We Hit Back
by Sean Patrick Hazlett
A column of Chinese tanks lumbered over a muddy pontoon bridge floating on the Amur River. From his comfortable Palo Alto office, Lionel Jones shook his head as he watched the scene unfold on his plasma screen TV. Ethnic conflict between a swelling Chinese immigrant population and native Russians was the spark, but he suspected the war was really over Eastern Siberia’s ample coal, titanium, and molybdenum.
Lionel saw the war as an opportunity, a boon for the cybersecurity business. And it’d be especially lucrative for his remediation and forensics group at CyberFortress Technology, which cleaned up corporate networks in the aftermath of an infestation. Ever since the emergence of advanced persistent threats, businesses were taking cybersecurity much more seriously. A single breach could not only ruin the reputation of a company, but also could put it out of business.
As an African-American in the software industry, Lionel had always been an outsider. But his Army experience had proven to be a unique asset in working with the military and law enforcement to track down hackers. Silicon Valley technocratic arrogance didn’t play well at the Pentagon, but real-world war-fighting experience did.
Lionel rose from his black leather chair and headed toward his office’s frosted glass door. As he was about to exit, his office phone rang. Sighing, he returned to his desk and answered.
“Help, Dad! I can’t make it stop!” his twenty-year-old son, Reggie, yelled, the sound of screeching tires punctuating his plea.
Lionel’s gut twisted into a knot. Reggie was scaring him. Taking a deep breath, Lionel collected his thoughts. His son could be excitable at times – too much of his mother in him.
“Calm down, Reggie. What’s going on?”
“I can’t stop my car!” he howled over the roaring engine. “It’s in auto control mode!”
Lionel froze. He was always the man with the plan. But now he felt paralyzed. His heart raced. Think, man. Think!
“Wait,” Reggie said. “The car’s slowing down. Something popped up on my dashboard display.”
Lionel exhaled, releasing his tightly controlled tension. “Okay. It sounds like you’re gonna be all right. Do you have control of the car?”
“The display’s telling me to enter your bank account number.”
“The hell?” Lionel said, regretting the words the instant they left his mouth. Then he had one horrifying thought.
“It says I have twenty minutes to enter it.”
“Or what?” Lionel said, temper flaring.
“It doesn’t say.”
“How fast are you moving?”
“The car just stopped in a Safeway parking lot.”
“Get out of the car!” Lionel said, his decades-old Army training kicking in.
He heard fumbling. “I can’t, Dad. I’m locked in.” Reggie’s quivering voice verged on panic.
“Shit,” Lionel said. Of course Reggie would be locked in. “Grab something. Anything. Quick. Smash the windows. Get out!”
Glass shattered. The engine rumbled. Tires squealed.
“The car’s moving again! I have eighteen minutes! Help!”
Lionel could feel the terror in his son’s voice. Reggie was in an automated death trap, destination unknown. And Lionel had only eighteen minutes to save him.
“Stay calm. What’s your smartphone’s username and password?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Reggie said, voice shaking.
“I’ll be able to track your location.”
Reggie shared the details.
“Give me five minutes to figure something out,” Lionel said, “and I’ll call you back.”
“Hurry up, Dad!” Reggie cried.
Lionel gave Reggie’s location to the police. They promised to send a squad car. He then reached out to Travis Myers, his contact at Infinium Motors.
“When’s the last time you pushed out a major software update?” Lionel asked.
“Two hours ago,” Travis said. “Why? There a problem?”
“Might be. Can you send it to our sandboxing server ASAP? I have a bit of a situation.”
“Sure. What’s going on?”
“Just send it. If your software’s been compromised, I’ll let you know.”
Within five minutes, Lionel had the software in his company’s cloud-based sandbox, and his analysts were running the executable to see if it exhibited any unusual or known malware behavior.
Lionel called Reggie back. “Talk to me, Reggie.”
“The car’s now on I-280, clocking ninety miles per hour. I’m scared, Dad.”
“Hang in there, buddy.” Lionel paused to clear a lump in his throat. “Your Infinium downloaded some software a few hours ago. My people are checking if the file’s been compromised. If so, we may be able to find the people holding you for ransom.”
“Can you make the car stop?”
“I can’t. Not in the time we have left. But the police have your coordinates. They’re on the way.”
“Okay, Dad,” Reggie whimpered. Then he said, “Wait, I see a cop behind me now.”
Lionel was relieved. He might get Reggie out of this mess after all and without losing his life savings.
Reggie screamed. “Dad! My car accelerated. It’s going nuts!”
Sirens blared. A bead of sweat rolled down Lionel’s cheek. “Hang in there. I’m gonna check on my team and see if this has anything to do with that download.”
“Please hurry.” Reggie sobbed. “Don’t let me die, Dad.”
“You’re not gonna die. I’ll find a way to override the malware. Hang in there, buddy. I’ll call you right back.”
Lionel hung up, then dialed Pete Carlson, a longtime CyberFortress colleague. “You find anything, Pete?”
“Nope,” Pete said. “You can tell Infinium Motors their code’s clean as soap.”
“Shit,” Lionel said. “Okay. You have any idea how someone could hack an automobile without infecting the manufacturer’s software.”
