Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Fri, 29 Feb 2008

Action At A Distance

Alan was tired of driving. He was tired of bad food, bad motels, and bad company. Most of all, he was tired of his bad luck. The incident with Carla was fresh in his mind and now Dave Ravinski was here trying to recruit him to some ridiculous cyberspace revolution.

"If you don't mind, take the next right into the mall parking lot," said Dave. "Park near the north entrance. That's close to the food court."

Alan guided the rickety Dodge Neon off the highway and onto a ramp leading to the big north lot. He glanced in his rear view mirror and watched the silver Ford follow them in a half minute later. Alan parked about 10 rows from an entrance. The Ford parked on the other side of the lot, near a different entrance, but remaining in direct view.

"Why are they following us so obviously?" asked Alan, nervously eying the tail. "I can't see any reason."

"Because they have no clue," replied Dave. "Their understanding of us is locked in this world. They can only attack us in this world; they only can watch us in this world. So long as they are too stupid to look where we are acting, they won't see what we really are doing. This is our great advantage. We own them."

Alan squinted in skepticism. Dave chuckled, "You don't believe me. Fair enough. Let's go in. I have something you need to see. And anyway, I'm hungry. There's a decent Thai place in the food court. I could go for red curry and a wide screen TV with some chick singing a bubblegum song in a foreign language."

The "Mall of the States" was one of the largest shopping malls in the world. It had room for nearly a thousand stores in its 6 million square feet. There were 12 movie theaters, including an IMAX, there was a roller coaster, a wave pool, ice skating rink, and a 40 story hotel. The center of the mall was a cavernous Atrium, bigger than a city park.

The entrance Dave and Alan had used put them on the third floor. There were a total of six. They were not far from the food court. They opted to walk rather than take the automated tram. The food court was home to over a hundred restaurants.

"Let's grab something to eat now. It won't be as easy to find something later," said Dave.

"Why's that?" asked Alan.

Ravinski ignored the question and got on line at the Thai fast-food stall. The two had considerably different taste in mall food. While Dave was getting his red curry on rice and hot tea as he watched a skinny teenage girl with jet black hair singing on the wall screen, Alan bought a non-fat misto and a cheese danish at the Starbucks. The two convened at a table. The two men following them were over near the Boardwalk Fries. One was talking on a cell phone. The other was putting catsup on his cup of "freedom fries".

"I don't understand a lot of what you say, Ravinski. What I do understand, I don't believe. To be honest, I think you are a lunatic. But, frankly speaking, I agree that its silly of these G-men to follow you around. It makes no sense. Are they gathering evidence? I guess if they saw you type on a computer they could zoom in with cameras and see what you are typing. From that they could prove you were involved in some cyberterrorism and arrest you."

"Could they really?" asked Dave with mock curiosity. "You mean if I typed, 'PLANES 2 STAR WTC CRASH' before 9/11 they could have pinned those attacks on me?"

For the briefest moment Alan wondered why Dave picked that example. Then he shook it off. "Well, they'd obviously need to prove that your cyberspace persona, your avatar, so to speak, was directly connected to subsequent criminal events, and that your physical activities – your keystrokes – were directly connected with that one in the same net persona."

"Ahhh! That's maybe not so easy. Suppose my keystrokes go into one of our onion routers. Not that I use the onions for that. I don't, typically. They're too crude, especially those silly Tor boxes."

"No it isn't easy," admitted Alan. "Assuming your routers aren't infiltrated, there is –"

Dave burst into laughter. "Our routers? Ummm... No. Maybe those Tor boxes the EFF harps about. I always figured half of those were NSA plants."

"Do you really think so?" Alan considered. "Anyway, I agree that if they are working right there's no way for them to trace your keystrokes through them. Each layer of the onion adds obfuscation and scrambling and so on."

"If the box is clean and locked down, you can bet your life on it," said Dave, suddenly sober. "I have. I do every day. Where your keystrokes pop out is as random as where the ace of spades will land in a deck of cards shuffled a googleplex times. No worries. As I said, they live and think entirely in this world. We've seen some minor probes of our own onions, but they've been ham handed, telling us more about the other side's capabilities and intent than they learned about us. In fact, one of their probes had the signature of an unpatched version of PHPnmap."

"Are you kidding?!" exclaimed Alan. "The buffer overflow that was all over Bugtraq last year?"

"The very one. It would have been a crying shame to let that slide by, now, wouldn't it? Our onions have a defensive script that triggers on probe signatures with easy reverse exploits. The ping comes in, and the pong goes back with a nasty surprise. It had the probe system cracked before whoever ran the probe lifted their finger from the left mouse button."

Alan was silent in amazement.

"Yeah, that was great fun. Once we realized what a big, dumb fish we had hooked, we installed a nice back door in its gut. Funny thing was, we didn't bother to tunnel anything. I mean, their probe system needs to be open to the world, right? You can't probe actively and restrict your packets at the same time, now, can you?"

