Soar (8)

Thirtytwo datadumps. Listed A to Z. Twenty universities in twenty countries. Five private companies, four private homes, two offshore data havens and a government ministry.

It had been a year.

I got to work.

I found myself having coffee with the dean of a compsci department at a college in Rhode Island, promising a ten thousand dollar scholarship to his favorite research assistant, and then ridding him of four hundred terabytes of useless data.

I found myself pulling up into the driveway of a run-down Victorian in Boulder, where I had to convince two kids in Pirate Bay t-shirts that I was a math grad student looking for the output of a cryptographic hashing algorithm that I was afraid had gotten out before I’d made it fully secure. And that’s all the data was: random numbers.

Data is such a slippery thing. How did I know it wasn’t the data I was looking for, just encrypted? How did I know they hadn’t sent off the real data and replaced it with random bits? In short: I didn’t. I had to trust my instincts. And if those didn’t work, I’d be going back to every single place again – with warrants, or with guys who didn’t need them.

I found myself and six guys from a techie temp agency going through the uploads of an upload-it-yourself porn site, until we found a two hundred terabyte video of static tagged as boobs and teens.

I found myself breaking into a mobile home in Alabama, where a hundred terabytes of random data was sitting next to a thousand of encrypted credit card transactions, just waiting for the codebreaking technology to break them.

I moved from country to country. I tried to deal with every address in a day. Usually I didn’t. Time and money passed by. But Kelly-Johnson Aerospace had plenty of money and I had no shortage of time. This was my job. This was my life. This is what a brute-force attack looks like in the world of flesh and bone.

I had two private detectives pretend to be cops and handcuff the guy to his front door while I went in the back. I found enough child porn that, on the way out, we left him cuffed there and called the police to come pick him up – minus a few hundred terabytes of noise.

I told a work-study kid that I was a grad student and got let into the University server-room. Sixteen hours later I was able to let myself out, hungry, dehydrated, and empty-handed.

I hoped I’d know what I was looking for when I found it.

Then I did.

I was in Afghanistan. Kelly-Johnson had lent me two bodyguards from their permanent local staff. We were at an abandoned military base outside of Jalalabad, a concrete Coalition bunker used by the local police to store old uniforms and rusty guns. All the above-ground cables had been cut, cut down by the locals, to use or sell. There were three underground cables: power to the light-bulbs, a dead telephone line, and a dead T3 line.

About a year ago, the T3 had gone live. Just for a month. Activation fee paid by a local PMC except the PMC had no record of the cash going out. The line had seen half a thousand terabytes of data over the course of two days. Then: silence.

The steel blast door had three inset locks. The police had given us three keys. My escorts went to open the door for me, but I took the keys, did it myself. Turning a key might be as close as I’d ever get to being a hacker.

A long corridor. Sheetrock walls, concrete floors. Bare lightbulbs, half burnt out. Boxes in the hall, a few more in the rooms. Empty.

We had a blueprint of the building. Took us five minutes to find the T3 line. Not attached to anything. Ransacked the room. Then the bunker. Nothing.

In one of the storage rooms was a pile of wooden crates, each containing five armored milspec laptops. I booted each one right after the other. The first one was empty, factory defaults. But the others didn’t even have an operating system installed. Someone had used the computer, then blanked it and put it back.

I knew I’d found it. I could picture how it had looked. T3 line to a router. Router to the laptop. Laptop attached to a specialized headless box which in turn ran cables to a row of black plastic cases with inset handles, each containing ten 8TB helium-filled hard drives in RAID0. Data comes in, someone unplugs the drive cases and straps them into a pickup, wipes the laptop and puts it back in the crate.

They drove off with the data. They could be anywhere. Instead of following bits, now I was following a box.

I bagged the laptop, sent it stateside for fingerprints and DNA. Nothing. I talked to the local police, asked who had had access to the bunker. Turns out that at the time the T3 went live the bunker had been empty, door wide open. They’d found a dozen squatters living inside when they went to clear it out.

They tracked them down for me. Only needed one. Man, twenty, three kids, dead wife. Sure, he said, the white guy. Came in and set up shop. Gave everyone a little money. Slept in the room we’d been in. Carried boxes in. Carried boxes out.

What kind of car did he drive? I asked.

He didn’t drive. Someone else. A beige van, Russian. Rusty. Local special. But with big clean tires. He remembered.

I gave him a hundred dollars, and left with him still thanking me. A hundred dollars and I was finally on the trail.

I didn’t know anything about real-world police work. That’s what police are for. The National Police out of Kandahar, assisted by some Scottish army guys who’d decided to stay behind and help out the reconstruction. The National Police charged less.

The van had been bought in Kabul. The tires had come in by DHL. The guy who installed them remembered a white guy with black hair and green eyes. So at least we knew he wasn’t born with either.

The car had passed through checkpoints, at Herat, Delaram. It had been abandoned in Farah, and got snatched up by the mayor’s soldiers pretty quick. They’d caught a ride into Iran, where they’d had no trouble at the border. I wouldn’t be so lucky. I sat in Kandahar, sent money over the border, and waited.

Ten days later and, sure, they’d gotten on a boat in Chabahar. A big one. Which had dumped them in Maroantsetra, Madagascar. Where they’d paid a truck to drive them to Manantenina, on the Indian Ocean coast of the island. Five hundred people. A gas station. In short: absolutely nothing.

It wasn’t hard to find them. The guy at the gas station had more questions than I did. Who was this white girl who spoke the world’s shittiest French, who carried a computer with her to painstakingly translate every sentence, who was buying a tanker-truck full of diesel fuel every week, sending it up into the mountains to a muddy airstrip, all so she and her boyfriend could fly their weird plane?

I wrote an email explaining where I was going, pointed it towards Chuck and Drew in Boston, and set it to send in four hours. Unless I stopped it. Then I put my rented jeep on the dirt road heading inland towards the mountains. And I drove.

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~ by davekov on 30 July 2014.

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