“There’s only one other way I can think of,” Pete said. “They must’ve hacked into another device that interfaces with the car. Probably a smartphone.”
“I thought auto companies had a firewall between their mission critical and secondary systems?”
“They do, but it sounds like something nasty overcame those precautions. And whoever did this was one sophisticated son-of-a-bitch.”
“You can’t just hack into any engine control unit’s embedded software. The programming specs for any given car vary by make and model. Anyone who hacked into your son’s car would’ve had specific knowledge of those specs and would’ve customized the code.”
“Bottom line this for me, Pete,” Lionel said.
“Well, I don’t want to talk out of school, but I would bet this attack wasn’t random. Whoever designed the malware was likely targeting your son.”
Pete’s suggestion terrified Lionel. “Thanks, Pete,” he said, gritting his teeth.
Lionel called Reggie. “Reggie, did you download anything on your smartphone today?”
“I download things on my smartphone all the time. Hell, most of the time, apps download data automatically. What’s it matter? I’ve only got seven minutes left. It’s just money. Just give these jerks what they want.”
Lionel took a deep breath. “Okay, write this down, but don’t enter it until one minute before the deadline. I need to make some calls first.”
“Okay, Dad. I love you.”
“I love you too, buddy.” Lionel gave Reggie his account number and password. Then he hung up and called his security contact at the smartphone manufacturer.
“Harvey, I need you to send our sandboxing group all of Reggie’s apps and download activity for the last twenty-four hours. We have a live breach in progress.”
“Will do,” Harvey said.
Lionel hung up and sent an email to his bank’s fraud department, instructing them to freeze his account. He then followed up with a phone call.
It took three minutes to get a representative on the phone. As he recounted the details of the compromise, the woman said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, but you just wired your funds to an encrypted account.”
Lionel’s heart stopped. Before he could respond, his phone beeped. “I have to take this call,” he told the woman.
Switching to the other line, Lionel prayed it was his son.
“Mr. Jones, this is Officer Ramos of the San Mateo Police Department,” a man said in an authoritative tone. “We’re gonna need you to come into the station.”
Tears welled in Lionel’s eyes. He didn’t want to believe it, but deep down he knew the truth. “You want me to identify my son’s body, don’t you?”
“Mr. Jones, I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss it over the phone. Just come to the station.”
“I’ll be there,” Lionel said, choking on his tears.
Huddled up against the bar, Lionel finished his fifth shot of Jack Daniels. His old Army buddy, Mack McKeown, grabbed a stool and sat beside him. He wore one of those leather Member’s Only jackets, and he was starting to get fat.
Lionel squinted up at his friend. “Whoa! What are you doing here, buddy?”
Mack’s pale, freckled face flashed an expression of concern. “You’re drunk as a skunk, Lionel. I can smell you half way across the bar. Everything all right? I mean, considering…”
“You mean after I just buried my son. I’m at one of the world’s largest cybersecurity companies and I still couldn’t find the killers. How pathetic am I?” Lionel said, spitting out his words like bile.
Mack held up his hands. “I’m here to help, man. Janet told me you weren’t doing too well. Said it might do you some good to see an old friend.”
Lionel slapped Mack on the back. “I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to bust your balls. I hear you’re doing real well. Made full-bird Colonel and all.”
Mack’s jaw tensed. His smile seemed forced. “I’m doing just fine. I’ve been very blessed. Until you’d lost your son, you’d been blessed too.”
“Ah, cut your religious bullshit. What kind of a God makes a man bury his own son? It ain’t natural.”
“C’mon, Lionel,” Mack said, putting his hand on Lionel’s arm, “You didn’t have to go there.”
Lionel pushed it away. “The hell I didn’t. Have you ever seen what happens when a car launches someone off a cliff at a hundred and twenty miles an hour?” Tears flowed down Lionel’s face. “I had to bury my boy in a closed casket. They’re still finding pieces of him off 280. And the passive measures we use to identify cybercriminals aren’t enough to catch the bastard who killed him. I’d have to take a more active approach – an approach my company would never sanction.”
Mack grabbed Lionel by both shoulders and looked him directly in the eyes. He shot Lionel the same stern glare he had in Ramadi, just before a firefight. “You can’t bring your son back, and drinking your life away is unworthy of the man who saved my life. Without you, I wouldn’t be here. Grab some sack and be the man I used to know, not this shriveled up wimp who’s sniveling and feeling sorry for himself.
“Life’s not fair. So quit whining and do something about it. You work at a cybersecurity company. Influential people have got your back. Hell, your world famous college roommate, Al Meyer, is even using his political comedy show as a megaphone to criticize hacktivists, in no small part to honor your son’s memory. These ransomware kidnappings are starting to happen a lot more lately. Seems to me you’re at the right flippin’ place at the right flippin’ time with access to the right flippin’ people. Seems to me, God’s got a plan for you.”
Lionel stared at his friend, this magnificent bastard who’d taken him to hell and back. He smiled and then hugged his old friend. “Mack, for the first time in my life, I know exactly what I need to do.”
Standing before the boardroom entrance, Lionel clenched his notes. The solid oak door swiveled open. Gilbert Reynolds, the company’s weather-beaten chief counsel, grinned at Lionel and extended his arm toward the entrance. “Mr. Jones, it’s your time to shine,” he said in a deceptively disarming Texas twang.
