack programs immediately, but it was too late to make a difference. He attacked the pricing files, changing all our public pricing structure, our discounts, everything, then started disabling our search and indexing programs, vandalizing our home page, and even replaced the company chairman’s picture with an anatomically explicit diagram of a horse’s rear end. It was pretty ugly to watch, Nick. It was as if we suddenly had no security at all.” Jazz shook her head, remembering.
“So, did you call for any back up from McShane or from me?” I wanted to know.
“Simon was taking care of that while I tackled the intruder. I think he got in touch with McShane to let him know, and contact you urgently, about what had happened. From what he told me afterwards, McShane didn’t seem interested, or to understand the situation. He just kept talking about a well-run ship not needing its captain at the wheel all the time. That a well organized crew should be able to handle it. I can’t begin to tell you how angry that made Simon: he couldn’t believe McShane’s stubbornness, under the circumstances. So we were left on our own Nick. No back up.”
I drove and thought for a while. “No wonder you were angry, facing a severe attack without any support. But what happened to Simon?”
“I was so busy trying to stop the attack by this time, that I really wasn’t paying too much attention. I’m sorry Nick. But the real reason that I was so tied up was because while I was analyzing the code he was using, I recognized most of the individual attack modules. I’d written them myself, back when I was working for the Punjabi Provisional Government on Net attack systems. They were my code modules, and dangerous ones too that I thought had been long forgotten or lost.”
“That’s almost unbelievable,” I said, thinking about the implications of this new bad news.
“So you see there were only two reasonable explanations for the attack. Either there was some government agency involved, who had access to my old code. Or worse still, Nick, I submitted those modules to BioFrontiers as part of my portfolio, when I was being interviewed. If someone in the company had found the modules, this could have been an insider job.”
I wasn’t sure which was really the worse scenario, all things considered, so I pressed for more details. “Then what on earth happened to Simon. You haven’t told me that part yet.”
“I don’t really know,” confessed Jazz. “One moment he was electronically by my side, as I found and rapidly modified my old anti-virus programs to repel the attack. They succeeded in correcting the attacker’s modifications, eventually. At some point I realized Simon wasn’t there any longer, but then he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my beeper calls. Later I found a mail message from him that said simply, ‘Nice work, Jazz, sorry I let you down. I’ll see you when I see you,’ and then nothing after that. That’s when I called you, in a bit of a panic. I’m sorry I used the phone, Nick, but no-one was answering me electronically at that point: Simon, or you, or McShane. I felt very alone.”
“Doesn’t Simon live around here, somewhere?” I said. “If we really want to know what happened, we could do worse than to go and ask him”
“Yes, in Harrisburg, I’m pretty sure. I think I have his address here somewhere for emergencies. But don’t you think they’ll be watching for that kind of move, Nick?” worried Jazz.
“Quite possibly, but I’ve been shot at and fired in the last few days, so I’m beginning to lose my patience. I need to get this resolved one way or the other. I’m sorry too, Jazz.” I filled her in on my recent story, despite the increasing look of disbelief that slowly crept across her face. It was time she knew the whole story, including the part about the bullet holes.
It took two hours before we pulled up outside Simon’s deserted house in suburban Harrisburg. Many years after the Three Mile Island scare, Harrisburg had prospered from close proximity to Lancaster and York, both Amish towns within easy reach. It seemed as though the Amish resistance to high-tech had struck a chord with families with similar latter day concerns, producing a localized growth and prosperity that had not been seen since the days of the original German settlers.
The car’s security systems told me there was no-one home at Simon’s place, and that no-one had transferred data into or out of the house in the last seven days. What appeared to be Simon’s car was parked in the driveway. We had to look elsewhere, and in our case to the local online Harrisburg Yellow Pages. Within walking distance was the “Old Jockey Club”, listed in English with Cantonese subtitles, so we tried our luck there.