"That means you can see what they are probing?"

"Exactly," said Dave. "As I keep saying, they haven't a clue what they are up against. From time to time they rattle around on the net, or hire some 'consultants', but they never really listen to what their hired guns guys tell them. We know that because a lot of those guys are black hats themselves and can't help but openly joke about the stupidity they observe while getting paid $90 per hour."

"It's hard to believe," said Alan. "These are smart people. I mean, we're talking about the US Government. The FBI. They have cybercrime people. They should know the score."

"Yes they should. They generally are smart. And some do know the lay of things. But the really clued in ones are low level analysts and young cops. Their superiors are dyed in the wool 20th century. The meatspace governments will fight this war like they have fought, and won, 20th century meatspace wars – wars on whatever: drugs, terror, poverty. But this is not a meatspace war. The haven't a clue what we are doing. As happened at the end of the 19th century, the technology of war has outstripped the understanding of the generals. In the end, we will perfect their uber pwnage." Dave said, grinning.

"I hate to admit it, and I don't think you can underestimate these people, but I can see your point. Just the other day I read that some G-man wants to build a second internet just for the purpose of catching bad guys," said Alan, starting to warm to the idea.

"That's exactly what I mean. A second internet. Sheesh! You'd think that a TLA agency could spell VPN. 'We're too stupid to deal with this cyberspace stuff, so we need the entire world to change how things are done to accommodate our incompetence.' Give them a pony, the nublets."

Alan laughed as Dave continued with his rant.

"And remember the .XXX thing? If they simply left us alone, their cluelessness wouldn't hurt, but they think they have to govern us. These so called democratic institutions are unable to concoct rational regulations on complex things within their own world; certainly not on detailed 'foreign policy' questions like regulating aspects of the internet. It's time for a tea party."

"Non-democratic institutions like ICANN do the job in their place," said Alan. "Decisions with respect to objective public values are made routinely, every day by non-elected bureaucrats, as compared to elected representatives. Ironic for a free market democracy, but it works out most times. Markets can tolerate regulation by professionals skilled in those markets."

"That's right. And for that reason we generally like ICANN's governance. They are despotic but are basically clued in enough to do little harm. But with .XXX Washington wouldn't let the bureaucrats at ICANN do their job. I guess sex is a traditional exception to their 'freedom' rhetoric."

Alan chuckled, but quickly turned serious again. "That is embarrassing. But you don't think the NSA is as clueless? They are the exception?"

"I didn't say that. They are just as clueless, and with much less of an excuse. But they are also organized differently. They will actually listen if a suit like you goes down there to talk some sense into them."

"Oh no. You want me to be your liaison – a go between? Forget it.," said Alan.

"Something like that. Maybe you can be our Ben Franklin," replied Dave. "But first, let's frag these latest Agent Smiths on our tail. This curry was good and now my stomach is full. I feel like taking a walk. Let's head over to the central atrium."

The mall was relatively busy for a weekday. Most of the stores were serving a few dozen shoppers and the promenades were dotted with groups of people as far as the eye could see. As they walked along, Dave pointed out a silver dome of a surveillance camera.

"They use all E-link network cameras here. Cheap but effective. They see well down into the near IR," Dave explained. "They are on 24x7, even with the mall lights off. There are IR illuminator panels on those brackets over there. See them?"

"You mean those boxes?" asked Alan.

"Yes. The cameras see in the dark. They also can be readily blinded by a few IR LEDs aimed directly at them. Something as simple as a lapel pin with a few emitters is enough to hide your face. But I digress. More to the point is that they are network cameras – really just another computer connected to the net. In this case they run a simple Linux kernel."

"Let me guess," said Alan, smiling thinly, "a kernel with several known vulnerabilities that were patched long ago. But of course, nobody has updated the firmware in these cameras."

"This is why you need to work with us, Alan. You have a clue."

"Just because somebody doesn't lock their door, or uses a poor lock, doesn't mean it's OK to walk into their house."

"Agreed. But all's fair in war, Alan. If your enemy is stupid enough to rely on resources deployed through your territory, it should be expected that you will take advantage of their overextended deployment. They may own the land, sea, and air, but we own the net."

"You're dreaming. The net is owned by physical people in the real world. They can pull the plug on you like that," said Alan, snapping his fingers.

"Can they? What if I pull their plug first? What if we stop retreating, hiding, hunkering down, and instead take the fight to them? What if we band together and assert our power."

"Power?" asked Alan, disgusted.

"Yes, power. More and more of the physical stuff in your 'real world' plugs into our cyberspace world. Information networks have become like gasoline. Running commercial society without either of them is inconceivable. I'm not sure when the dependency point of no return was crossed, but it's definitely been crossed. The meatspace world needs the net. That puts us in the same position as the middle eastern tribes were in when they realized they were sitting on top of a good fraction of the world's oil."