Forcing a smile, Lionel wiped his sweaty brow. He took one last deep breath, then took the plunge.
Cold, stale air made him shiver as he entered. He noticed Admiral George Whitehall first. The humorless retired naval officer held court at the head of the marble boardroom table. The instant he set eyes on Whitehall, Lionel began to doubt himself. What the hell was he doing? The board was going to think he was nuts. If they didn’t, he was pretty sure his proposal would be too dicey for them.
It was a gamble. But it was a gamble for something Lionel believed in. Enough that he was willing to risk his job to make his vision a reality.
The remaining eight board members smiled at him like sharks baring their teeth before a feeding frenzy. He made his way around the table shaking their hands and exchanging pleasantries. He then walked up to a screen, where his PowerPoint presentation waited.
A snake charmer in a pit of vipers, Lionel picked up a clicker off the boardroom table and pointed it at the screen. Here goes nothing.
The screen flashed, and the image of a red queen running in place appeared. “In any predator-prey relationship,” Lionel began, “both predator and prey are constantly co-evolving. Like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, both must keep running to stay in place. Hackers develop new exploits; we develop countermeasures, and so on ad infinitum. But the attacks never stop. They only escalate. And each time we fall further behind.
“It all started with a few harmless punks messing with code. Soon criminal syndicates were swindling credit card numbers. Now nation-states are stealing industrial secrets.
“Until there are consequences, the threat will always be one step ahead, one zero-day vulnerability from crashing the whole system.
“Today, I propose we break this chain. In this industry, you’re either a lion or a gazelle. And we’ve been a gazelle for far too long. Today, I’m unveiling a business plan to form an organization that develops offensive cyber weapons for private corporations. In just two years, I believe this could be a ten billion dollar revenue opportunity for our company.”
“My God!” Admiral Whitehall protested. Lionel girded himself. “You want to open Pandora’s box. Do you have any idea what kind of risk that would pose for this company?”
Lionel had expected resistance. He’d been so sure of it that his presentation’s only slide was the one already on the screen.
“With all due respect, Admiral, Pandora’s box is already open. Startups are working on cyber weapons. Nation-states armed with scores of sophisticated hackers have been engaging in cyber-espionage and sabotage against American companies for years. And all we can do is detect these attacks and pick up the pieces afterward. Yet the attackers never suffer any consequences. We need to change the equation. And we must do it now before things get worse.”
“But what of attribution?” Nora Rosewood, a gray-haired partner at Robinson, Weiss and Whateley said. “What’s to stop hackers from camouflaging their attacks by routing them through multiple servers or by using botnets of unsuspecting third-party computers? What if, for example, J.P. Morgan detects an attack from Goldman Sachs? How would the bank know if Goldman were responsible and not an unwitting dupe?”
Lionel nodded. “That’s a fair point. Determining attribution has been one of the main legal hurdles deterring corporations from developing cyber weapons. That’s why my proposal calls for an entire industry ecosystem to help us realize this vision.”
Lionel continued. “There are several things we can do to mitigate this risk. First, we should establish a principle of no first use of a cyber weapon. We should only deploy cyber weapons in the wake of a direct or indirect attack on one of our customers. And we should only launch a counterattack if we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt who the attacker is.”
“If I might interject here,” Doctor Maria Lopez said, “the world of cybersecurity is a murky one. Sometimes attackers are so meticulous about covering their tracks they’ll never be caught. Even worse, our adversaries are sophisticated enough to frame someone else. How do you ensure we root out false positives?” A feisty spark plug of a woman, Lopez was a former Marine intelligence officer with a PhD in artificial intelligence from Carnegie Mellon.
“Have we caught everyone who’s ever committed a crime?” Lionel said. “Of course not. But we don’t use that as an excuse to let crime run amuck. The same principle applies to cyberspace.”
“That answer may play well on Main Street, Mr. Jones, but we have a fiduciary duty to our shareholders. Developing cyber weapons could expose them to outsized financial risk,” Lopez said. “And frankly, I’m not satisfied with your answer. We, as a board, need to know how you’d mitigate risk if one of your exploits harms an innocent party.”
“Your question is a great segue into my next point. Before we enter the offensive cyber business, our first priority should be to develop the most advanced cyber attribution engine on the planet, leveraging our considerable forensics expertise. It should take a more active approach – a forward deployed botnet if you will – that silently, but vigilantly, monitors the behavior of suspected malware, tracing it to its source.”
“No system is fool proof,” Nora said. “What happens when it fails?”
Lionel smiled. “No system is perfect, so I propose we collaborate with the insurance industry. We have earthquake and flood insurance, why not cybersecurity insurance? We can even fund our operation by selling our data to insurance firms so they can better price risk.”
The Admiral pursed his lips. “Is there anything else the board needs to know about your proposal?” he said, his eyes glazing over.
Lionel wiped sweat off his brow. He worried he was losing his audience. “We would also have to lobby for a regulatory and legal regime that proscribes a framework under which we can operate. We’ll need to work hand-in-hand with government. After all, without federal cooperation and consent, we’ll get nowhere.”