The place seemed well past its decorative prime, but moodily lit and quite busy, and it took a while for Jazz to notice Simon. He was sitting in a booth alone, and a very large waiter moved protectively across our path as we headed to join him.
“It’s OK, Henry, they’re with me,” slurred Simon, as we sat down. “And how are my two favorite ex-colleagues doing under the circumstances, then?”
Simon appeared to be well immersed in a rather large cocktail, which judging by his condition, was probably not his first of the evening.
“Well, we’re doing a lot better now, for seeing you alive and in one piece,” said Jazz. “How you are doing is a much more interesting question to us right now?”
“Oh, I can’t complain,” said Simon, saluting us with his cocktail glass in exaggerated fashion. “Career in ruins, laughing stock of the company, on the boss’s very early retirement list. What could be better?”
“Simon,” I said “Listen to me. We need to know what happened. Jazz has told me some of it. But we still have some really important pieces missing; such as what happened when you tried to get backup from McShane that night?”
“That windbag,” said Simon. “Either he didn’t care, or didn’t understand what was happening. He kept blaming you, Nick. ‘Captain of the crew’, ‘going down with the ship’, ‘keeping an even keel’, ‘weathering the storm’, that was all he could talk about. Like talking to a bloody sailors’ almanac. Bloody windbag, that man,” Simon took another gulp. “Then the next day, after Jazz has put all the pieces back together, without my help, and it’s no longer a crisis, he’s back in touch with me like it was all my fault. Hell, he wouldn’t have known anything anyway, if I hadn’t told him. On and on he goes, about how bad it looks to senior management, how heads will have to roll, the need for accountability, surprised I couldn’t handle the situation, disappointed in the team, nothing but a one man show,” Simon stared for a moment at me. “Just who does this guy think he is, Nick?”
“Well unfortunately, he’s the boss,” I said. “Or rather, was the boss. I don’t work for him or the company any longer. This is strictly a freelance investigation, from my point of view.” I filled them both in on my rapid fall from employment.
They told me that they both had similar treatment. Each was summarily fired and thrown out of the company, and then threatened with contractual small print, and offered sweeteners in the form of cash handouts to sign their resignations.
I ordered coffee all round, with double-espresso for Simon, and thought hard about the details Jazz and Simon had filled in for me. Any way you looked at it, none of the events of the last few weeks added up. Our attacker had been fierce, but eventually tamed. My security team had been caught off guard, but made an excellent recovery. Our movements seemed to have been tracked somehow, but there had been no follow through except for the shots fired at me in the UK.
Other than having completely demoralized the security team, by getting them fired, there seemed no winning outcome from our attackers perspective. Which left, well, what?
Three wristwatch beepers warbled into life, as if they were one, shattering this reverie.
“Have either of you got a phone?” I asked. Jazz had, and dialed the emergency contact number. She was relayed through and listened intently.
“OK, I understand… Yes… OK… Yes… I’ll let you know if that’s a problem.” and she hung up.
“It was McShane.” said Jazz. “He wants us to come in to HQ and talk. He says we’d be crazy not to come, immediately.”
I was still staring wide-eyed at my wristwatch beeper. I’d worn it almost continuously for nearly ten years. It was so familiar that it was like part of my body. At last, some pieces of the puzzle that had been driving me crazy started to fall into place.
“I think we’d better leave these things here though. They’re a security risk now, from our point of view,” I said, pointing at my wristwatch beeper.
“I’ve got a better idea,” said Simon. “Give them to me.” He gathered up the beepers and took them with him through the nearby ‘Employees only’ door. A minute or two later he returned, smiling. “Let them try and track us with those things now. They’re already on their way to Old Hong Kong.”
I looked at Simon and Jazz. “Well, if we ever want to get to the bottom of this, I suppose we could go and hear what McShane has to say for himself. What do you think?”
