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  • Joel

    by FirmWarez

    5 August 2011. 03:16 in the morning. It is still 102 degrees in Las Vegas. Vs ~ 331.3 + 0.6Tc.
    That gives a speed of sound of approximately 355 m/s, or 1165 ft/s. The 158gr 9mm projectiles impacting around me have a muzzle velocity of about 940 ft/s. Quite subsonic; and fired through the suppressor on the other end of this business the shooter is effectively stealthy. On my side however, those slugs still make a serious sound punching through the air, not to mention a frankly terrifying noise as they hammer and splatter on the concrete of the parking structure I use for cover.

    It started with a simple hypertext link; one of those “a friend of a friend” things on a mundane social networking site. Mundane was the word of the day -- so mundane I didn’t notice it at first.
    What I did notice was that this person’s posts, pictures, likes, actions – all dull and mundane – we’re too dull…and directly coincided with major events unfolding. Joel, the friend of a friend, seeming “friends” with half the planet, also seemed to be the world’s least interesting man. “I went shopping today. I spent $17.45”. Pictures of meaningless landscapes. A bland profile picture in a white button up shirt, an unremarkable face. No doting on kids, no drama with frenemies, just pictures of suburbs, trees in the park, clouds in the sky. A million friends but no girlfriend -- or boyfriend for that matter. “The weather was nice today, I went for a walk at 6:30”.

    It was a spring of change as obvious as that vernal analogy seems. Peoples of many nations once under the harsh thumb of mindless tyrants were rising up and making their voices known. As an self proclaimed “min-archist” I cheered from the sidelines for freedom, watching tweets and buzzes and vids propagate as freedom spilled across the dry lands, more welcome than the rare rains.

    Maybe I watched too deeply, too interested, too investigative. I don’t know why I did a simple C(r) = NSXY - (SX)(SY) / Sqrt([NSX2 - (SX)2][NSY2 - (SY)2]). But I did, and I became convinced.
    It couldn’t be coincidence.

    Every post, every check-in, everything about Joel’s page was temporally connected to the events unfolding on the world wide stage. He would post, and the state department made an announcement.
    Joel announced that he went to the store for coffee, and NATO fighter planes would run a sortie.
    At times I felt half mad; but it was repeatable beyond expectation. If this was a paranoid delusion it was the best I had, my own personal Nash equilibrium. Joel posted, tweeted, and I tuned to the world’s media to see what would happen next. The patterns were indisputable.

    I became obsessed with seeing what deeper information lay hidden in Joel’s personal page.

    Every spare moment was devoted to Joel’s info. My late nights became illuminated by glowing monitors, digging through old collected philes on every form of spook-dom I could recall. I think all those of my profession of electronics and software had some interest in the technology of espionage, and I for years I had stuffed away books, stories, presentations from technical conferences, and now I was convinced that somewhere in all those philes-because-its-cool I could find a way to see more into Joel.

    I obsessed over Joel. Is there a real “Joel”, or is this personal page merely an electronic dead drop? I combed his posts for additional information, I looked for anything that carry additional meaning. His posts. His friends. Anything and everything. I added his friends. I scanned them for activity. I told no one of my discovery.

    The spring turned to summer. Some of the international games seemed stale mated; others came to a conclusion. When there was a spike in activity in the world, there was a spike in Joel’s activity.
    My obsession waxed and waned as well.

    By late summer the situation in one country, long considered a friend of those I would call enemies, had drastically deteriorated. Tales of violence and torture as daily tools of the “police” were coming to light. Joel’s social life blossomed. New friends. New pictures. New posts.

    I’m not sure why it took my so long to make the critical connection that changed my life. Perhaps the associated technology was so old, something long forgotten tucked away on a shelf, exciting in its day, but now merely old. But still useful…through the haze of memory it popped out.

    Joel routinely talked about the buying items, and going for walks. Each of those included a dollar amount he spent, or a time he left for his walk. All dollar amounts were greater than $10, and less than $20.