“What about the risk to government?” Whitehall said. “Why would the federal government allow the private sector to develop capabilities that threaten its cyber-warfare monopoly? What’s to stop a well-trained rogue at a private company from using these skills for nefarious purposes?”
“What’s stopping government employees from doing that now?”
Lionel softened his tone. “Look, nobody thinks this’ll be easy, but we have to try. The government can’t strike back against cyber attackers every time they target a private corporation. Unless we enable companies to strike back, these breaches will never cease.”
“What do you propose then?” Dr. Lopez said.
“That leads me to my final point,” Lionel said, smiling. “The exploits we develop would be limited in scope and never extend from the cyber domain to the physical world. That remains the government’s prerogative.
“Initially, our solutions would include reconnaissance of suspected hackers’ networks. We’d also design algorithms that search and destroy spyware and malicious code. And when a hacker becomes too dangerous, like the one who killed my son, we can apply more aggressive measures like active surveillance of personal devices to build a legal case against him or her.”
Several board members nodded. Whitehall frowned, then said, “Okay. I think we’ve seen enough for today.” He glanced at Lionel. “We’ll deliberate and get back to you.”
The hunter-killer teams seated before Lionel looked like neither hunters nor killers. They were more like a renegade circus freak show, an eclectic mix of clean-cut military veterans, pencil-necked computer geeks, former quant traders, and tattooed misfits.
Standing behind a wooden lectern, Lionel had one chance to make them his.
“I woke up late this morning,” Lionel began. “My dog pissed on my cornflakes, and my wife chewed my ass on the way out the door.” Lionel paused for effect. “Suffice it to say, I’m feeling kinda frisky this morning.”
Nervous laughter rippled through the audience. He continued. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you smoke pot, love to pick your nose, or have a foot fetish. Hell, I probably hired you because you do.
“Many of you don’t fit the federal profile,” Lionel said, finger quoting the word “profile,” “but you’ve got the skills I need, and you’re probably all more capable than the Feds. You just don’t know it yet.”
Several people nodded.
“But I’m not here to talk about my morning or to tell you you’re shit-hot hackers. You already know that. I’m here to tell you why a private company’s now in the hacking business.
“Hackers develop new exploits and cybersecurity companies develop countermeasures. I danced to this hypnotic tune until a hacker killed my son.
“You see, without any credible form of deterrence, cyber criminals and nation-states will never stop. Nations with sophisticated offensive cyber capabilities may deter them, but there’s nothing to stop them from stealing intellectual property from private citizens or companies. It’s time these cyber criminals faced consequences for their actions. It’s time they faced us.
“We hit back.”
The crowd roared.
Lionel held up his hand until the cheering faded. “While what we’re doing here is noble, it’s very risky. We’re still operating on dubious legal grounds. It is only by the grace of a classified executive order that we’re in business today. As such, it’s critical that we observe five operating principles. Violation of any one of them will result in your immediate termination.
“Number one: no first use of a cyber weapon. Number two: no cyber attacks without verifying the hacker’s identity and culpability. Number three: proportionate response – we will never escalate an attack beyond the level at which our adversary initiated theirs. Ladies and gentlemen, our business treads on dangerous ground. The wrong action could trigger an international crisis. This leads me to number four: if we suspect the attacker is a nation-state, we cease all operations immediately and report the incident to federal authorities.
“Lastly, you’re to maintain absolute secrecy. If you divulge what we do here to anyone, you put yourself, your family, and the corporation at risk.
“Now that we’ve covered the rules of the road, let’s get to work.”
“Lionel, why the hell’s the ACLU calling me? Something about a violation of individual privacy. Could you give me a little insight on what’s going on?” Gil Reynolds said over the phone, his voice simmering as if trying to contain his rage.
Lionel propped his feet up on his desk and grinned. “Nope.”
Gil raised his voice. “Goddammit Lionel, you need to keep me in the loop. The ACLU’s subpoenaing CyberFortress for the Matheson trial.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about, Gil. Remember how you structured Farseer Technologies? We’re completely off balance sheet. The less you know, the better. Plausible deniability and all that jazz. You know the drill: deny, obfuscate, counter-accuse. You’re a lawyer for Christ’s sake.”
“Jesus H. Christ, Lionel. You’re gonna bring CyberFortress down.”
“No, I won’t. Because I’m careful.”
“You better watch your back, Lionel. The board’s getting nervous. Investors are starting to ask questions.”
“Gil, did the legal entity known as CyberFortress help law enforcement bust Ernie Matheson?”
“Technically no, but Farseer may have.”
“You sure about that?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Then you have your answer.”
“This better not happen again, Lionel,” Gil said before hanging up.
Lionel laughed. If the ACLU subpoenaing one of his investors was the only blowback from Farseer’s first cyber campaign, then it’d been a resounding success. Because of his team, Ernie Matheson would be going to prison for a long time.
The Farseer team had uncovered Matheson’s burglary operation by mapping out his victims’ social networks on Facebook and focusing on outliers – people who lay outside the bulk of their connections. By correlating public data with a subset of these suspects, and after running psychographic profiles on them, Farseer researchers had narrowed the search down to Matheson. They presented the information to the FBI, who then obtained a warrant for Farseer to hack into Matheson’s mobile devices and Facebook account.