“I don’t trust him, Nick,” said Jazz, “I think he likes to play with people”
“That’s true,” I said, “but what do we really have to lose by talking to him? It’s not as if we work for him any longer, so he has no control over us. How about you, Simon?”
“I think the same as Jazz. I didn’t like the way he fired me, payoff or no payoff, but I’d feel more comfortable if we three met with him as a team.”
“Well, my car is outside, so let’s get moving. We can work out some tactics on the way.”
With the car’s security and satellite navigation systems engaged, we embarked on the lengthy journey back to New England. Traveling quickly along major highways, the afternoon wore on into evening, and the light began to fail under greying skies.
We spent the hours trading ideas on who our attackers had been, what our favorite conspiracy theories were, and how the evidence supported them. We had plenty of theories to choose from.
Overall, Simon favored the idea that it was an insider job. Probably a disgruntled programmer who had somehow got access internally to Jazz’s old code, and then used it to make our security team look bad. Perhaps with the idea of moving into a security position once a number of vacancies had opened up unexpectedly. Or possibly in cahoots with McShane to discredit our security team, so he could bring in some of his old cronies from other companies.
These ideas certainly had merit. McShane was well connected in the security industry, and a relative newcomer to BioFrontier. It might explain his enthusiasm to payoff the team, but not really why someone should take a shot at me in the UK.
Jazz still seemed shaken by encountering her old code. Her theories seemed built around her worries about whose hands it might have fallen into. She thought the most likely explanation was a political reaction against the recently reunified Indian Government. It seemed likely that someone from an ex-Punjabi government faction might use her old code to attack one or more multinational companies and then use the attack as way to raise cash for the Punjab, either with an online protection racket of some kind, or as a blackmail operation with the company or companies that were attacked.
Again this seemed plausible, and since the UK had many Punjabi sympathizers, could explain why I had been shot at. However, it didn’t explain the inside knowledge of the security team and their movements, including my suspicions about being tracked by our wristwatch beepers.
My theories I kept to myself, but I did share my impressions with Jazz and Simon. I was no great fan of McShane, but couldn’t believe he would have the imagination (at least without help) to put together some kind of grand scheme to get rid of us, without anyone finding out about it. I began to explain why generally speaking, government-conspiracy theories were much less likely to be true than commercial-conspiracy theories, when a slight snore from Jazz on the back seat interrupted my analysis.
“Am I really that boring, when I get going?” I asked Simon quietly.
He grinned widely. “Only when you’re really trying to convince yourself, Nick.”
I shook my head. These folks that I’d hardly ever met, seemed to know me so well. “I’d better shut up then, Simon, and let you get some sleep too, if you like.”
“I think I will, if you really don’t mind?” said Simon.
Jazz turned in her sleep, saying something in Punjabi. Simon looked at me, “What was that all about?”
“Beats me. Afraid I don’t speak the language, whatever it is,” I lied gently. “Anyway, you get some sleep and I’ll wake you both when we’re nearly there.”
I tended the controls unnecessarily, the music turned down low as they slept and we sped through the night. I worried that Jazz was taking her share of blame for the attack much too hard. “Dear Mother, please forgive me,” she’d said in her sleep.
We stopped for coffee and croissants a few miles from HQ. It was a good chance for us all to stretch and wake up, and agree on how we would handle the meeting. We were unanimous in our distrust of McShane, but decided to play it cool, and not get drawn into any of his provocative tactics. Careful listening to whatever proposal he had in mind seemed the best approach. If pressured, we would regain control over the situation by retiring to my car to confer among ourselves, screened by its security systems so we couldn’t be monitored. At least I hoped so. Nothing was cut and dried in this business.
Before we left the coffee shop, I went to use the facilities, which were down a hallway by the back door. A stocky man in a tweed jacket came in through the back, narrowly beating me to the door of the men’s room.
“Oh sorry,” he said, in a well-spoken English accent, and held the door open. “After you.”