    During these days of intensified resistant in that far off land, Joel’s walks and shopping trips became almost routine. In anticipation I dug through my old gear; my pulse rate went up as I connected equipment and the time grew nearer. GMT – 5. Joel had spent $14.55. I connected the audio out to the line input on my PC, ready to record whatever sounds came out. The minutes ticked down, and I tuned my old shortwave receiver to 14.55 MHz. My room was filled with the sounds of AM static. Crackles and swooshes. Pops and hisses. Then the non-silence of an unmodulated carrier signal, and…the ping-pong of two notes! My palms were sweating as I started to record to my hard drive. A second after the tones played a female voice repeated “Attention!” Three times. Did she have a French accent? It was hard tell.

    “15. 37. 18. 22. 33…” The female voice slowly and purposefully spoke a series of two digit numbers.
    After a short time the numbers topped, and there was the sound of digitally modulated signal. Not musical like a fax machine, but the harsh squawk of a modem. After the data burst there were two seconds of dead carrier, then the initial two tones again and the whole message was repeated. The carrier dropped away, and once again the radio interpreted only the background hum of the universe.

    I sat there flabbergasted. I replayed the recording over and over. I knew of course what this was.
    Back in the cold war they were called “number stations”. We used them. They used them. No one talked about them; everyone knew what they were. Instructions to operatives, sent with one time pads.
    The connection between the old tech and new was haunting.

    I couldn’t sleep. I had to find more. I analyzed the modem squawk and found it to be very simple old fashioned FSK, at only 4800 baud. This message, over a radio medium now more common in the third world than the first, was designed to reach out to people who had to make do.

    I focused on the data stream: I knew the numbers themselves were secure. The nature of a one-time-pad. I was no crypto specialist, but I have read a couple of books “applied” and “privacy” books over the years. As with the audio itself, the modem data revealed nothing but a string of numbers.

    I played the audio over and over while digging through old paper files. A manila folder marked 2006 held what I was looking for: some notes from a talk on steganography. I began to review the concept, when simultaneously I had a new message online and a phone call. I stopped the recording of the “numbers”, multi-tasked and answered the phone while clicking on the new message.

    I heard and read the same thing: “You are following Joel too closely.” A bit shocking yes, but not too surprising. Of course someone with access to the right logs knows exactly who is following Joel. I was just a “friend of a friend”. My interest in the mundane had caught someone’s attention.

    At this point I was supposed to be scared off, to let go of Joel and return to my normal life. It just wasn’t that simple for me anymore. People like me dream of connecting their technological prowess to “something bigger”. Add on top of that pure obsession, coupled with not an insignificant amount of sleep deprivation, resulted in a compulsive resolve to continue. From early on I wanted to know what was hidden from me. It resulted in a life of engineering and technology, listening to airwaves, snooping for open wireless access points, snarfing video feeds. Rational or not I decided at that point to keep going, even to step over the lines I dare not cross before.

    I quickly downloaded all of Joel’s pictures. My short reconnection with the steganography I attended years ago, the folder still in my hands, told me that there was something more to be seen in those images besides the dull suburban landscape around Joel’s daily activities.

    In addition to the analyzing these images, I had another priority. I needed to know who else was following Joel. This would require returning to the more seedy side of my net friends, some people I hadn’t really interacted with since college. I mean, afterwards I “went legit”, got a good job with a well known firm, and pretended like I didn’t know the meaning of xploit. But now I needed to know, more than anything I had wanted to know before.

    So there’s the background. That was the spark that led to someone shooting at me at no-o-clock in the morning in Las Vegas. Those early days of this adventure were nothing but the fun of discovery; the days leading up to Las Vegas were a blur.

    I dug through a number of steganography options. I reviewed open source options, played with some
    source code.

    unsigned int Q = 0;
    Q += (Pixel01.RedChan%2);
    Q += (2* (Pixel01.GreenChan%2));
    Q += (4* (Pixel01.BlueChan%2));
    Q += (8* (Pixel01.AlphaChan%2));

    I let my code crunch the pictures. While hacking on this, some free beer for my old friends reopened doors. Database exploits were never of much interest to me, but now they were the tool I needed to get what I wanted. My beer soaked friends would be happy to drink and black hat their way in to the inner workings of a popular social networking site, while I worked on finding what was hidden in those images.

    I was close, and I knew it. After digging through everything I could find on steganography it was obvious these images were being used to convey information. I had to believe that it was a matter of time before I knew what that was. I was about to compile, and an IM window bleeped to life.
    “W00t!” It was my questionable friends. “d00d u gotta see this. Aint’ talking here; only IRL. Now.”

