I’m covered in sweat. I’m pulling the last of the rig off of me. I’ve been immersed in the net for maybe 8 or 10 hours, trying desperately to cover my tracks and evade the Feds. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
This all began with a phone call back in February. Everybody’s got a number now. Most people get their phone number when they are a kid and never change it. The telcos now have to let you take your number with you. In a way, your phone number is a personal thing, like your social security number or your National ID – ‘cept everybody has one to their own personal phone in every country pretty much. I guess maybe not in China, or some outlying area… but I’m off the point, which was that some Johnson got my number and called me about a little routine tracking he needed. He wanted me to find someone on the net. Not usually a big deal, but in this case I had searched for about four months, and had nothing to show for it. If I couldn’t score, this guy would probably not find the charity to pay me for my effort. People pay for information, and usually that means something positive. An address or something tangible. I had nada.
For several weeks, I searched public databases and followed trails the twisted and turned and all ended up in dead ends. You typically start with a search of public records. I pay for a service that lets me into all of the normal places, DMV, court records, credit reports. There was nothing in the “public” domain that could lead me to this Alan Smithee. I didn’t have much to go on from the start – a name and some sketchy background information, a former address, former employer. The guy didn’t have any friends or relatives from what I could tell. He was a scientist that kept to himself. There were records that he attended a certain college and worked at a certain laboratory after graduation. Not much to go on. It wasn’t until last week that I thought to hack into some private databases. The local grocery, some net subscriptions… the data didn’t amount to much. If I could locate some actual records of his activty on the net, I might have more to go on.
I called in some favors and came up with a login for a government contractor. This access in turn let me onto a trusted computer and from there I could exploit a vulnerability in the outdated database being used by the department of records. In turn, I was able proxy an official request for net records from Homeland Security. I didn’t expect it to turn anything up. I indicated in my request that the person was on a terrorist suspect list, I figured it would bypass some security checks that way and return a quicker result. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
I use a graphical interface that lets me navigate through the net, moving from one data store to another as though the net was a physical place. Data flows with neon colors through routers and switches. The world I see when I “jack in” is full of color and motion. Processes are animated as people or animals. Security guards check for identification, dogs sniff packets for content, cameras monitor, shop keepers run virtual storefronts, like an online mall crossed with the old movie Tron. In fact, I can apply skins to my interface so I can view the net in a number of ways, depending on my mood. Again, I’m off the point.
I was working on another job last night, dispatching agents and searching the records of a startup company for an investor, when a monkey ran up to me and handed me a note. I know, a pop-up window would have done, but I have this thing for monkeys. Anyhow, my query was returned from DHS on Smithee. I reprised my role as government contractor, which changed the appearance of my avatar, and I reentered the branch office for the department of records. When I went to the virtual mailroom to claim my package, I found instead of a brown paper wrapped package that was large enough to contain Internet records for Smithee, a small express envelope with a return receipt. I forged a signature and opened the envelope. It contained an address for a private DHS data store and an access code.
I flagged down a taxi and arrived at a warehouse on a side alley. It was a small nondescript warehouse in a run-down neighborhood. It belied the importance of the data held inside. My credentials were accepted without question and I was ushered into the warehouse. It was a seemlingly endless data store, shelves piled high with papers, bundles and printouts, file cabinets, vaults and bookish clerks running about with their arms full of books and documents. I walked over to the front desk and a clerk took the letter from me and ran off to fetch my prize.