After monitoring Matheson’s wealthy “friends” for vacation-related status updates, the Farseer team tracked Matheson’s movements using his device’s GPS. When Matheson went to a potential victim’s home, Farseer notified the FBI, who, in turn, reached out to local law enforcement. When police arrived at the scene, they’d caught Matheson red-handed.
Whenever Lionel had a small victory, the picture of Reggie on his desk always sobered him. It reminded him why he’d started this business in the first place.
At the end of another long day, Lionel’s office phone rang. “Hi, Pete,” Lionel said, “you got anything new for me?”
“Sure do. Turns out the attack on your son originated from China. We think it’s Unit 61398.”
Lionel sat back in his chair, pondering the implications. It didn’t make any sense. “Why do you think it’s the Chinese? What would motivate them to kill my son?”
“I can’t speak to their motivations,” Pete said. “All I can say is that the attack originated from DNS servers in Shanghai.”
“When did it happen?”
“Give me a second,” Pete said, followed by rapid keyboard tapping. “The attack most likely occurred between 8 and 10 p.m. local time.”
“That square with a nine-to-five government job in Shanghai?” Lionel asked.
“Where would that be a regular nine-to-five job?”
“Yup. Dig a little deeper. Assume nothing’s what it seems.” Lionel hung up the phone.
He was hopeful. Slowly but surely he’d catch the bastard who’d murdered his son. Whoever had done it had been sophisticated enough to run a false flag operation implicating a co-belligerent in the ongoing Russo-Chinese War. Russia certainly had motives to frame the Chinese, but Lionel couldn’t wrap his head around why the Russians would target the children of CyberFortress employees.
The phone rang again. “Lionel, this is John Chang. They got my son. My son’s dead. I want you to spare no expense in getting these criminals. What progress have you made?”
Lionel sighed. The last thing he needed was CyberFortress’s CEO, who was also the chairman of Farseer’s board, breathing down his neck. “John, you know I can’t disclose that information. Even to you. You don’t have Top Secret SCI clearance.”
Chang lashed out. “Then why the hell am I investing in your operation, Lionel? Show some results by the end of next week or I’ll replace you with someone who will.”
Running his fingers through his hair, Lionel seethed. The last thing he needed was the spotlight. Finding these killers required patience and time. Now, he had neither. “I’ll give you a black-lined report in two weeks.”
Two weeks later, Lionel sat tapping his legs against a chair outside Chang’s CyberFortress office. “Mr. Chang will see you now,” an attractive brunette said. Lionel steeled himself and walked into the room.
Chang was old school. His office was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. “How’s it going, Lionel?” Chang said with a smile. Lionel suspected it was forced.
“I’m doing fine. Very busy.” Lionel hated pleasantries.
“Always blunt and to the point. Let’s slow down a little. How’s the family?”
Lionel grimaced. Chang wasn’t going to make this easy. “Fine. Why?”
“How’s Janet doing?”
“She lost her only son. How you think she’s doing?” Lionel snapped. Chang’s touchy-feely routine was pissing him off.
Chang’s grin vanished. His brow furrowed in a facade of concern. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Lionel. Remember, I lost a son too. Some days I think Betty’s gonna kill herself. To be frank, I wanted to ask for your advice on how to cope.”
Shaking his head, Lionel said, “I’m sorry I lashed out at you. I cope the only way I know how: by immersing myself in my work.”
“So I’ve heard,” Chang said. “Your people have been telling me you’re sleeping at the office. While I admire the dedication, it’s not healthy. And it’s bad for morale.”
Nodding, Lionel said, “I know it.”
“While we’re on that topic, is that report ready for me?”
“It is.” Lionel handed Chang the black-lined document.
“What’s the key takeaway?”
“Attack vectors indicate it’s the Russian military, but I’m not so sure.”
“You’re not sure? Your people tell me they’re ninety percent sure. We need to strike back, goddammit.” Chang pounded his fist on his desk.
Lionel tried his best to hide his frustration that his people were secretly meeting with Chang. “Well, John, if it’s the Russian government, we’re forbidden by law to strike back. If we are, as you say, certain it’s the Russians, then we’re required to report it to the FBI. Then the Feds would take it from there.”
“Bullshit!” Chang shouted. “We can always do something. I’m not going to sit by and take this crap from the Russians. They killed my son!”
“You don’t know that for sure. And if we cowboy it and attack, they’ll retaliate. Are you ready to start World War Three based on data that has a ten percent chance of being wrong?”
Chang fumed, hesitated, and then said, “But we’re ninety percent certain. We’ll never know with one hundred percent certainty.”
“Maybe not, but I’m sure that with another month of analysis, we can increase our confidence to at least ninety-five percent, or rule out Russian involvement entirely.”
“Fine. You have a month to retaliate without violating any legal statutes or I’m convening Farseer’s board to nominate a new CEO. Work smarter, not harder. Think outside of the box.”
Lionel bit his lip and glared at Chang. “I’ll do my best.”
“The chairman of the board’s here to see you,” Tina, Lionel’s admin, said. She stood expectantly outside his office.
“Why did Chang come all the way to our offices?” Lionel said.
She shrugged. “Should I let him in?”
Chang waltzed into the room, beaming.
“Why are you in such a good mood?” Lionel asked.