Dave's hubris made Alan look over his shoulder. Their two "companions" were about 100 feet back. They looked away from Alan, trying to not look like they were looking away. Alan was not happy about the situation.

"They think they have power over us. The US Commerce Department recently announced it has reserved final policy control over authoritative root 'server'. They actually used the singular," said Dave shaking his head in incredulity. "Certainly all the root servers are physically controlled by the US government, by large universities and ISPs with big US government contracts, or the US military. The US wields a big stick in meatspace and has demonstrated an ability to exert power over certain areas of cyberspace on that basis. ICANN to bowed to their pressure for now. If .XXX should someday be approved, there will be some totally absurd and ineffectual new rules associated with .XXX for the purpose of making US politicians look good."

"That's just the way things are," said Alan.

"No it isn't. The power they think they have is an illusion. I don't agree with the Commerce department's understanding about who reserves final policy control over name resolution on the internet. In my opinion, we do.

"If you are planning to pull something, I don't want anything to do with it," warned Alan. "I'm about ready to walk right up to those guys and tell them everything I know."

"Go ahead. But consider this. You're broke. Discredited. You have a criminal record and at least one powerful enemy. And you really don't know anything those two jokers are interested in learning. On the other hand, we value you, although you are no hacker. We value you enough to help you out of your tough times."

"I bow before your magnificence," Alan said and made a sarcastic kowtow.

"You, yourself know your coding chops are second rate. But you do look like a suit, and have valuable contacts. Carla Carson for example. Rough her up a bit, splatter her with mud, I bet her titties look pretty hot in the moonlight."

Alan stopped walking, shocked. Dave turned to him and smiled. The two men tailing them became suddenly interested in the Victoria's Secret window display next to them.

"Look, Alan, let me lay my cards on the table. We need you to do something for us. It won't be without risk, but the reward can be great if we win. I realize that getting you to work with us will consist of convincing you that you won't sink lower than you are now should we fail – that's not hard to prove."

Alan frowned. Then he said, "And the reward?"

"That you'd be interested in? How about money. Lots of money."

"Money is in the real world, Dave. It's what everybody in – what do you call it, meatspace – what we all work for. How can you offer me money? A two-handed sword for use in World of Warcraft is listed at $66.59 on eBay. Is that it? Are you running a cyberspace white elephant sale to raise funds for your OPEC of the Net?"

"People work for all sorts of reasons, but few people actually work just to see bigger numbers in a bank account."

"Idealistic crap," spat Alan, who was starting to get worked up as Dave was having fun pushing his hot buttons.

"I don't think OPEC is a very good analogy. That was a case of some backward cultures hitting the lottery. Forgive my pride, but I don't think it's accurate to call netter culture backward. In a sense, a better analogy is the American Revolution. An established culture, in that case King George's England, imposing its will on a remote society that it did not fully understand. The remote colonies were rich in resources, and the policies of England were intolerably oppressive from the point of view of the colonies. In the end, the declared independence."

"You really are full of yourselves, aren't you?"

"We'd better keep walking," said Dave. "I'd like to get to the atrium by 1 PM so that we can see the show. Maybe afterward you'll have a better sense of where we stand."

Dave and Alan resumed walking, and so did their 'companions'. Soon the promenade they were on snaked down a ramp as it reached the edge of the Atrium, which was an enormous open area in the center of the mall. The Atrium was as big as some sports venues, and had, at various times, been the stage for marching bands, carnivals, and even motocross races. The ceiling was a geodetic dome peaking nearly 100 feet in the air. The floor, when it wasn't covered with some event-specific material, was a huge map of the USA made of granite, steel, and lexan. The map was visible now, and it was lit. Individual states each had a colored glow, and their capital cities shone as bright red spots of light.

"That's an impressive map," said Alan.

"Computer controlled, and that computer is on the net, A Windows box, in this case," said Dave with a twinkle in his eye. Alan stopped walking and faced him again.

"You mentioned the cameras, now the map. It's obvious you're pulling some stunt here. What is it?"

"Now Alan, I'd be a fool to pull something here, what with our friends watching," said Dave patronizingly, and nodding toward the agents above them on the ramp.

"And how did you know about Carla? Another security camera hack?"

"Alan, there is no privacy in this world for law abiding people like you. Privacy is against the law. You don't own anything about yourself. As we speak, companies are selling your personal data to other companies. Everything from your shoe size to your taste in movies is collected, collated, tagged, and put up for bid. Only outlaws have privacy."

"How did you know about her?" Alan repeated.

"I'll tell you later. Let's go over by the Game Stop. I think another friend of yours might be by there. Speak of the devil. Yo! Vince!"