I nodded, and went in, saying nothing. Now was not the time to indulge in the usual expatriate banter about ‘where are you from’, ‘are you here on holiday’, and so on. I shut the cubicle door behind me, but that didn’t stop him talking.
“It’s amazing how it’s a small world, isn’t it?” he said chattily. “My wife’s always meeting people who know the same people that she knows. Hardly ever happens to me. Well, not very often anyway. Does that ever happen to you, Nick? It is Nick, isn’t it? Or are you using a different name at the moment?”
I tensed. “Have we met?” I said, leaving the cubicle. He could be a long lost relative, but somehow I doubted it. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with names.”
“Not to worry, Nick. Actually we haven’t met, but I was sent to find you and make you a little proposal on behalf of His Majesty’s Government.”
“His Majesty’s Government and I haven’t been on speaking terms for a long time,” I said, “so why would I be interested in any proposal from them?”
“Well, it’s like this Nick, when a matter of National Security is involved, His Majesty’s representatives can be rather insistent. We believe you could help us locate certain software that is currently in the wrong hands, and represents a threat to us and our European allies. You would of course be well paid for your trouble. Might even be a little something in the New Year’s Honours list for you, if that would help?”
“Don’t think I can help you,” I said, “but if something comes up I’ll keep you in mind. How should I get in touch?”
“I don’t think you quite understand the seriousness of your position, Nick. If we don’t get those items in 48 hours, then some very dangerous colleagues of mine will be looking for you to help you change your mind. If I were you, I’d think about that. And I’ll be in touch within 24 hours to see if anything has ‘come up’.”
At that moment the men’s room door opened and a burly State Trooper entered. Gratefully, I seized the chance to leave. Hurrying back to the table, I rushed Jazz and Simon out to the car, starting up, driving off, and activating all security systems in brisk succession.
“You are not going to believe what happened back there,” I said. “I just got threatened by the UK government to hand over your attack viruses, Jazz, or else. How the hell did they know about them?”
Simon seemed to find this hilariously funny, and it was some minutes before he could wipe the tears of laughter from his face and explain. “Good old UK government,” he managed to say, “always the last to know about anything. God bless ’em.”
Jazz and I were both looking incredulously at him, “What are you talking about, Simon?” I said irritably.
“You asked me why you couldn’t reach me after the attack. Well I wasn’t just upset because they broke into my system, at least not after a few hours anyway. It was because I had a call from one of my old colleagues in Beijing telling me to hide out. I didn’t need telling twice; those Chinese bureaucrats can get pretty nasty. When they couldn’t find me after a week or so, my old colleague called back to arrange a meeting. Turns out they used him to get in touch and offer me some serious money if I turned Jazz’s programs over to them, or else a broken neck if I didn’t. I was drinking with him in the Old Jockey Club about an hour before you two showed up.” He paused, “I’m sorry, Nick, I should have told you before. I just didn’t want to drag either of you into this.”
“I understand, Simon, I just wish I’d known earlier that there were two governments aware of Jazz’s attack programs. It does raise the stakes on all of this. Commercial players can be rough enough, but when governments get involved then lives can suddenly become expendable.”
Jazz cleared her throat loudly, “This probably isn’t the best time to mention it, but according to my arithmetic, that makes a total of three governments out to their hands on my programs. The Indian government was the first to get in touch, Nick, almost as soon as we’d fought off our attacker. They threatened my family, Nick, and they threatened to kill you, if I didn’t cooperate.”
“This gets worse and worse,” I groaned. “So what are you telling us then, Jazz? Are these the ones who took a shot at me? What kind of danger is your family in, back in India?”
“Don’t worry, Nick,” said Jazz. “My family is still in the Punjab, so there’s no way the Indian government could ever get them out without starting another civil war. United India or no United India. I don’t know if they shot at you or not; I thought maybe they did, but it sounds now as if there are a number of suspects. But that’s why I called you when you got back, to make sure you weren’t hurt. And that’s why I hid the attack programs, and the anti-attack programs, so carefully after we’d fought off the attack.”