“Oh, you don’t know?” Chang said, seemingly surprised by Lionel’s question.
“Don’t know what?”
“Put the news on.” Chang pointed to Lionel’s plasma screen TV.
“Okay,” Lionel said, puzzled at Chang’s request. When he turned on the TV, he watched two Russian MiG 29 fighters painted in gray tiger-stripe camouflage streak over Shanghai. Not good. Not good at all. “What am I supposed to see here?” he said.
“Oh, that’s got nothing to do with why I’m here. Did you hear what happened on the Trans-Siberian Pipeline?”
Now Lionel knew where this was going. “You didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t do it, John?”
Chang smiled. “Of course we did. We hacked into Gazprom’s SCADA controllers – you know, their supervisory control and data acquisition operating system.”
“Yes, I know what SCADA means. What I don’t know is why the hell no one consulted with me, the goddamn CEO of the company, before launching this attack,” Lionel said, struggling to contain his rage. “Who worked on this project with you?”
“No need to get your panties in a bunch, Lionel,” Chang said in a manner that bordered on patronizing. “You were procrastinating when we needed immediate action.”
Lionel simmered. Then it suddenly dawned on him why Russian MiGs were flying over Shanghai. “You routed the attack through Chinese servers, didn’t you?” Lionel said.
“Of course we did,” Chang said, grinning. “Not only did we avoid a direct attack on the Russian government, but we also covered our tracks by implicating the Chinese.”
“What the hell, Chang? You have no idea what you’ve done. Again, who worked on this project with you?”
“Steven Vance. Why?”
Lionel picked up his phone, “Tina, I want Steven Vance in my office immediately.” He slammed down the phone.
“C’mon Lionel, you’re blowing this out of proportion,” Chang said.
Lionel turned up the volume on his TV. A reporter spoke excitedly, “What had begun as a border skirmish has now escalated into a broader regional conflict. The Russians launched an air raid on downtown Shanghai this morning, likely targeting the headquarters of Chinese cyber war Unit 61398 in retaliation for an alleged cyber attack on Gazprom’s Trans-Siberian Pipeline. While there were no immediate casualties in the pipeline attack, the explosion was so massive that satellites detected it from space. Initial estimates of Chinese casualties in the air raid number in the hundreds. The majority of victims are civilians.”
Frustrated, Lionel ran his fingers through his hair. Chang’s mouth hung wide open. Just before Lionel could tell him off, a rail-thin blonde man knocked on Lionel’s glass pane door. “Come in, Steven,” Lionel said.
Steven glanced at Chang. “Oh hi, Mr. Chang,” he said. Steven then looked at Lionel. “Your admin said you wanted to see me.”
Angling his head toward the TV, Lionel said, “You responsible for this?”
Steven inclined his head toward Chang as if looking for approval. Chang nodded. Steven smiled and said, “Mr. Chang asked me to retaliate against the Russians without directly attacking their military. I thought targeting Gazprom’s Trans-Siberian Pipeline would have the most impact. So I hacked into the pipeline’s SCADA controllers and reprogrammed their pump speeds and valve settings to malfunction, allowing more pressure to build up in the system than their design tolerances allowed.”
“And let me guess,” Lionel said, “you routed the exploit through a Shanghai server and peppered your code with Chinese characters to camouflage your attack.”
Lionel folded his arms across his chest. “So you escalated an attack against a nation-state that may or may not have attacked us first, violating Farseer’s second, third and fourth operating principles. And if it turns out that the Russians weren’t involved in the ransomware attack, you’ll have also violated our first principle.”
Steven glanced over at Chang. “Mr. Jones, I was only following orders, so…”
“So what?” Lionel said. “We have a chain of command and five principles we’ve all sworn to uphold. Because you’ve failed to abide by those principles, hundreds of innocent civilians are dead. Your actions also put the safety and security of the entire United States population at risk by launching an attack against one nation-state while implicating another.”
Chang grabbed Lionel by the arm. “C’mon, Lionel. Steven was just doing what he was told.”
Undeterred, Lionel continued, “Steven, pack your shit and get the fuck out of my office. You’re fired.”
Steven looked back at Chang, as if expecting the chairman to rescue him. Chang put his arm over Steven’s shoulder and escorted him out of Lionel’s office. On Chang’s way out, Lionel overheard him say, “Don’t worry, Steven. I’ll talk him down from the ledge and get you your job back.”
Chang walked back into the office. “What the hell was that?”
“John, you need to stay the hell out of my company’s business. You could’ve have started World War Three. Now I have to clean up your mess.”
Chang’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?” He got in Lionel’s face and poked his finger in the man’s chest. “Now you listen to me, jerkoff. You say one word about this to the board and I’ll make sure you’re gone. I’ll tell them you authorized this attack. And, after your little tantrum, you know Steven will back me up. If you go to the Feds, it’ll be our word against yours.”
The chairman stepped back, then continued. “But I’m a reasonable man, so I’m gonna give you two weeks to determine with over ninety-five percent confidence who the culprit is. If you can’t, you’re fired.” Chang stormed out of the room.
By law, Lionel was supposed to notify federal authorities. But if he did, there was a risk that he and not Chang would go to prison. It was a lose-lose situation. So he decided to keep the incident to himself while he focused on the more immediate concern of keeping his job.