I sat down at a table with the results of my query. I wasn’t allowed to make copies or take the data with me. It was evident that the government had taken an interest in this Smithee guy and had systematically taken to erasing all records of his life after a certain date. The care with which they had done this indicated that there were very powerful people involved in covering up his disaperance. Smithee was working on a top secret project involving tracking people using tools that had been designed to monitor for terrorists. People had been assured by the government that these tools would not be used to track the behavior of “regular citizens” – however the privacy we take for granted is just an illusion. The documents indicated that he had learned that the sensors and tags and security devices were being used to watch and correlate what everyone did. The RFID tags in your groceries and clothes, the biometric scanners that scan your eyes and watch how you move in public places, the sensors in your cars and houses and the millions of net locations you visit over your lifespan all were cross referenced in a giant government data warehousing project. Public and private data was combined, correlated and used as the government saw fit. Normally this is a good thing, but it invites the corrupt to abuse it. Which it seems is what happened. People were disapearing, like Smithee. He seemed to have been visiting certain sites and communicating with certain people, I made a mental note of this. It all reached a climax when he was researching political contributions for a recent campaign. I got the feeling that he’d found some of the officials who were abusing the project and was going to turn them in. And there was no indication of where Smithee was now, but there was a code indicating he had been detained and that was the last entry.
I had been pouring over the records for the better part of an hour. I was about to leave discretely when a clerk came up to me. He informed me that my credentials had been declined when they were reviewed. He asked me for my credentials again. I pulled out something that looked good enough to keep them busy for a few minutes and handed it to the clerk. He asked me to wait. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I had to find a way to quietly exit the warehouse, but all eyes were on me as he walked away. Now, in the real world, a person would just shut off their computer and the problem would go away, but an abnormal exit would give me away. Not only would it lock me out of my system backdoor, but disconnecting improperly would allow them to trace the connection back, eventually, to my local switch. Even if I powered down, there were records for everything. I needed to backtrack and lead them in the wrong direction before disconnecting.
I had some tricks up my virtual sleeve that would cause some confusion. The clerk protocol was designed to reply to all internal queries. Even though my credentials were being reviewed, I could create a denial of service of sorts by sending out a large number of queries. My avatar moved quickly and clerks began to run off to begin a series of pointless searches. The DoS was having an affect, and the graphics of the warehouse began to pixelate. The engines behind the data store were bogging down. I made my move for the door and ran.
There were agents of the system behind me that were attempting to initiate a trace. Men in black were following me. I had to route my traffic in such a way that they couldn’t trace it back to my apartment. I cursed myself for not performing the hack from an anonymous location. I had been too self-confident, now I had to prove that I was up to the challenge. These agents were good, they followed me as I ran and commandered a car to follow me after I hotwired a motorcycle. They knew the grid well, I’ll give them that. It wasn’t easy to evade them. I spent a couple hours of close calls trying to avoid their detection. I knew the underbelly of the grid, the outskirts and the dark alleys. I knew the crooked businessmen who set up shop, with temporary and always changing addresses, names and aliases to servers off-shore. While I didn’t rat out anyone I personally knew, I passed through enough shady businesses and porn sites that any government agent should have been distracted. Yet these agents were different, thorough, relentless. They wouldn’t stop for an easy bust, and didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the mob or the gangs. I had hit upon something big. Something that could get me killed. Something that had probably gotten Smithee killed. I had written the number down on my Avatar’s arm, so I could check that out later. If I made it back safely.
It was the last turn, a route through a test switch that shut down every morning at 4 AM. I had to time my passage just right. By now I had switched “vehicles” several time. I was as indiscrete as I could be in an old Monte Carlo with Mexican plates. The switch played out in my visual net as a drawbridge, going up at 4 AM on the nose. It was a cliche, jumping the open drawbridge, but to the DHS agents it was all ones and zeros. I couldn’t allow myself to get drawn into the reality of the net I was playing in. That was just a contrivance that helped me act and react on the timeframe that the processes and agents were operating at. If I bought this as a literal translation, I’d lose my objectivity and get caught. But I played the game well, and at just a microsecond before 4 AM, the Monte Carlo flew over the drawbridge and the Feds were left behind. Their trace program had failed and after putting a few virtual miles between us, I pulled over and unplugged. That’s where I am now. Unplugged. Awaken from the self-induced coma that we call “jacking in”.
I’ve got some diagnostics to run, just to be sure I made it out safely. I will let my system surf random sites (from all the logs someone might collect on me, I always have it appear that I am just surfing the net). Once I feel safe, I’ll pass out for a few hours and then go someplace safe to conatct Mr. Johnson. He owes me.