This new information was all well and good, but it didn’t help. “So how did all these governments find out about the attacks,” I said, “and who was doing the attacking, and how did they get hold of your programs so easily, when it seems like the rest of the world is now willing to pay big money or break bones to get them?” All I got were blank looks from Simon and Jazz. This whole damn thing still made no sense at all.
HQ rolled into view, and I parked deliberately in “Customer Parking Only”. It was close to the entrance, and we might need the car nearby if we needed a private place to adjourn.
McShane’s admin guy met us at reception, handed out visitor’s badges, and ushered us into the luxury meeting room normally reserved for executive clients.
McShane as expected sat near the end of the big conference table, but his companions were something of a surprise. His boss Angela Didier, the VP of Corporate Operations, sat at the head of the table, and next to her was a large grim-faced man I didn’t recognize, wearing a visitor’s badge and looking uncomfortable in a dark grey suit.
Angela was apparently running the meeting, “Please do sit down Nick, and thanks for coming. You must be Jasindah Singh and Simon Wang. Please, make yourselves comfortable. We have some catching up to do, some explanations and some apologies. And we need your help.” She smiled disarmingly, “But we don’t have a lot of time.”
“That’s a lot to cover,” I smiled back. “So how about starting with some explanations, and I really like the sound of those apologies you mentioned.”
McShane meanwhile was studying the backs of his hands as they lay on the table. He had the look of someone who wished he was somewhere else.
“Well let’s start with our hacker attack shall we?” said Angela. “You’re probably wondering who was responsible for that little episode. Mr McShane here would probably like to talk about that.”
McShane didn’t appear too happy at the idea, but began. “Well, it was just routine, you know. Most companies do this kind of thing on a regular basis, and we don’t, so it seemed a perfectly sound process to bring in some external security consultants to test out our system security.”
“So-called friendly hackers,” I said, getting it, “if there was ever a contradiction in terms. And where did they get their attack programs from?”
Angela interrupted, “I understand your anger, Nick, but let’s try to get through this please. Mr McShane, let’s keep this short and to the point.”
“If you say so,” said McShane. “Well I contacted this outfit I’d run into at last year’s SecureNet Expo, and talked to them about staging a routine break-in. They seemed keen at first, but when they found out Nick was security chief, they seemed to lose interest. Apparently Nick’s better known than he thinks; must be all those conferences. Anyhow, I offered to loan them some of the attack software we had lying around, just to make it a bit more of a challenge. That’s when they agreed to do the job, provided I would let them know when Nick was not connected. I thought it would be a good exercise for the team, not to have to rely on him to call every play. And in the end, they did succeed without his help. This is after all a security department, and not Nick’s personal fan club.”
Angela frowned disapprovingly at this last remark, and he was silent.
“Let’s see if I have this right,” I said. “You gave a bunch of complete strangers a copy of Jazz’s attack software without knowing how powerful it was? It’s a good job you didn’t hire them to test the physical security of this office; you’d probably have given them bazookas and live rockets.”
Angela was serious. “If it had ended there, then we could have dealt with matters internally. Unfortunately when Mr McShane realized how effective the attack had been, instead of coming to me about it, he decided to cover up his tracks by getting rid of you and your people. In retrospect, I should have probed his justification in more depth, but, well, as he pointed out at the time, we had just had our chairman turned into a horse’s bottom.”
“I can see how that would be uncomfortable,” I said, “but why would that make it an external matter?”
“Well, we registered the break-in, as we are required to do even in the case of a ‘friendly hacker’. Then this gentleman got in touch with me,” said Angela, gesturing to the grim-faced suit. “Would you like to introduce yourself, Mister, er…”
“Thanks. You can call me Smith. Or Major, if you prefer. I’m attached to Military Intelligence’s Net Division. I got in touch with BioFrontier as soon as I saw the details of the break-in. We’ve been picking up reports of a new wave of hack attacks over the last few weeks. Mostly prestige targets who don’t want the publicity. Banks, Net vendors, Biotechs, Pharms, Space, the usual crowd who can afford to pay the protection money to these nerds.” He scowled. “More money than sense. Had to threaten half of them with legal action and publicity before they’d give us the details.”