Lionel’s deadline was a week away, and he still couldn’t rule out Russian involvement. But he was damn sure they had no motive to murder American children.
Yet he had to show Chang some progress, so he’d called a favor with an old Army buddy at the National Security Council to get a signoff at the highest levels. His plan was to infect Russian networks with passive spyware.
After monitoring months of historical log files pirated from Russian network systems, he’d discovered traces of a botnet that had been active during the times his son and Chang’s had been murdered. Going back further, he’d traced signals sent through a host of routers stretching from Russia through Poland, then through Germany and the United Kingdom, and ultimately originating from Hoboken, New Jersey.
In the course of a week, Lionel had uncovered a double false flag operation and the perpetrator wasn’t even a nation-state. A few more mouse clicks and Lionel would have the criminal’s name.
Lionel was speechless. The man who’d murdered his son was a former CyberFortress employee. Lionel had fired Gus over a year ago for watching porn on his corporate laptop.
Buoyed by the euphoria of discovering his son’s killer, Lionel was jolted back to reality when the phone rang.
“Lionel, our house is on fire!”
“I have multiple exploits ready to go. I’ve got control of Rudometkin’s car, and I’m ready to drive it off a cliff. Or I can burn his house down. Or both,” Pete Carlson said, his giant noggin teetering on a pencil-thin neck like a human PEZ dispenser. He sat at a workstation amid a sea of control panels and flashing lights in the company’s security operations center. A widescreen dominated the far end of the facility with various multicolored lines tracing suspected attacks in progress to their points of origin.
The destruction of Lionel’s home had been the last straw for everyone from Janet to Chang. While Janet had counseled retreat to Alaska where they could live off-grid for the rest of their lives, nearly everyone else craved blood. Chang wanted to take out Rudometkin so badly, he’d ordered Lionel’s employees to devise multiple exploits to be ready to go at a mouse click.
And he’d done it all behind Lionel’s back.
“Did Chang order you to execute these exploits?” Lionel said.
Pete vibrated with what Lionel sensed was nervousness, and then nodded. Pete had followed Lionel to Farseer. Besides Lionel’s wife and the men Lionel had gone to war with, Pete was the only other person Lionel trusted with his life.
“Good,” Lionel said. “Could you do me a little favor? Could you build a GUI that’s identical to our attack console? When Chang asks you to launch the malware, turn on your webcam, invite him to your computer, and walk him through the attack step by step.”
Pete’s face contorted as if in confusion. “Is there something I should know, Mr. Jones?”
“Not yet,” Lionel said, “The less you know, the safer you’ll be. You okay with this?”
Pete nodded. Lionel patted him on the back. “Great. I knew I could count on you, buddy.”
Lionel turned to walk away.
“Oh, Mr. Jones,” Pete said.
“What about Rudometkin? Are we going to launch a cyber attack on his computer?”
Even Lionel had fantasized about the satisfaction he’d get from killing Rudometkin. But he knew better. If he faltered now, his grand experiment would fail. He had to rise above the anger and overwhelming desire for vengeance. “No,” Lionel said, “I have something much better in mind.”
Lionel pulled out his mobile phone and called his old Stanford roommate, Al Meyer.
“It’s about to go down.” Pete said over the phone.
“Good. I’m en route.” Lionel hung up his office phone, put his jacket on, and made his way to Pete’s cubicle.
When he arrived, Lionel said, “When’s Chang gonna be here?”
“In about ten minutes.”
“Is the webcam on?”
“Did you tip off Rudometkin on the hacker forums?”
Lionel smiled. “Good. Nervous?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I’m heading back to my office. If Chang sees me with you, he’ll know something’s up. Good luck, buddy.” Lionel slapped Pete on the back and returned to his office, where he keyed up real-time video from Pete’s webcam.
Five minutes later, he watched Chang commit over half a dozen felonies with an arrogant confidence that would make Louis XIV blush. Hours later, the pirated video that Gus hacked from CyberFortress servers became headline news.
Within twenty-four hours, Chang was forced to step down as both CEO of CyberFortress and chairman of Farseer. He also faced the prospect of a long prison sentence.
And Gus Rudometkin became an overnight sensation.
Lionel stood at a lectern before the men and women who’d made today possible. A large screen towered behind him. He swelled with pride at what they’d accomplished. If his son were alive today, he would be proud of his father.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a surprise for you. Many of you have wondered why Gus Rudometkin is still out on the streets, enjoying his recent celebrity, even if he has been in hiding. As you know, despite all the evidence we’ve gathered against him, the FBI hasn’t been able to track him down.”
Lowering his head, Lionel hesitated. He was unsure how his audience would react to the next bit of his presentation. He tried to calm himself, struggling to maintain his composure. Taking the clicker, he pointed at the screen. A picture of a young, beaming African-American boy appeared.
“This was Reggie, my only son. He was filled with the promise of a fruitful and productive life, studying computer science at Stanford.” Lionel wiped a stray tear from his eye. “As a father, I couldn’t have been prouder.”
Choking up, Lionel forced out his words. “I can’t bring Reggie back, but I can do my damnedest to make sure my son’s murderer faces justice. That’s why we’re here today.” He slammed his hand on the lectern. “We hit back!”