    I pushed my project on to a laptop, along with all of my “Joel” philes, and drove across town. The city at night seemed like a glowing movie prop; not real, an imagined bit of scenery just to make things seem more real. The stillness of the sleeping buildings was at odds with my anxiety. I got to my friend’s downtown apartment and nearly ran up the stairs with excitement. The door opened and I was met with music that sounded like a missile strike, throbbing and synthesizing layers of moody electronica.

    “Word! Come check this out. This hax0r is good”. My friends talked like they typed. One sat a system with three monitors. So they were able to get the information I wanted – the answer to the simple question “who is really following Joel?”. From Joel’s tons of “friends”, there were a handful of true “followers” – people like me who read everything. “Ok, so these are the followers” said one of my buddies. “Look at their IP addresses – from all over the world. See this guy? He always logs on from a cyber café in Lebanon. But that’s nothing – you gotta see what Doc found”.

    All these years later and my friends still referred to each other with by their handles. I hardly remembered the sobriquet I used; I had tossed it away like so many other college pranks. These guys were still PeN1f, DrNex, and Proto-c4ll. The good doctor opened a beer bottle. “Yeah, we’re lucky to have captured this part. This guy is good.” DrNex proceeded to replay a session where he could see someone reading all of Joel’s posts, but then cracking in and removing his tracks. “If we hadn’t seen that happen real time we never would’ve known this guy was watching your friend”.

    My friends knew nothing about why I wanted to know about Joel. They were happy to be in the hunt, for any reason. If they hadn’t had found they weren’t the only ones sneaking around inside that system, they would’ve got my info and then played around with the site for their own nefarious reason. But nothing gets these “d00ds” going like competition, and it was on.

    Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew this wasn’t a game anymore. We were playing with something that could have real world impacts. I knew it, but I ignored it. We’re talking guys with guns, feds or worse, after me. After my friends. I honestly knew it, but I chose to ignore the risks and side with the buzzing rush of electronic breaking and entering.

    “So Doc,” I said, “what have you found out about this uber guy?”

    Doc laughed. “Not much, but maybe enough. Lamer was good enough to hide that he had been there…
    but when we caught him, not good enough to hide where he came from.”

    “What’s that mean?”

    Proto-c4ll turned a laptop around. “Check this.” They had a trail. Cover-his-tracks ninja-boy was connected to a system that hosted a forum. A private, not public, hidden forum…”that fell victim to the same xploit we used to hit that social site. What a noob.” Proto-c4ll laughed.
    “But, check it out. And people think we’re crazy” said Doc.

    The boys had extracted the info from the database of the private forum and reconstructed it in readable format. It was almost as lame as Joel’s tweets and updates. “Listened to the radio. Do not enter blue zone.” “Joel is online.” “Joel’s friends know about Marcus.”

    I looked at the postings, knowing the deeper meanings my friends hadn’t yet imagined. “Give me a copy of that.” “Sure thing.” “You guys rock. Do me a favor and forget about this, ok?” I hoped the old debt they owed me, the legit one who helped them through some legal difficulties, was enough. “Yeah, whatever.” “Don’t be an asshat, ok?”

    I took a copy of their data, and left.

    By now the sun was coming up, it was time for some coffee. I finally did what I hoped was the last compile on my steganography code. I ran it on Joel’s picture gallery. The pieces were all coming together. The images contained one-time pads. I used that to decode the audio message I had recorded from the number station. “Friends: avoid structure 35, Jabadeen. Joel”. A date was included. The modem squawk looked like grid coordinates. I still didn’t know whether Joel was a real individual or a complete fabrication, but I did know now what Joel was doing.

    I suddenly felt very small; as though the world around me had grown bigger and beyond my comprehension. There was a physical sense of shrinking. I worked to clear my head, and looked over the messages from the hidden forum. It became obvious that those on the hidden forum were not friends of Joel. Not only were they following him, but they were actively engaged in working
    against the forces of Joel.

    I called DrNex. “Word.” “Doc, I need to see real time what’s happening on that forum. Can you do that?” “Yeah, no prob.”

    We set up a scheme to feed the forum to my laptop. I don’t know why I wanted to keep watching this, but I just had to, even though the more I watched the more I felt as though I were being watched.