“Anyway, when we cross-correlated the data, it looked like your friends were the ones doing it. And using the attack software you gave them, we’d say.” This time his scowl was aimed squarely at McShane.
“Well, normally we’d have got copies of the attack and anti-attack software and gone after these people by now, but it looks like someone around here has been too cute for their own good, and hidden everything. The folks here at BioFrontier have been very cooperative with my agency, but basically we’ve torn the place apart and haven’t found a thing.” It was our turn for the magnificent scowl. “So which one of you smart asses has got that software?”
“So you see, Nick, I said we needed your help,” said Angela. “We need to locate the software and hand it over to Major Smith here, so these people can be stopped. We could even talk about giving you your old jobs back?”
“Major Smith,” I said, “that’s a wonderful story, and I want to thank you for giving us valuable insight into your agency’s workings, but could you please explain to us why we should believe a single word you’ve said? You haven’t shown us any proof, and there’s been nothing about this on the Net. All three of us have had an interesting time lately, and we’re not really in the mood to take anyone’s word about anything.”
“Well, Nick,” said Smith, “if that’s your real name. I don’t give a damn whether you believe me or not. Your bosses here…”
“Ex-bosses” I corrected.
“Your ex-bosses, then, said you’d probably listen and cooperate, since you don’t like hackers any more than the rest of us. However, I didn’t come unprepared for your answer.”
Smith pulled three thick old-fashioned manila folders from his briefcase. “Now then what do we have here: Simon, Jazindah and Nick. Chinese citizen, Indian citizen and British citizen. Three resident aliens, if I’m not mistaken. Do you know how long it would take me to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and get those Green Cards canceled? Do you know how fast I could get you on three planes back to the old country? If I don’t get that software in the next 30 minutes, I promise you’ll find out.”
Smith certainly knew how to create a compelling threat when he put his mind to it, but then he probably had quite a while to think about it. I remembered my car sitting outside, and decided we needed some time to regroup.
“It will take us about 10 minutes to discuss your proposal, Major Smith. If we decide to go along with your suggestion, you’ll probably have your software in half an hour.” I sounded a lot more confident than I felt. “If you’ll excuse us, I suggest you spend the time arranging system access for us. We’ll also need a fast Net connection, and complete privacy.”
With that the three of us strolled out to my car, and sat in it with the security systems at maximum.
“This is a really bad situation,” said Simon. “If the US government don’t get us, my lot, or the Indians, or the Brits will do.”
“Right, but if we don’t play along with this Smith character, I’ll be on the next plane to India and in deep trouble when I arrive,” said Jazz.
“Not to mention McShane’s buddies are still out there getting rich using your software, Jazz,” I said. “By the way, where on earth did you hide the software? Must have been pretty well hidden if those Intelligence guys couldn’t find it.”
Jazz smiled, “Just an old lock and key trick I learned years ago. I’ve got the lock and Simon has the key.”
“I have?” said Simon, surprised.
“The best key carriers are those without a worried expression,” said Jazz, and laughed. “You must be the least inscrutable Chinese person I’ve ever met, so I didn’t want you broadcasting the fact with that worried look of yours.”
“Well, I’m glad no-one found out before I did,” said Simon, “or I would have never forgiven you.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said. “You’ve just given me an idea. We’d need complete privacy for a few minutes to pull it off, but it might be a way to get out of this mess.”
A few minutes later, with our plan sketched out, I retrieved my portable snooper from the back of the car, and we went back into the conference room.