The crowd went crazy.
Lionel waited for the cheering to subside. He rubbed his moist eyes. “I have a surprise for you today. This one’s for Reggie.”
The lights dimmed, and Lionel clicked on the screen.
Celebrity Albrecht Meyer sat on his cable show with a smug grin. “I’d like to welcome my next guest, the famed hacker Gus Rudometkin.” Lionel’s internal audience booed. The Albrecht Meyer show’s introductory jingle played on queue. A dumpy, bespectacled, and bearded man waddled across the stage. He beamed. Shaking Meyer’s hand, he took a seat. The music faded along with Meyer’s smile.
“So, you’ve just come out of hiding to promote a new book you’ve written about your various, and if I may say, legendary, cyber exploits,” Meyer said.
“Oh, you may certainly say that, Al,” Gus said in an awkward cadence.
Meyer responded with a blank expression as if to highlight the weird exchange, and then said, “Apparently, being socially inept is a core requirement for being a world-famous hacker. When’s the last time you got laid?”
The crowd hooted. Gus shifted in his seat. Sweat beaded on his forehead. “Ah, the last time was…”
“Never,” Meyer interrupted to a chorus of laughter. “Now, in all seriousness, tell us about your new book, Power to the People.”
Gus grinned like an evil mastermind about to reveal his plans for world domination. “Well, it’s really an autobiography about how I’ve always been one step ahead of the powers that be. I’m the guy that exposes weaknesses in our cyber defenses. The book details my life as a hacker from the first time I broke into a bank’s computer system when I was seven to the time I turned the tables on CyberFortress’s CEO when he tried to sabotage my car and burn down my home. Our country is stronger because of me.”
“I see.” Meyer nodded. “Does exposing these weaknesses involve killing innocent people?”
Gus’s face reddened. “What?” he sputtered.
“Has anyone died as a result of your ‘patriotic efforts’?”
“Well…ah…nobody is ever…ah…one hundred percent innocent, right?” Gus stuttered.
Meyer’s tone hardened. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean? What about Reginald Jones?” A picture of Lionel’s son appeared on the screen behind Meyer. “Did he deserve to die? Or Oliver Chang?” A picture of a young Asian boy appeared. “Do you think that may have had something to do with John Chang trying to take you out?”
Lionel expected Gus to deny the killings. But Gus just sat on the stage simmering. Then he spoke. “In any war, there’s collateral damage. And these boys’ fathers were complicit in the cyber-military industrial complex.”
Meyer’s mouth dropped open. “So you admit to murdering them?”
“I…I never said that,” Gus stammered.
“Did you hack into Reginald’s car?”
“A magician never reveals his secrets.”
Meyer shook his head, jaw unhinged. “Well, it turns out, Gus, I have a little magic trick of my own.” The screen flashed again. “First, I want to say something to you from the bottom of my heart: screw you.”
The crowd gasped.
Meyer waved at the crowd. “Wait, wait. I promise you there’s a good reason why I’m being such a prick.”
The screen flashed again. An image of Gus sitting behind a computer and tapping on a keyboard appeared. He wore nothing but his tighty whiteys. His prodigious gut overflowed all the way down to his pelvis, eclipsing his privates. A pyramid of Mountain Dews towered over his stained and ramshackle desk.
The man behind the computer giggled like a girl playing dress up. “You thought you could kill me by burning down my house, little man. Well, I found you, too. Not only are you going to prison, but now I’m going to huff, puff, and burn your house down.” Gus howled like a wolf, hit one last key, and chuckled.
Meyer’s screen faded to black. The host turned to Gus and said, “That was a video of you hacking into John Chang’s smart oven drivers and reprogramming them to set his house on fire. And this is after you killed his son and uploaded an incriminating video of Chang’s attempt at retaliation. Fortunately, your attempt to burn down Chang’s house failed.”
The video faded into images from a local news report showing a neighborhood aflame. “Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time you’ve tried to burn someone’s house down,” Meyer said. “This video shows one time you succeeded. Your attempt to burn down Chang’s home failed because the FBI was running a sting operation. You’ve been under surveillance for several weeks, and now the FBI has footage of you committing the crime. And your book deal – yeah, that’s not real either. For that matter, neither is this broadcast. What is real is that you’re going to prison for the rest of your life.”
The audience on- and off-screen cheered.
Gus stood up, hesitated, and then sprinted toward the exit like a meth-fueled Humpty Dumpy. A mob of FBI agents emerged from the studio audience of undercover law enforcement personnel, and tackled Gus onstage.
Meyer winked at the camera and said, “To the unsung heroes who work in anonymity to deliver terrorists like Gus Rudometkin to justice, I salute you.”
Lionel smiled, then returned to his quiet work in the shadows.
Sean Patrick Hazlett is originally from Wilmington, Delaware, but now make Northern California his home. He studied electrical engineering and history at Stanford. He is a former Army officer. His short stories have appeared in Grimdark Magazine, Fictionvale Magazine, Perihelion, Plasma Frequency Magazine, The Colored Lens, NewMyths.com, Mad Scientist Journal, and Outposts of Beyond, and others are scheduled to appear in Sci Phi Journal, Kasma SF, and Stupefying Stories.