    Traffic was picking up on the secret forum. It became apparent that “Joel” was indeed an individual, as well as a network based method of disseminating information.

    “Joel will be in Las Vegas soon. 1st w/e August.”

    “We will meet him this time.”

    Las Vegas. I hadn’t even thought about it this year. When I had time there’s an annual convention I would hit in Vegas, something of interest to tech guys like me. The whole Joel affair had taken over all my thoughts, and I hadn’t even considered it this year.
    I was going to Vegas.

    I did something I hadn’t done in years. I logged on to IRC, #3amigas. Why those three ‘tards who always seemed to be in the same room maintained an IRC channel to talk to each other is completely beyond my understanding. But they did keep it running, and there they were.

    ==I2R has now joined #3amigas
    *DrNex slaps I2R around with a trilobot
    <DrNex> l4mer. Can’t believe you’re here.
    <I2R> goin on roadtrip re: this wknd. u b there?
    <DrNex> yeah, me and Proto-c4ll. peewee’s staying here to finish a job for a client.
    <PeN1f> somebody’s gotta pay the beer bills
    <I2R> kew. Got a room?
    <DrNex> sure, for you. Not at the con hotel, Proto was too slow
    <Proto-c4all> at least I remembered this year!
    <DrNex> we’re flying out tomorrow. How about you?
    <I2R> Not sure. Bus maybe?
    <Proto-c4ll> Bus? That’s leet. Not.
    <I2R> Whatever. I’ll see you guys there. I’ll msg when I get on site.

    I did decide to go bus. Cheap. Less overhead. The ride to Vegas was uneventful. I showed up late the night before the con started. Doc and Proto would be there already, probably at a pre-con party, drinking beer, whatever. They had left a key for me at the front desk. I settled in to the room, and did something I hadn’t since the warning call: I checked up on Joel.

    “Joel’s status: Joel is on vacation.”

    That’s what I need. I had been running for days, trying to solve all this. I couldn’t sleep on the bus. I went down to the casino, drank a couple of beers, and then headed back to the room and crashed.

    The next morning Doc and Proto-c4all got me up to hit the con. I told them most of the story. I didn’t tell them about the connections to world events, the military strikes, the real politicking. They interpreted the Joel vs. Ninja thing as a game – “Like the lost dude’s thing” as Proto-c4ll put it.

    I spent most of the day with those two, listening to talks, drinking beer, taking in the sights,
    all the while keeping up with the secret forum.

    “Joel is here.” “Do you know his location?”

    We hit a party that night – DrNex always got invites to the parties. I was almost completely disconnected from my reason for being here. Then Proto-c4ll pulled me across the room. “Dude, PeN1f is flipping out. Talk to him.” Proto pushed a phone into my hands. I stepped out of the party room.

    “What’s going on?” “This game isn’t; and they’re on to you. That uber-dude who covered his tracks?
    He’s after you. And us too…” I didn’t hear PeN1f on the phone, only what sounded like someone beating on a door, and then nothing.

    I looked for Doc and Proto back in the party, but they were nowhere to be seen. My current mental state was not the best for making a decision. I felt like I was floating. I turned to leave. I realized I had two guys walking me out. “Come on, it’s time to bring this to an end.”
    My escorts were pushing me towards an elevator. Each had a grasp on my arm. I weighed my opportunities for escape. The elevator dinged, and as the doors opened some pranksters moving hotel furniture burst out. My attempted captors momentarily lost their grip on me, and I bolted.

    I ran down a stairwell, and out an emergency exit, tripping an alarm. I sprinted across the street to a parking deck, hoping to find concealment, cover, and evasion in its concrete corridors.

    So a simple accident and hacker like curiosity led me to quickly calculating the speed of sound on a parking deck in the middle of Las Vegas. The muffled whumps of the suppressed weapon being fired at me came to a stop. I was frozen, hiding behind a barrier.

    A voice yelled out “Come on Joel, give it up. You know we’re on to you, you have no place to hide.”
    And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, And I looked and behold: a pale horse. And his name, that sat on him, was Death. And Hell followed with him.

  • #2
    Re: Joel

    Enjoyable reworking of a classic plot twist with fun references within the tale of the event the tale is being written for.
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."