“Here’s the deal. We deliver the software within an hour, as a one-off contract. Here’s the hourly rate.” I scribbled on a piece of paper and passed it to Angela, who raised her eyebrows a bit when she read it, but said nothing. “As for you, Major Smith, we’d like official letters of commendation adding to those thick files you’re so fond of. Do we have an agreement?”
“You do,” said Angela and Smith together.
“Now, where’s that system?” I asked.
The three of us were in a private office, which was a good deal more private after my snooper had done its work and removed one or two devices that I didn’t like watching me.
Simon began by ‘netting into his home system to pick up the key that Jazz had carefully hidden in an email message footer that she’d sent him.
“How are we doing for time?” he asked.
“About another 15 minutes to be on the safe side,” I said.
Next Jazz ‘netted across to her system in California, and then relayed back to her security server in HQ. “It won’t let me in with the right privileges unless I relay in from that particular system,” she explained. Then she began to perform what looked like a server backup and disk compression.
“No offense intended, but is this a good time to be tidying up your disks, Jazz?” I said.
She laughed, “Looks like the real thing, doesn’t it. Well, it’s actually reassembling the software that I randomly scattered across a terabyte or two of this server. At least, I hope it is.”
So did we. This didn’t seem a quick process and time was ticking away. Less than ten minutes left. “OK, there it is,” she said. The system said simply ‘Key please’, and when Simon supplied the file, ‘Error in key file’.
“Damn” said Jazz, “Not enough keys, Simon. Get back in your system, quickly. I forgot I sent you a double key, just to be on the safe side.”
I was looking at my watch. Five minutes left. “Come on folks, we’re running out of time.”
It seemed to take forever for Simon to get back into his system and for Jazz to find the second key, this time hidden in a voice message. “Three minutes to go,” I was beginning to sound like a speaking clock.
“OK, let’s try again,” Jazz was concentrating hard, moving quickly. “There we go.” At last the programs unlocked themselves and the system simply said ‘Ready’.
“OK then,” I said. “Let’s broadcast these little troublemakers and get the hell out of here.” My watch said one minute left, and I hoped there would be enough time before Major Smith had us shut off.
Agonizingly slowly we watched the fast Net uplink working, shifting the large files containing the attack programs and anti-attack programs up to the public Net, propagating them from server to server, creating a cascading waterfall of software being copied around the world again and again and again, until there were too many copies of the programs to count.
“We did it!” said Simon. “Let them try and keep those things for themselves now.”
“Thank God they’re not my problem any more,” Jazz sighed.
“We really, really have to leave right now,” I said.
Too late. We ran into Angela and Smith a short way down the hall towards the exit.
“Mission accomplished?” asked Angela, holding a bankers draft.
“Most definitely,” I said, and plucked the paper from her fingers.
Smith looked pleased, “So where’s my software?”
“Oh, you can get it off the Net now,” I said. “Like anyone else. I think that concludes our business today, but if you need any more help, you know where to find us.”
They stared after us as we left the building, tossing our badges to the security guard.
Climbing into my car, we drove off. I didn’t bother to set the security systems. There didn’t seem to be anything left to hide.
“Do you think they’ll ever forgive us, Nick?” asked Jazz.
“Who do you mean? The US, Chinese, Indians, Brits, or those blackmailers sitting out there with attack software that is now completely obsolete?”
Simon laughed. “But will any corporation ever employ us again after this?”
“Probably not,” I said, “once they get to hear about us. On the other hand, if we were looking to start our own company, I don’t think the notoriety will do us the least bit of harm. Could be the best publicity that money couldn’t buy, now I come to think of it.”
Simon chuckled, approvingly.
“Sounds like a plan to me” said Jazz.
Writer, editor, webmaster, web producer, Mick is a serial ex-pat who's lived in four countries (USA, Germany, France and UK) with his long suffering spouse over the last 25 years. His interests include time travel, world rally, mountain biking, digital marketing and audio systems of startling fidelity.
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